A Haiku Way of Life
by Tom Clausen
Once on a hospital form, under the category of religious affiliation, I checked “other” and wrote “haiku”. Haiku to me is a way of life, a choice of focus and a form of spiritual appreciation requiring us – reminding us – to see beyond self or as Basho said, haiku is simply what is happening in this place at this moment. Haiku will happen to us only if we remain open and ready to engage in the range of myriad nuances and subtle cues from nature that are voices simultaneously taking us inward and outward, connecting us with the nature we have come from and will return to. In R.H. Blyth’s The History of Haiku, he lists 13 characteristics of the state of mind which the creation and appreciation of haiku demand. They are:
- Grateful acceptance
These all appeal to me as affirmations and good qualities with which to navigate our life stream. The practice of reading and writing certainly serves to hone these qualities. To extend the spirit of Blyth’s list, I’ve come up with my own additional 13 characteristics:
- Centring & Celebration
I’d like to discuss briefly each of these 13 characteristics and explain what about each of them might serve to sustain a haiku interest.
Haiku, to me, is a faith in all of nature. The changes in nature are infinite and yet, as with all changes, there is a return to where things begin. The miracle of cycles large and small provides that each nuance of nature is unique and at once universal. These billions of nuances provide sensations that are faithful, and it is these matters that comprise the subject and feelings that are haiku. I’ve come to be entirely enchanted by the flow of seasonal changes, shift by shift, subtle and dramatic, that without fail, are induced like birth itself , by a magical timing that makes every moment the conclusion of a ripening – our weather, our day and night gives each creature a chance to sleep and be reborn to greet a new day as it truly is . . . a new chance.
do not the petals flutter down,
just like that
The past and the future are not real in the sense that only the present tense, always now, is really happening. Past and future are mere abstractions, inaccurate memories and predictions. Haiku as faith is the poetry of the here and now, and focuses us on the reality that this is all we have – ever.
both of us
A haiku for me is often, if not always, conceived and worked on in solitude, yet the essential path that sanctifies or completes the creation is when that poetic moment reaches someone else and creates within them a sensation that in some way approaches that which gave rise to the haiku. Without a reader, without sharing, a haiku is like a seed adrift on a breeze … waiting to be received.
A firefly flitted by:
‘Look!’ I almost said
but I was alone
By nature, I am more of a loner and a seeker of solitude than a social being. However, I learned long ago I am uncomfortable being always alone. Haiku then, for me, provides the perfect medium for recording what transpires for me in solitude, sharing observations and learning which, if any, of these resonate with others.
To write haiku, one must remain aware, ready, open, and sensitive. For myself, I can sense when my life manner is eroding and getting out of balance. When this happens, it is usually because my pace has become too fast, my priorities mixed up, and motives far removed from natural rhythms. Living in a way where one is a true witness to nature, as one must be to write haiku, is a discipline which encourages and even demands a constant contact with a deeper understanding.
when I have sat long enough
the red dragonfly
comes to the wheatgrass
This may be as critical as any quality as to why I personally must continue to read and write haiku. I have a lifelong tendency to overwrite, to say too much and generally revel in excess. What better antidote to this than haiku?
where the carnival
In solitude we find the beauty of seeing things on their own terms. Nature naturally, quietly speaks for herself. No human values, pronouncements or expectations need intervene. Being alone in nature allows us to be as a ghost, without distraction, open, ready and able to experience purely.
no sound to this
spring rain –
but the rocks darken
The haiku perspective, by recognising poetry in the affairs of things, gives to all creation an equal footing. Humility is an essential part in the act of writing haiku. To fiddle and fumble with a few little words, trying them this way, then that, without being able to get them just right, shows how difficult it is to write a good haiku, however simple the result may seem.
