Like most American school kids, I learned to write haiku (i.e., 5 syllables–7 syllables–5 syllables) in third or fourth grade. It is a Japanese poetic form that, other than World War II and the Cherry Blossom Festival, represented all that I knew of Japanese culture or literature until I reached college. Compared to English formal verse, such as sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas, haiku seem like child’s play.
To counter that, here are a few examples by Japanese masters of the form.
How much more of it remains?
The night is brief.
Don’t weep, insects–
Lovers, stars themselves,
Scent of chrysanthemums…
And in Naru
All the ancient Buddhas.
By the age of 9, I had quit haiku. By 12, I only wrote free verse. After attending one of Maryland’s earliest STEM high schools, I decided to escape what struck me then (and still does) as the drudgery of college English classes. I earned a mathematics degree: writing verse was not my problem. Calculus was. I still wrote poetry late at night, after crying rivers over algebraic forms, topology, and boys.
But about five years ago, a series of disastrous life events, including the onset of a chronic pain condition, led me back to haiku.
Living with chronic pain has meant struggling to control it before it controls me. For the first few years, I could no longer write for the love of language or story. After spending long days writing for a consulting firm, by night, I was spent. Stress often meant that my pain was totally out of control. Since I’d failed to find relief in online yoga classes and guided meditation, haiku filled a space.
At first, I simply wrote notes on my iPhone. In fact, I still do, having composed one today during an acupuncture session:
Black lab yellow stars
my son watches from heaven
someone send him home
Eventually, I began writing haiku as affirmations of my own life: my strength, my power, my body, my beauty. And I liked the visual created when I superimposed my haiku on photographs that I took. I had found an app called BeFunky that was easy to understand.
At first, I used handsome or striking or beautiful photographs of my own–because who sets out to shoot ugly? When I ran out of images (never syllables, it seemed) I’d ask friends–and, in fact, some began sending me “haikuable” photos. Thus began my life as a haiku artist, creating wordworks that I call haikugram. Low risk, high gain. Here’s one of my first.
My mother, who sculpts in canvas, has a studio at The Torpedo Factory. She and several of her artist friends, who have spent years collaborating, brainstorming, and inspiring one another, have begun to face the central issues of aging: loss, grief, dying. Every so often, she’d send a friend one of my haikugram.
In fact, the best haiku rely on close observations of nature, woven into the most elemental truths of human experience. They are a very short form of verse and are quite challenging to write. Haiku must cut, from the first line or image to the central line, which links two opposing thoughts or images, ideas and moments.
Today, however, the 5-7-5 rule is not so much in force unless one prefers it. As it happens, the Japanese count a phonetic sound called on that approximates English syllabic counts, but not quite. Some English-speaking writers now define haiku as, “A short poem to be recited in one breath.”
(What does one do with a person like Michael Phelps, an Olympic swimmer whose one-breath could outlast the rest of us mere mortals by minutes, not seconds?)
Since writing my haikugram, I’ve found lots to celebrate, mostly an unusual chance to inspire others, and encourage them to write. A long-ago college friend who, like me, has a chronic pain condition, saw my haiku on a creativity website we both follow. He decided to try writing them, and asked me to coach him. Eventually, he added his to photos. Today, his haiku are far better than mine, and often brilliant in their marriage of human and natural experience.
Another friend, a fabulous fiction writer and editor of a large feature magazine, surprised me with news that he, too, is writing haiku. For years, he has been unable to write fiction, overtaken by his work as an editor and teacher. But haiku, which can be written in an hour, or nuzzled around all day in one’s brain, seem manageable. A challenge worth completing.
My most haiku-able moment came when I set out to teach haiku writing during a special event at the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The program, Evenings at the Edge was a chance to celebrate the newly reopened gallery, one that had been my favorite since high school. The night I attended was to volunteer for a group called Split this Rock, a group that aims to get poets more involved in public life and policy, especially by working with the next generation of poets.
In addition to areas designated for spoken word poetry, music, and gallery gazing, a room was set aside for people to write haiku. Haiku were to be written on special cards and then posted on a wall. The rules were that haiku were to be anonymous and could not feature any political commentary. Tough to do in Washington, DC.
I had volunteered to coach others. Many visitors sat down with a sigh, perplexed at what they were to do. When I said, “Haiku, you know, 5-7-5,” their eyes would spark, and they’d say, “Oh, I did that in elementary school!”
Heads would bow and pens, crayons or color pencils would fly across the notecards.
At one point, a handsome young man sat down at the table across from me and, although he remembered the form, could not think of a thing to write. He attributed this to his being “tech minded” and “a computer guy.”
“No excuse,” I teased. “I’ve got a math degree.”
He looked at my graying hair, I know, and smiled.
“Okay, then what I can write about?”
I asked him what he’d seen on his way to the event from his office.
“Snow, icy parking lots, icy roads, lots of traffic,” he said. “It was dark outside, and it was cold, cold, cold. I am ready for spring.”
“Spring,” he said, and looked at his haiku notecard, bowed his head, and began to write. A few moments later, he looked at me and said, “I’ve got something.”
He read, “The brevity of life/A flower blossoms.”
It was a one-breath haiku and it was, I knew immediately, a marvel. And yet I knew if he flipped the two lines, it would be an even greater marvel of a haiku. I asked if he’d try flipping the lines and see how it sounded. So he did, reading it aloud once more.
We were silent.
He looked at me again and said, “I see what you did there. I see what you just did. You and me, we just wrote a haiku.”
“I didn’t write that, you did, I just suggested you reverse the order. That is an amazing haiku. You have to hang it on the wall,” I said. Perhaps I commanded.
“I can’t believe it, I wrote a poem. I did it. You got me to write a poem. I just wrote a haiku. Thank you! Thank you!” He jumped from his seat, joy emanating from him.
I saw what I did there. Did you? I became more than myself by helping someone else become more. That sensation was astonishing, and it carried my spirit for a few weeks. After a long break in which I’ve felt incapable of writing anything at all, I am writing.
Here I am. Do you see what I just did? I am writing.
Please comment. Let me know that you are here, write a haiku. I’ll answer.
KEY WORDS: HAIKU, JAPANESE FORM, ON THE EDGE, SPLIT THIS ROCK, HAIKUGRAM, LIFELONG LEARNER, LIFELONG LEARNING, NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, EAST WING, WASHINGTON, DC