by Ray Rasmussen
A favourite haiku of mine by the Japanese poet Hokushi (d. 1718) carries a transcendent message:
ashes my burnt hut
but wonderful the cherry
blooming on my hill
When I’m feeling overwhelmed with my two teen daughters, with the stress of work, or with difficulties in a relationship, I like to visit these ancient poets. Hokushi reminds me that these difficulties are about being human, that life is composed of a series of burned huts followed by blooms on the hill. Of course, when one’s hut is burning, looking to the blooms isn’t as easy as it sounds. Still, it helps to have Hokushi’s haiku singing in my ear.
I became interested in haiku while photographing and then building a website on the Kurimoto Japanese Garden, located near my home in Edmonton, in the province of Alberta, Canada. I decided to provide a mix of Asian poetry and information on Japanese gardens on the site. Using the internet I found my way to a number of Asian poetry websites, became enthralled with the poetic power of haiku, and started to read haiku. While exploring, I found a number of lists where current haiku poets share their work and where interested novices can get instruction. I was on my way to writing my own haiku. What could be easier, I thought, than writing a 17-syllable, 3-line poem!
But, like producing quality photographs, it wasn’t so easy to write a good haiku. Also like photography, composing quality haiku turned out to be more a process, a way of being in the world, than a quick route to a product. Both photography and haiku composition lead to an intense focusing on direct experience that is different from normal daily living. For example, normal practice when visiting a place like the Kurimoto Garden might be to walk around, chat with a friend, enjoy the sunshine, hold hands, look at the elements of the garden, that sort of thing.
Instead, when engaged in the process of photography, I focus in, attempting to isolate forms and colours that strike my aesthetic sense. Looking through the lens, composing the frame, selecting the camera settings, imagining the print, all these provide a deeply relaxing contemplation of place. Time becomes frozen, passes quickly. I spent five hours at Kurimoto, shot three rolls of film, and suddenly found myself in darkness. Where did the day go?
Similarly, the process of haiku composition is not an activity that takes place exclusively at one’s desk. Instead, on a walk in the woods or when visiting a coffee house, one learns to pay attention to events that stand out. This spring, when the geese and ducks had just begun returning to Canada, I was deeply immersed in the silence of a nearby forest and heard a single sound – the call of a male mallard. I stood listening in on his conversation with his smaller mate. Louis Armstrong’s raspy voice came to mind. If you’ve ever heard Louis sing “I’m in the mood for love”, you understand the power of the rasp as I experienced it on that quiet day. I began to compose a haiku in my mind, played with possible verses, continued my walk, caught a streamside glimpse of Mr and Ms Mallard, and when I returned home, wrote this haiku:
the rasp of a mallard
calling his mate
You may or may not like this haiku, and, yes, it matters to me whether you do. But, whether or not I produced a great haiku, I had a great walk, one that was enhanced by the practice of focusing my attention in the mallard’s love talk, of paying attention to the stream of associations that flowed from that experience.
The Japanese haijin greats like Basho (1644-94) were wandering monks. In his mid-30s, Basho spent years travelling the Japanese countryside visiting Buddhist monasteries and holy places. The name Basho (banana tree) is a sobriquet he adopted in about 1681 after moving into a simple hut with a banana tree alongside. Influenced by Buddhist precepts, his haiku captured those fleeting, momentary sensations on the edge of perception to which we don’t normally give our attention. Here’s Basho using his perceptions to describe life as a series of connected associations:
the swinging bridge
is quieted with creepers –
this tendrilled life
The haiku process encourages a meditative focus: stopping, looking, listening, contemplating, paying greater attention. And, later, back at the desk, the composition of the haiku itself is another meditative experience: remembering, re-experiencing, composing. I had but 17 syllables in which to attempt a description of my “haiku moment” in the forest with the mallards. As I continued my walk, and then later at my desk, I played with phrases, tried to eliminate my natural tendency to interpret: “a beautiful mallard”, “his wonderful, raspy call”, “the delicious afternoon silence”, “the Louis Armstrong sexiness of the drake’s call” – each of these phrases tell rather than describe.
Instead, the goal is to describe in such a way that a person reading the poem has an experience akin to the immediacy of the poet’s experience. A final component of haiku practice, itself meditative, is the reading of the haiku of other poets, the old masters as well as current writers. I’ve now formed the practice of reading aloud, of allowing my critical voices to pass and of moving imaginatively into the experience that the poet presents.
Given its origins in the wandering and writing of Japanese ascetics, it’s understandable that many of today’s competent haiku poets emphasise the Zen-like aspects of the process of haiku composition. For example, among the practices for writing good haiku offered by James Hackett are:
- NOW is the touchstone of the haiku experience, so remain centred in this eternal present of life
- Remember that Greater Nature – not human nature – is the province of haiku
- Contemplate natural objects closely: unseen wonders (and dramas) will reveal themselves
- Spiritually interpenetrate and empathise with nature. Become one with “things”, for ultimately, “That art Thou”
- Reflect upon your notes of nature in solitude and silence. Allow these recollected feelings be the basis of your haiku poem.
