Favourite Haiku by Jane Reichhold

At first the idea of picking only 10 of my favourite haiku seemed a rather daunting task. How could I review all the haiku I have read in my life and decide that there were only 10 that were outstanding? Then I realised I was already getting a steady stream of excellent haiku day by day through the AHAforum.

One of the functions of the AHAforum is to allow members to share their recently published poems in the Haiku Showcase. So I raided the showcase. In order to avoid listing the poems in any order of favouritism, they are given alphabetically according to the author’s last name.

spring sunlight
outlines her bent head …
mother nursing

– Dawn Bruce, paper wasp Vol 17 number 4, 2011

Sometimes a haiku does not need dazzling word puns or startling images. To be able to convey simply, with the best possible words, the image that touched someone’s heart is also a valid function of haiku. Dawn’s haiku is an excellent example of this, which some give the Japanese term invented by Shiki – shasei (sketch).

This technique looks easy to do, but as seasoned writers know, it is very difficult to pick just the important elements to sketch in the image. Here in Dawn’s poem every word seems perfect. Only after reading the very last word does the reader realise how accurate it was to place the poem in spring. Then “sunlight” warms and illuminates the scene. For the pun-seeker there is a tiny quiet play of words with “son-light” that again would be revealed only by the final word of the poem.

I am very struck by Dawn’s use of “outlines” because it is so very accurate. The sun draws a line of light around the object of the poem – “her bent head”. Why is the woman bending her head? Who is she? It was very wise of Dawn to have the poem break at the end of line 2 as it is at this point she needs to stop the reader’s eye long enough for the questions to form and the reader’s internal dialogue to search for an answer.

Then in the final line, exactly where it belongs, comes the answer – “mother”. Since every one of us had had one, the word comes to the poem with a huge bag of emotional content. However the final word “nursing” informs us a great deal. The mother is young and she has a baby. Dawn does not need to mention baby, or feeding or loving. The poem conveys all of this with the final word “nursing” as it completes the meaning for all the other words of the rest of the poem. The reader wants to reread this poem in the new light of this greater understanding. While the overuse of the “simply sketching in the image” can lead to somewhat boring poems, this technique is exactly right and proper for portraying a mother in a reverent, calm, quiet way.

half the sky
a deeper blue
mid-life birthday

– Susan Constable, tiny words January 9, 2012

The association here is the concept of half – “half a sky” and “mid-life”. Notice how Susan carefully uses two different words for the same idea. Writing haiku also means using word skills and not just marvellous inspiration. Here again it is the final word that gives the whole poem gravitas and deeper meaning. The concept of half a sky and half a life is impressive but she goes on to add two other images.

“A deeper blue” certainly is a realistic and valid description of sky and it is easy to imagine an actual sky that has a darker blue in part of it. However, when “deeper blue” is added to birthday (as many are profoundly depressed by birthdays) this idea of sadness or melancholy is expressed.

Deeper into this poem is the layer that proclaims that is one half the sky is a darker blue, the future for the person with the birthday, it means that half the sky is lighter. This conveys the idea that the past was happy and light. The “deeper blue” brings the idea that the rest of the life will be richer and more intense – all positive attributes. Susan’s sky does not hold storm clouds or anything really scary. Just a deepening hue of blue.

Basho’s frog. . .
four hundred years
of ripples

– Alan Fogel, paper wasp 17:3, 2011

The puns and write-offs based on Basho’s most famous haiku are so numerous I would have said that nothing new could be said with this method, but here Alan proved me wrong. Perhaps part of my delight in this haiku lies in the fact that I agree with him. Here he is saying one thing about realism – ripples are on a pond after a frog jumps in, but because it refers back to Basho and his famous haiku, he is also saying something about the haiku and authors who have followed him. We, and our work, are just ripples while Basho holds the honour of the inventing the idea of “the sound of a frog leaping is the sound of water”.

