Why Haiku

February 12, 2024

The question has come up a number of times, so I thought a good first blog post for this website would be to talk about haiku. As the book explains, haiku is a literary poetic art form that originated in Japan and Matsuo Basho is considered one of the most creative and founding thinkers on haiku. I did spend many years in Japan, 18 to be exact, but I am by no means a haiku expert.

The thing I like about haiku is that it is a form of poetry, it can be very creative by using many different forms of figurative language, and it’s very structured given the syllabic constraints. Poetry can often feel so cerebral and overwhelming; only for very widely read literature enthusiasts. That can be quite intimidating to the rest of us mere mortals who just like reading, on occasion, or maybe not at all. I’m thinking of several former students with the latter.

Haiku also forces one to use language to hone in on something very specific so that there’s not the option of being too wordy. Being able to consolidate your thoughts on any given topic down to a total of 17 syllables is a bit tricky. While it is true that haiku is typically written about something connected with nature, it doesn’t necessarily have to be so. I know there are a lot of opinions about haiku and they can become quite esoteric. For my purposes, however, I’ve used haiku to write something specific, in the moment, staying present to what is, now. In doing that, I have created a memory that I can go back to and it still feels like right now. Like smelling rose scented lotion brings me back to my grandmother’s embrace.

I taught English in Japan for 18 years and English language learners in the US public education system for an additional 16 years, and one super fun summer in China! Whenever we broached the subject of poetry, there was immediate panic on the part of my students, none of whom were native English speakers. Groans and ‘why do we have to do this?’ laments rose to the heavens.

In Japan, I told them we’re going to use your own poetic format to start; the haiku. They didn’t like that idea. Haiku are designed to be written in Japanese, not English, everyone knows that, don’t be stupid. Yes of course, they were right, but what a great way to teach syllables in English for Japanese speakers. For all of the other language learners, I was met with a great deal of skepticism. However, in time, every student was able to write a haiku. I cannot begin to tell you the joy on their faces when they realized that they had indeed written their very first poem in English! If they could conquer poetry in English, nothing could stop them now! When I first began writing haiku on our canoe trips, it really was to stop worrying about how to take a photograph of something, or some other anxiety ridden thought loop I could not seem to cut, and instead, stay present and in the moment of the beauty I was witnessing. I would count out syllables on my paddle, trying to get just the right words to capture the moment in time I was experiencing. Something in me changed in that process. The paddles were long, the repetition helpful, so by the time I was snuggled up in our tent, the haiku flowed onto the paper and I was out forthe night.

Even though time has passed, I sense everything just as it was the moment that haiku came to me. That’s the most interesting thing about the power of haiku and the value of staying connected to the present moment. Our words matter, our stopping, breathing, and taking in the present moments, matter.

I still get carried away with fear and anxiety surrounding a host of things which are far beyond my control. I am not a Zen master, not by a long shot. However, I did learn a little about haiku and the gift of using language in a way that helps me to remember in a poignant way and yet, stay present.