It is perhaps for its meditative and connective aspects that haiku, along with other Eastern disciplines, has become increasingly popular throughout the Western world. Robert Spiess, past editor of Modern Haiku, surmised that part of this interest “is due to an increase in sensitivity among a number of poets with concern for the destruction of our natural habitats, with the sense that we are becoming too alienated from our roots in nature”. Haijin Dusan Pajin suggests that rootlessness is not just alienation from nature, but also from family and place, that rootlessness prompts people to search for authenticity and connection in the form of expressive art and that haiku is one such art that lends to a sense of connection.
In one of her memorable haiku, Chiyo-ni (1701-1775), one of the rare-for-her-times female haijin, speaks to her deeply felt connection with nature:
since morning glories
hold my well-bucket hostage
I beg for water
One aspect of haiku that I particularly enjoy is the wide variety of expression found in its practitioners. It would be a mistake to suggest that most haiku, either that of the Japanese originators or of current haijin, are limited to simple descriptions of nature. Another favourite of mine is by Issa (1763-1827) whose writing often expressed an empathy with living creatures and a note of humour about the difficulties of the human journey. When swatting those pesky mosquitoes that are attempting to ruin the pleasure of an outing, who could not feel better for having read Issa’s poem?
fleas in my hut –
it’s my fault
you look so skinny
Issa’s poem is an example of senryu, a variant of haiku. As the practice of haiku composition has spread, there is much controversy about what constitutes a proper haiku poem. English haiku generally follow the form of the Japanese original, namely, a count of 17 or fewer syllables delivered in three lines with a reference, direct or oblique, to nature. The senryu form deals more with matters of human and social nature, often in a playful, satirical manner and carries no seasonal reference. For those of us who are city dwellers, its natural to bend our focus and writing to daily living in the urban environment.
In my own practice, I’ve found that maintaining a focus on the haiku process and not getting hung up on the precise form or final product leads to the best results in terms of meditative outcomes: relaxation, peace of mind, enhanced awareness. Those who insist on strict rules (exactly 17 syllables in 3 lines, a season reference, etc.) are likely to reverse the meditative outcomes, and those who are focused only on producing a perfect haiku are as likely to be denied relaxation as those who take a walk in the forest and expect to find no mosquitoes. Here’s what Buson (1716-1783) has to say about having an expectation of a mosquito-less environment:
a mosquito buzzes
every time flowers
of honeysuckle fall
One of the best exercises for developing an appreciation of the haiku process comes from well-known contemporary haijin Timothy Russell. He suggests that a novice begin his or her haiku composition experience by simply going outside and practicing the skill of describing what he or she sees (e.g., a leaf falls from the apple tree, an alley filled with litter). These are not a haiku! His process is a path to learning to compose haiku by first learning to avoid interpretation, embellishment, poetics – by learning, in other words, to see and describe.
It would be foolish, that is it would be typically human, to want to write a good haiku early on in one’s practice. I would suggest, instead, that novices focus on the process, not on the product. Over time, the practice will lead to an enhanced ability to read and appreciate haiku poetry and perhaps even to write one or two good haiku in one’s lifetime. Meanwhile, the meditative aspect will be working and is one of the gifts that the Japanese haiku masters have left to us, their descendents.
With respect to the process of writing haiku, there is some misconception that a haiku is a spontaneous expression of awareness composed by an adept in the practice. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Japanese masters (Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki) all spent considerable time writing and revising. And, not all of their haiku originated from an encounter in the field. Many of them are “remembered” encounters composed while at whatever substituted for a writing desk in the simple dwellings that they occupied.
Writing, then, becomes meditative in the sense that experiences are recalled, and then described, again, without inference or evaluation. Most of today’s haijin speak of a deep experience consisting of recall, reliving, composing, and revisiting and recomposing. After writing the initial impressions, Russell suggests putting aside today’s descriptions for at least five days before revisiting them and beginning to compose haiku.
James Hackett, Suggestions For Creating Haiku Poetry, World Haiku Review, Vol. 3, Issue 1: March 2003.
Ecstasy of the Moment and the Depth of Time by Dusan Pajin (Yugoslavia), World Haiku Association Conference, Tolmin, Slovenia , September 1-3, 2000, online in Azora e-journal.
Timothy Russell “training exercise… to help exercise the muscles necessary for writing haiku” can be found here.
All haiku quoted by Ray Rasmussen and originally appeared in The Heron’s Nest.
Editor’s note: Ray Rasmussen is a photographer who lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and who spends a good deal of his time in wilderness areas. He writes haiku and haibun and also creates fine haiga. In a previous life he was a university professor. To see examples of Ray’s work go to his website.