As haiku spreads around the world, making ripples in more and larger ponds, its ripples are wider – including us all. But his last word reminds us all that we are only ripples and our lives are that ephemeral. It will be the frogs that will remain.

a sacred kingfisher
shatters its image

– Lorin Ford, Kitchen Window (10th Annual Jack Stamm anthology)

Even before I knew what a “billabong” was, I was attracted to this haiku because of the idea of a sacred kingfisher shattering its image. Yes, this would happen realistically when a bird dove into the water but the idea of a “sacred” bird shattering its image would also carry the idea that while it once was held sacred, this was no longer true and this change was its own doing. Okay, very nice idea.

Then I Googled billabong to find it is a name for a part of a river that has cut itself off and became a lake or a pond. Then came my AHA! moment. This haiku is associating how a billabong was once a part of a flowing stream but then is changed into a pond. In the same way that a stream of emotion flows toward the sacred until that image of sacredness is destroyed, so a river flows until a bend in it is cut off. Very deep and very beautiful.

The association between these two images and the ideas they transport is much greater than the sum of their parts. This is haiku. Making something great and profound by simply noticing images and placing them side-by-side so others can discover a mysterious relationship for themselves.

a deceased friend
taps me on the shoulder –
plum blossoms falling

– Chen-ou Liu, The Heron’s Nest, Editors Choice Award for June 2011 and Grand Prize Winner for the Year

In Chinese and Japanese literature, the butterfly was long used as a symbol of a departed soul. Chen-ou has taken the idea that the departed are still among us and found a very new and touching way of expressing this idea that we can only manifest by feeling. If you have ever stood under a tree as the petals drift down you will know how very light this touch is. And yet you can feel it and it seems a blessing.

To make the leap to thinking it is the touch of a departed friend is genius. This is why we need poets – to discover such truths, ideas, concepts. If we could remember that the touch of every blossom, the wetness of a raindrop, every glint of light was a reminder of the departed who surround us, how much more meaningful our lives would be. How much more reverence we would have for the simplest thing. This is why we have haiku – to remind us of profound ideas in simple things.

The association between the sadness of a friend who passed away, and the blossoms which are also passing is clear. Yet out of this sadness Chen-ou has found a ray of pleasure. He is not alone. His friend is close enough to touch him as are all our beloved departed. This is a very beautiful haiku and well-deserving of all of its honours.

summer storm
the windscreen wipers
slice our silence

– Jo McInerney, dipped oar (Jack Stamm Anthology) 2009

The windscreen wipers and the summer storm make perfect sense. One easily goes with the other and we know the purpose of the wipers. However, suddenly in the last line Jo brings a disturbing verb – “slice”. The wipers are not only wiping, as they should, but they are now seen as slicing. What are they slicing? “silence”.

This is the technique of pseudo-science. The wipers have been transformed, by a poet, into another function – slicing silence. How do you slice silence? Does the wiper actually cut back and forth across the silence or is it the sound that cuts the silence? The motion seems more real, more actual, more believable as a cutting device than “just” sound. Beyond all of this, there is this silence. Is it a good, companionable silence?

Looping back up to the first line, the reader is confronted by the image of a summer storm. One with heat, lightning, roiling black clouds, sudden winds that twist and scatter. While it is not said, a reader can build the image of a couple sitting in a car while fighting, or trying to end a fight with silence. This would seem a normal telling of a scene except for the violence of the verb – “slice”.

all day rain
we argue over music
for the funeral

– John McManus, Presence #45

I like the way this haiku grows and changes. With “all day rain” the reader is thinking, “blah” with great boredom. The second line adds a bit of tension with “we argue over music”. Okay. That makes sense. Two people kept inside by the long rain begin to show their exasperation by arguing about music. Okay.

