Why Haiku Matters
by Matt Morden
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few
– D S Suzuki
It’s nearly 25 years since my first haiku appeared in print. In 1985, the good editors of the British Haiku Society magazine Blithe Spirit deemed that my lightweight submission of:
running through the park
shedding bitter tears
hear raindrops falling
was worthy of publication, which was kind given that it’s not very good. But it served as encouragement for a beginner who, inspired by Basho and Kerouac, could see the possibilities of haiku and short-form poetry.
While I now know enough to know my initial efforts were poor, I like to think I’m still a beginner. That’s because the best haiku often show the beginner’s qualities of lightness of touch, simplicity and a compassion often lost on the masters.
In the haiku world, as in life, there are no shortage of experts. And while Robert Frost argued, “poetry without rules is like tennis without a net” what marks the experts out is their unwillingness to throw the rule book away having learned the contents therein.
So one reason writing haiku matters is that beginners often grasp the essence of the art much more readily than the experts who know all there is to know about the haiku form or poetry in general. This means that the haiku is potentially much more accessible to beginners and not just the preserve of a few know-it-alls in print and on-line. And as Van Morrison sang, gardens always tell you more than gurus:
No guru, no method, no teacher
Just you and i and nature and the holy ghost
In the garden, in the garden, wet with rain 1
The best way to complain is to make things
– James Murphy 2
I have found it difficult to write anything suitable for publishing on my Mordern Haiku blog (invitation only) for a while. This is because life being what it can be at times, I have spent too much time complaining (inwardly and outwardly) and not enough time creating. And when I am complaining, I can’t shift from inward self-absorption to the outwardness needed to find haiku-like moments.
Usually, this isn’t a problem. I sit in the seat in the meeting room with the view outside and watch the light change, the passing of rooks, the hawthorn on the hill that’s coming into bloom. Cycling up the hill for home for the five hundredth time, a ewe baas in a way I haven’t heard before, I bump into the freeze-thaw pothole and wave at the cars going by. But when matters stack up and my internal dialogue turns negative, I miss all of this.
But these phases come and go. And it’s often the shift from a mild depressive rant into a more creative melancholia that can lift the eyes to what’s going on around us, all of the time, if we can be open enough to notice. And energised enough to write even a little of it down.
sunlight in catkins
he cleans the kitchen floor
without being asked
My maternal grandmother was a cook in the old people’s home that was two minutes walk down street from her South Wales valleys terrace. She didn’t go to college and worked in catering for most of her life. As far as I am aware, she knew nothing about haiku. But she did notice the things that went on around her. She noticed the old man in the home who hadn’t eaten his breakfast, the child who had swam too far out on a holiday beach and which entrant’s sponge cake had sunk over a hot afternoon’s judging at the Abertillery and District show.
As someone who chooses my seat in a room based on the view outside, I think that noticing gets a bad press. For some people, noticing conjures up animage of a lace-curtain twitching nosey neighbour, someone who is interested in everyone else’s business. But being aware of what is going on around us and not judging these events is an essential part of being in the moment. It’s a state of mind that offers a chance to be free from at least some of the what ifs and if onlys that can easily way–lay us. And while I can claim no great expertise in mindfulness, I recognise that when I am noticing the minutiae of what goes on around me, much of my negative internal dialogue fades away.
Where haiku helps in this process is by offering a readily accessible format for recording the everyday moments that we notice. Writing down these observations is good practice in itself. But sometimes, through use of juxtaposition or references to the seasons, writing a haiku, senryu or small stone3 can conjure up something extraordinary from the everyday that enables the reader to make a connection to something beyond a simple observation. I think that in a world full of noise and distractions, that can only be positive.
the smell of damp
in her front room
You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody
– Maya Angelou
When I first started getting a few of my haiku published, I got annoyed that English-language haiku poetry was not getting the recognition that I thought it deserved. The editors of mainstream poetry magazines were not interested in publishing haiku unless it was written by well-known poets and the media ignored or totally misunderstood the form. And as “haiku” grew in popularity on the internet, there was (and still is) a preponderance of 5-7-5 spam prose appearing on web pages, blogs and social media sites.
After writing and learning for a while, my haiku were published in a magazines around the world and I received prizes in a couple of competitions. John Barlow of Snapshot Press was kind enough to publish two collections of my writing. Reviewers said complementary things about the books. After this, I waited for the big breakthrough, a call from a mainstream publisher to put out my work, a review in a national newspaper, the request to talk at a literature festival or even an article in the mainstream media that recognised that haiku was the next big thing. None of these things happened. And on reflection, I think this was a good thing, both for me and for English-language haiku in general.
Very few English-language haiku (specific) poets are known outside of haiku circles. I’m not aware of anyone involved in haiku who has made any significant money4 from it, particularly if you factor in the time spent writing, judging, editing or publishing. While there is perhaps some small kudos within haiku circles from being seen as a successful haijin or editor, this isn’t going to pay even a peasant’s rent.
So the vast majority of folks do it for the love and/or other personal benefits. This is a strength and not a weakness. One example of how this strength manifests itself is the broadly supportive environment that exists on-line for haiku poets. I think that this comes in part from the lack of a need to compete with other poets when you write in an environment where there is little or no money, reputation or fame to be gained and your fellow poets are supportive of what you do. And in a creative world, I don’t think you can ask for much more than the space to do what you want to do, unhindered by those factors that can build up one’s ego. Together with the honest support of those of your fellows that you respect and the knowledge that this is all that needs to matter.
a trout swirls
1: In The Garden, lyrics by Van Morrison, from his 1986 album No Guru, No Method, No Teacher.
2: This quote features at the end of Seth Godin’s recently published manifesto for learning, Stop Stealing Dreams, which is required reading if you are interested in the future of education.
3: See Fiona Robyn’s Small Stone blog
4: I would be happy to be proved wrong!
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in four parts on Matt Morden’s haiku blog, Morden Haiku and appears here with his kind permission.
Matt Morden is a Welsh haiku poet who lives in Carmarthenshire, Wales, where he works in local government. His most recent collection of haiku is Stumbles in Clover (Snapshot Press, 2007), the winner of a Haiku Society of America Merit Book Award.