The premise for this exercise is simple enough – pick 10 favourite haiku. It shouldn’t be hard to come up with 10. Limiting myself to 10 might be more problematic. I thought if I sat quietly, my favourites would naturally surface. I wasn’t under pressure to justify my choices as ‘best’: they are only my favourites. It turns out that there were hundreds of haiku that nudged forward. They were like kids let out on recess – one leaping over the next. Objectivity flew out the door.
In haiku there are only a few seconds for the words to register and weave through the filters of the senses and imagination. If I read the same haiku over the course of a week, the meaning is likely to shift. The words don’t change, I do. Sometimes I’m dense as a chunk of granite and my response is dull. Other times my senses are less cloudy and I read am more exposed and vulnerable. The tissue between the word and world is very thin and permeable. I’m indebted to the following poets for sharing their work and showing me the way.
on a withered branch –
My first encounter with this haiku was in grade school, reading The Norton Anthology of Poetry. I even recall the worn green cover of the book and that haiku on the page with all that white space around those few carefully chosen words: the precision of the form, the way it cut away all the superfluous. I knew the scene was absolutely true without an explanation. The melancholy was intensely beautiful, a perfect darkness. Even as a child I knew this haiku rearranged my literary DNA.
don’t kill the fly!
he wrings his hands
he wrings his feet
My father was a dairy farmer, and I spent much of my childhood on the farm. I encountered a lot of flies and watched them closely. They were a nuisance to the farmer but fascinating to a kid. The notion of a creature begging for mercy. It was another click on dial for tuning in to my surroundings.
Jump forward a number of years to college – I was lucky to combine two of my loves, biology and art. I was encouraged to spend time closely observing nature. I did a coloured pencil drawing based on the following haiku:
dies by the side
of its empty shell
– Naitô Jôso
I spent a couple of weeks working on the piece. While my hands and eyes were busy, my mind was free to go deeper for a sustained look. It was similar to the Bashô haiku already mentioned – how beauty pierces through and gets caught up in pain – inexorably entangled. An invitation to wake up the senses and the spirit to a great emptiness. But it isn’t nihilism; it’s much richer and more fertile ground.
warm rain before dawn:
my milk flows into her
– Ruth Yarrow, Cicada 5:1 (1981)
I read this haiku in the second edition of The Haiku Anthology in the summer of 1991. My son was already three years old, but I remember nursing him. I recall the let-down reflex that started as a tingle on the right side of my neck when the milk started to flow. It’s a thoughtless process – no thought is involved. The provision is intimate. The connection is ultimate. It is a particularly feminine experience, and in our culture men are unsettled by mothers nursing infants. We have to hide away in secret and covered up. For me this haiku breaks ground on a couple of levels, personal and cultural. But this haiku doesn’t leave the experience one-sided. The nurture of rain falling to quench an unseen thirst is accessible to men. Tenderness transcends gender.
In the discussion of breaking cultural taboos one name comes to the forefront: Marlene Mountain. I could have picked a much more politically charged haiku of hers but chose a single-pointed, laser-sharp observation that has a fly in it.
one fly everywhere the heat
– Marlene Mountain, Cicada 2:1 (1977)
The following two haiku highlight the body intimate-lovely, subtle, sensual, and profound.
of scar tissue –
– Peggy Willis Lyles, Frogpond XXVII:2 (2004)
everywhere you touch is yes cherry blossoms
– S. B. Friedman, Modern Haiku 41:1 (winter/spring 2010)
Again with the dark/light, wound/healing, in the same instant.
evening loon call –
nothing makes it
– Gary Hotham, Mainichi Daily News Contest 2002
I like the way this haiku changes depending on my state of mind. At first I read it to mean that the loon calls again because of loneliness. Then it morphs, and there is no answer to nothingness, only silence. It tugs on another haiku by Francine Banwarth where she reminds us: “the river freezes…/silence is also/an answer.” (Haiku Now! International Haiku Contest 2011.)
The last three haiku are ones that, after reading them, I can’t unread them, or forget them.
I am pregnant
with the clown
of a snowy day
– Hiroko Takahashi, Modern Haiku Association (Gendai Haiku Kyōkai, eds.), The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century. Tokyo, Japan: Modern Haiku Association (2008)
Yes, this is absurd. There is no explaining it; only experience what happens when you follow the words. There is a leap into thin air! Someone has described this as: transportation provided by 10 words. Destination: unknown.
breeze a synonym for ash
– Philip Rowland, Roadrunner 11.1 (February, 2011)
This feels less absurd than the previous haiku, but the intuitive leap is intact. Yup, it’s true. Look at it shine.
the enamel sounds their beaks make
in my mouth
– Peter Yovu, Modern Haiku 45.1 (winter-spring 2014)
The processing of this haiku is tied up in the body – a haptic revelation where intimacy and absurdity collide. I smile every time I imagine those tiny beaks pecking at my teeth.
I’ve mentioned 12 favourite haiku and I’m just getting started …
Editor’s note: Cherie Hunter Day is an award-winning haiku and tanka poet who is editor of Mariposa, the journal of the Haiku Poets of Northern California and is a member of the editorial team for the annual Red Moon anthologies. She is the author of The Horse with One Blue Eye (Snapshot Press, 2006) and Apology Moon (Red Moon Press, 2013). She has also published field guides to the natural world. Cherie lives in Cupertino, California.