Then comes the kicker, the twist that makes haiku such a delight even when it is uncomfortable. It’s raining, and there has to be an argument about the music for, of all things, a funeral. Now the all-day rain is not boring but sadness. It is a sadness for the loss of someone, and for the idea that those remaining must disagree over something so small. All three elements pile on one another to increase the reader’s understanding of the depth of the author’s feeling and for our understanding that being left behind is not easy.

first warm day
a wheat penny lands
heads up

– H Gene Murtha, November 2002 WHC Treetops (Ferris Gilli, editor)

With so many millions of haiku having been written it is not easy to come up with fresh, meaningful images. Here Gene shows us a wheat penny and he has an excellent reason for using this accurate name for it. None of the depth of this haiku would be possible if the coin was described as a copper coin, a bent penny or a lost penny.

The idea of “wheat” connects with “first warm day” through the feeling that as a plant it will begin to grow faster. The verb “lands” at once describes what happens to the penny but also relates to the wheat as being on the land, or earth, where it grows. Even “heads up” relates to what we call the “heads” of wheat – the cluster of ripened grain pictured on the coin.

Yet this is not the feeling that Gene is demonstrating. He also uses “first warm day” to emote a feeling of joy and happiness; of hope and new beginning. Then he shows us a penny falling to the ground. Whatever is going on here? The answer, in haiku fashion comes with the final line in an oblique way. To say “heads up” may tell us which side of the coin is visible, but it also tells us that the coin has been flipped as a method of divination. Suddenly the first and third lines slide into alignment. The positive weather relates to the optimistic idea of “heads up” – charge ahead, let’s go. This is an excellent haiku on many levels.

liquid sky . . .
a steel bucket hits
the well water

– Kala Ramesh, Notes from the Gean #4, 2010

Some haiku come to me slowly. It takes awhile for them to grow and develop with meaning for me. Others are like this. Instantly I loved it. To begin with, “liquid sky” seemed a fresh and exciting way to name a rainy day. Okay. Then comes the image of “a steel bucket hits” and the monkey mind is saying, “Shouldn’t it be the rain that hits the bucket and not the bucket hitting back?” A riddle is formed and in the third line, as is proper, the answer that solves the riddle is given – “well water”.

Ah, the liquid sky is not a rainy cloud in the sky but the sky deep in a well. Yes, that is sky too when the water reflects what is above it. Now it makes sense for the steel bucket to hit the sky – when it drops in the well. The penny drops and I have solved the riddle of this haiku. As reader I feel smarter, refreshed, renewed with this word coinage – “liquid sky”.

Plus I have the pleasure of my own memories of dropping a bucket into a well – the wet mossy smell that rises up, reassurance that there is water down there, and that the bucket will bring me cool refreshment. Ah. While the verb “hits” can sound aggressive, here it feels good. Also “liquid sky,” if meaning rain, can feel oppressive but Kala flips the image so it becomes a safe reservoir. The idea of “well” water can mean water stored in the earth as well as wellness as in health, survival and the next sip of water.

dog days
the mailbox door
hangs open

– Josh Wikoff, Acorn #19, 2007

The association here is between dogs and the mail which goes back over many bites. The haiku uses a simile – the opened door of the mailbox is like a dog’s tongue but with a few words as haiku the metaphor becomes much richer.

The season words – “dog days” – are not often used but are perfect here. Those days being the hottest days of the summer it makes some sense in a haiku-sort of way that while all the doors in the house are open to the slightest breeze, so is the mailbox. On these hot days the dogs will be panting with their tongues hanging out and the mailbox lid, hanging down certainly can be seen, with poetic vision, as the metal tongue.

An additional layer is the fact that when it is so hot people are too hot and too tired to close the mailbox and the idea that the box is empty because no new mail has arrived because everyone else is also too hot. There is not a word too many and each one supports and illuminates the next.

Editor’s note: Jane Reichhold (1937-2016) was an American poet, editor and artist who lived in California and co-edited the online poetry journal Lynx with her husband, Werner Reichhold (the journal ceased publication in 2014). She also maintained the a-ha poetry website. Her book Basho: The Complete Haiku, for which she spent over 10 years translating the work of Japanese master haiku poet, Matsuo Basho, was published in 2008. The book is available to buy here. Three of Jane’s previous books received awards from the Haiku Society of America, and she twice won the Literature Award from the Museum of Haiku in Tokyo.