To hear it,
not to hear myself
This is the readiness to fully read then record the poetic messages that constantly surround us.
after the garden party the garden
Haiku encourages a heightened awareness of the pageant that is the flow of the seasons. By embracing seasonal changes, we create an honouring ritual acknowledging the inevitability of our involvement in the constant state of passage.
on a mountain trail
but never alone
To read and write haiku, one must have a desire to fulfil the inner calling to create, and to express in words that which gives us the “ah” or “aha” quality in life. Anita Virgil, in her essay When Is A Haiku? (Red Moon 1997 anthology), wrote: It happens to us all. It makes one say or think or feel – ah! as we suddenly see the ordinary in a new light. It is a moment of intuition, an insight into the vital inevitability of things as R.H. Blyth calls it. It can be a glimpse of the beauty or cosmic humour of life, of pathos, of poignancy or paradox. It can be intensified awareness of natural phenomena which reflect human emotion. One does not wish to lose this moment. One wants to share it with someone or record it for one’s own enjoyment. Whatever the impetus, these moments serve to point up our aliveness and connection with the world, our brief time upon the earth. They point to our very humanity. Creativity is moving with one’s life and recognising it to be worth recording and recreating in part or in whole.
Centring & Celebration
Jim Kacian, in his book, Six Directions, states: Through the cumulative effects of small moments, we expand our sense of the universe to its full size (that the only way out of a circle is through its centre). He goes on to state: “If we did not believe the former, we would not believe in haiku as a way and a means. When we pass through the centre, subject and object, time and space disappear and we move outside the plane where we began, infinity, eternally changed.” Haiku is effectively a centring. Whether reading or writing haiku, the bottom line is that one must enter the moment wholeheartedly, becoming in essence one with the moment – centred in it.
the thief left it behind
at the window
No one escapes unscathed the pains and burdens in life. We each develop ways of dealing with these inevitable aspects of life. For me, haiku and the centring that it inspires has provided a useful strategy for coping with more difficult times. At times, our existence creates a paradoxical tension where we feel a potential to be unified with everyone and everything, yet feel simultaneously, every alone and separate . . . to me, a haiku is a harmonising of unity and separation.
There is in haiku the very heart in celebrating being here now… and receiving as witness the gifts that nature provides…
beneath the stars
hand in hand
with my son
In the preface to Haiku, Vol. I, R.H. Blyth states:
Haiku does not aim at beauty. Like the music of Bach, it aims at significance, and some kind of beauty is found hovering near. The real nature of each thing, and more so of all things is a poetical one. Haiku shows us what we knew all the time, but did not know we knew; it shows us that we are poets insofar as we live at all. Haiku are kernels of truth, unadulterated by opinion, emotion, thought or desire. They stand bare boned and crystal clear to extract the truth of what is.
in this warm spring rain
tiny leaves are sprouting
from the eggplant seed
Basho, in the following taken from Eric Amann’s highly recommended book on haiku, WORDLESS POEM, further suggests the utter truthfulness of haiku when he states: “Haiku are a way of seeing, hearing and feeling, a special state of consciousness in which we grasp intuitively the identity of people and nature and the continuity between ourselves and the larger cosmos.”
Further, Basho said: “Learn from the pine about the pine, from the bamboo about the bamboo. But always leave your old self behind, otherwise it will get between you and the object. Poetry springs out on its own when you and the object have become one, when you have looked deep into nature to see the hidden gleam. No matter how well worded your poems may be, if the feeling is not natural, if you and object have not become one, your poems are not true haiku, but merely imitations of reality.”
Reading and writing haiku allows an exercise of one’s naturally felt curiosity about life and the world. The subject of haiku is often obvious, but requires the relation to the subject to reflect the subtle and magical occurrences and interactions always in our midst.
the dog stops licking
This quality may be more personal than universal, but I’ve found that haiku are not always there for me to write. Much as I’d love to write a haiku a day or even more, the reality is, I can’t. My ability to produce is more on a sporadic level and between attempts, there are definite “dry spells” which require much patience to wait through.
I look up
Haiku for me is the perfect record of my simply existing here and now. Each haiku, in a way, can be thought of as a farewell poem – an acceptance of the transitory nature of everything. Reading entries from a lifetime’s worth of my journals is, at this point, of only minimal interest to me, and I’m sure not even that to anyone else. Yet the better of those haiku I’ve written, I am pleased to return to and would be happy to have someone else find and read someday.
the damsel fly leaving
the lily again and again
only to return
Editor’s note: Tom Clausen is an American haiku writer who works at Cornell University’s A. R. Mann Library and offers an online daily haiku there. He also enjoys tanka, music, trains and the St Louis Cardinals baseball team.
This article is an extract from a paper given by the author at a Haiku Society of America meeting in 1998 and appears here with the author’s permission. For the full version go to Tom’s website. Grateful thanks to the poets for permission to reprint their haiku here.