Haiku Silence

by Angelee Deodhar

So much has been written about how to haiku that I wonder if there is anything really left to say. More and more books on the art and craft of haiku are being written, and there are innumerable websites expressing opinions and publishing haiku by the score. Some of these are conflicting in content and leave even experienced poets bewildered.

For some time now, I have been asking myself the questions which every haiku poet asks, where does one begin? What is the quality of a good haiku? Does the fact that a haiku is published mean that it is a good one? What does a haiku really mean? In my studies, over the last 14 years, I have yet to understand a lot of things about haiku. Is there anything I can add? Having thought about it I felt I could share one insight, which for me, is the single most important affirmation towards a “haiku mind”, if we can call it that.

The noise of the world drowns out so much. Most of us cannot leave home and set up residence near a pond as Thoreau did, but one can empathise with what he wrote. Most of us have jobs to attend to, classes to teach, bills to pay, meals to cook, meetings to attend, speeches to make. To experience silence and solitude, setting aside the baggage of negative connotations that may be associated with “non-doing”, can be very challenging.

How then do we, in spite of it all, write haiku? By returning to silence. By going on a journey deep within ourselves, to find a safe quiet place where the winds and gusts of everyday affairs do not trouble us, where, in silence, we can find our own natures in tune with nature around us. Silence is not the absence of sound; by listening with ones’ whole being, one can discover the silence within.

Dr Eric Amman, in describing haiku, used the term “wordless poem”. If something is wordless how do we communicate it? How do we convey the depth of feeling of that particular moment to someone far away in time and place? How then does a haiku, the wordless poem, work when put into words? Let us examine one of his own poems which leaves so much unsaid:

The names of the dead
sinking deeper and deeper
into the red leaves

Eric Amman 1

Can haiku silence be expressed? Yes! Whenever I read a haiku which resonates for me, I ask, where did this originate? How has the person who wrote it communicated almost wordlessly that quietude? To illustrate this I will use three examples, all from the third edition of The Haiku Anthology, edited by Cor van dan Heuvel:

summer stillness
the play of light and shadow
on the wind chimes

Peggy Willis Lyles

Quiet afternoon:
water shadows
on the pine bark

Anita Virgil

stillness
sand sifts through the roots
of a fallen tree

Cor van dan Heuvel

Here one can actually see how these haiku work, there is a silent communion of peace, because of the poets’ stillness we pause, beauty pervades our consciousness, so also the play of light on wind chimes or shadows on the bark of the tree and the sand sifting through the roots of the fallen tree bring to us timeless images.

another year
the tallest trees shade
the oldest headstones

DeVar Dahl 2

Stillness is a prerequisite for any creative art but more so for haiku. It is interesting to note that although Basho was a renku master, he frequently went away to find himself. Was his journey to the interior just a travelogue, or was it more? Here are three excellent examples of tranquillity and quietude, in the spirit of Basho:

summer
trickles noiselessly down
the moss-covered stone

Christopher Herold 3

from winter storage
the prow of a canoe
entering sunlight

Jerry Kilbride 4

morning bird song –
my paddle slips
into its reflection

Michael Dylan Welch 5

Most of us are too busy churning out haiku trying to get published in one journal or another, sending in entries to contests or posting to various lists. It amazes me to see such frenetic activity. I agree with Zinovy when he writes,

On my palm
a lifeline wrinkled
with future deadlines

Zinovy Vayman 6

While it is good to learn by exchanging ideas about how to write better haiku and join discussion groups, for me the main aim of writing haiku is to get to the centre of my silence. Although that silence may well be interrupted . . .

time to quit
I hear the bell
before the bell

LeRoy Gorman 7

silent prayer –
the quiet humming
of the ceiling fan

Lee Gurga 8

Does it mean that we should become hermits? No, not necessarily, but what will help is to develop a special quality of silent communion with oneself. Before one starts to put pen to paper, one must get quiet. It does not matter if we are commuting on a train, waiting in a doctor’s office, or at the airport. To write well we must bring our conscious selves into a state of silent graceful acceptance of everything around us. Here is a haiku which qualifies what I mean.

desert spring –
nothing, nothing in the world
but this full moon

William J. Higginson 9

The late Robert Spiess, a long-time editor of Modern Haiku, in his Speculations 10 said, “Another reason for the brevity of haiku is that the more words the more distance, the more silence the more proximity.” With just a few words Harter, Clausen and Swede have skilfully captured that noiselessness in their haiku.

meteor shower –
the glimmer
of the surf

Penny Harter 11

once
everyone is gone . . .
the clock

Tom Clausen 12

alone at last
i wonder where
everyone is

George Swede 13

Spiess also cautions us, “Chuang Tzu said, ‘If you have insight, you use your inner eye, your inner ear, to pierce to the heart of things, and have no need of intellective knowledge.’ This is how haiku poets should proceed in their endeavours.”

abandoned garden –
following the scent
of the hidden jasmine

Ion Codrescu 14

the long night . . .
a light rain
beats time on the cook pots

Jim Kacian 15

quiet evening,
a spider moves its shadow
across the wall

Tom Clausen 16

Sri Ramana Maharshi said: “Silence is never-ending speech. Vocal speech obstructs the other speech of silence. In silence one is in intimate contact with the surroundings. Language is only a medium for communicating one’s thoughts to another. Silence is ever speaking.” How well this is illustrated in this haiku:

temple yard    the sound    of stone buddhas

Stanford M. Forrester 17

Here the poet is at peace with himself, with his surroundings, with the world at large and in that silence he too becomes a buddha. And so also in the next haiku, we experience tranquility:

silence
the snow-covered rock
under winter stars

Bruce Ross 18

Let us go deep into our own space to discover what it is that we belong to.

ikebana
the space
where the lily was

Pamela Miller Ness 19

One must embrace silence and solitude to realise its full potential. In the next two haiku one sinks into deep tranquillity:

deep in this world
of Monet water lilies . . .
no sound

Elizabeth Searle Lamb 20

marble koi . . .
the silence
of lotus blossoms

Pamela A. Babusci 21

How can we fully feel a moment’s essence if the mind is jumping from one thought to another? In a state of alertness, true awareness cannot occur unless we are in a mode of stillness. John Stevenson’s haiku puts it so succinctly:

a useless novelty –
each of us already has
a chattering skull

John Stevenson 22

Recently, on one of the kukai lists of which I am a member, I wrote to the webmaster that this time none of the haiku impressed me or brought an “aha” moment, and he very gently reminded me that our response depends upon what we bring to a haiku. What a revelation it was! I had used my chattering skull instead of my silent self and missed appreciating the haiku. Therefore the reading of haiku and their appreciation also requires an alert passivity.

I end with a haiku which I keep on my table to remind me to write in such a manner that I (the host) can, through haiku, share with you (my guest) as pure a silence as that of the white chrysanthemum . . .

Silent communion
Between the guest,
The host, and the white chrysanthemum

Oshima Ryota 23

I have specially used non-Japanese, contemporary English language haiku to emphasise the point I am making about haiku silence. There are so many other haiku which I could have quoted, but I invite each one of you to find your own haiku silence.

**

Footnotes:
1. The Haiku Anthology, Cor van den Heuvel, ed. 3rd ed.(W.W. Norton) 1999.
2: Haiku Canada Newsletter, Vol. 17, June 2004.
3: a path in the garden (Katsura Press) 2000.
4: The Haiku Anthology.
5: Ibid.
6: Modern Haiku, Vol. 33.1, Winter- Spring, 2002.
7: Modern Haiku, Vol. 33.2, Summer, 2002.
8: The Haiku Anthology.
9: Modern Haiku, ibid.
10: A Year’s Speculations on Haiku, Robert Spiess (Modern Haiku) 1995.
11: Modern Haiku, ibid.
12: Albatross, Vol. 5.1 1996.
13: The Haiku Anthology.
14: Mountain Voices (Ami-Net International Press) 2000.
15: Albatross, Vol. 7.2 1998.
16: Ibid.
17: still,  Vol. 5.2, Spring 2001.
18: The Haiku Anthology.
19: From the leaflet where the lily was.
20: Across the Windharp, Elizabeth Searle Lamb (La Alameda Press) 1999.
21: Evergreen, Vol. 13.5, May 2003.
22: Modern Haiku, Vol. 32.1, Winter- Spring, 2001.
23: Classic Haiku, A Master’s Selection, selected and translated by Yuzuru Miura (Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc.) 1999.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared, in a slightly longer form, on the Simply Haiku website and appears here with the kind permission of the author.

Angelee Deodhar is a haiku poet and artist  who lives in  Chandigarh, India. She has a keen interest in promoting haiku and its related forms throughout the world. Her haiku and haiga have been published internationally and she is a member of the Haiku Society of America, Haiku Society of Canada, and Haiku International Association (Japan), Meguro International Friendship Association(Japan), Evergreen Haiku Society (Japan) and World Haiku Association (Japan).

In her work life, Angelee is an eye surgeon, a member of International Arts Medicine Association and is published in medical magazines. She lives with her physician husband, a son and two dogs.

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