Talk for ukiaHaiku Festival
May 1, 2005
Thank you for inviting me to participate in this event today. It has been so inspiring to hear all of these excellent haiku and to meet their authors.
Before I begin I would like to say a few words on the importance of haiku. Ever since Western Poetry, that is poetry written by persons in Europe and America, abandoned the form of the sonnet, and then the ballad, to develop “free verse” or a poem that has no form shared by others, there has been a huge blossoming of poetry. By not having any set form, people who never would have thought of themselves as poets, suddenly had the freedom to write what they call “a poem.”
I believe this was a good thing for poetry and for the people. Look at the abundance of poetry readings and especially of web sites for poetry and just be thankful. However, as more free verse poetry pours out around us, its very freedom makes some of us want to also have a form, a fence, a plan for our poetry. Here comes haiku.
But with it came several problems. The largest one was its smallness. Poets who admired the book-length poems of the Europeans, decided you could not get poetry into just three short lines and declared haiku as a non-poetry form. This happened about 100 years ago and a lot of people have still not yet gotten this idea out of their heads.
Even as late as the 1980s “authorities” declared that haiku were NOT poetry, and many poets believed them and still do.
So I warn you, if you become a haiku writer, many poets will find you not fit to invite you to read for them, be in their anthologies, or even sit at the same table with them. Be prepared to be ostracized, shut out, laughed at, and to become invisible as poet. Not only will you be treated as if you are the member of a minority group, you will also be in the minority. But this is good.
This is good because you are already on the spot where the other, and much better known poets, will have to go. This is because, by learning how to write haiku you are learning about the very heart of poetry. The paradox is how easy it to write a haiku and yet how very hard it can be to write a very good one.
I know, sometimes they seem to drift down with the ease of snowflakes falling on your tongue and other times you can struggle with the wording of one for haiku years. I know because I still have not properly written about the very first time I felt a haiku.
At the time, 1967, I was living in the Sierra foothills and had gone to SF to pick up a load of clay. It was too late to drive back that night so I found a bookstore and hung out there until it closed. In order not to appear to be free-loading I bought the cheapest book off of a close-out counter, more for its small price than its small poems. Yes, it was a book of haiku – translations of the Japanese masters: Basho, Busom and Issa. And yes I was instantly charmed by them. But at the time I was studying the poetry of Robinson Jeffers and William Everson and I thought that only this was real poetry – the kind of poetry I wanted to write.
Then one day, as I was sitting at my newest kick wheel, still outdoors under a big pine tree, just as I was pulling up the clay, you know that magical moment when the clay takes on a life of its own and begins to grow upward under your fingers, tickling your palms, just at that moment, a mocking bird began trilling a clear and incredible song (as they do in the spring when announcing their territory). It was if the sound of the song entered my ears, traveled down my neck, dropped through my arms and flowed out my fingers so that it was the bird’s song that made the pot rise up and take on a form.
About ten years later I learned that one called such experiences a “haiku moment.” I also learned that some people felt that having such an experience would be the basis for the very best haiku. Unfortunately, all the many, many haiku I have written about my first haiku moment have failed to be good haiku. There are many reasons for this.
First of all, I did not think that I, as a non-Japanese could write a haiku. I know I wrote down words in three lines in my notebook and I definitely knew that what I had experienced was the exact kind of inspiration that occurred in haiku, but I refused to think of it as haiku. It was like stealing someone else’s candy bar and making it mine by eating it. I was thrilled with the idea that by reading of the haiku of other people I could come to a new way of experiencing my own life, but I truly thought I had no right to imitate someone else’s poetry.
This feeling is one that is shared by almost every poet who comes into contact with haiku. Poets will read the translations of the Japanese masters, but refuse to write haiku. They may imitate parts of the form, as by putting their own free verse into three lines, or by writing or even writing about nature, but they do not study the form enough to write a “proper” haiku.
Therefore you have taken steps that 90% of the poets now writing have been unable to take – to study and to WRITE haiku.
Again there is another paradox with haiku. It needs a lot of rules. A lot more rules than such a short form should even need. Many of you are still working with the 5,7,5 rule and if I had more time I would love to help you get over that threshold. But if I did that I would load you up with even more rules. And I encourage you, since you have made such prize-winning beginnings with haiku, that you stick with the form and learn all you can about it. Good luck. I started writing forty years ago and I am still learning, still revising my work, still trying to make it better.
Because there are so many rules, luckily no one can follow them all, so we are forced to pick the ones we do follow. Having read the haiku for the section I judged, it was clear to me, who had adopted which rules to follow. Rules are not a bad thing, especially when you get to pick them. And I do encourage you study all the rules (they are in my book and on my web site) and pick a set for you to try to follow. The good thing is that when you really good at following any rule, you will become bored with the poems that result and will pick another one and the form will be fresh and new to you.
Because we are all following a different set of rules, haiku can be very different. You have experienced that here today. And the form can be even more elastic, expanding to contain the silliest jokes to the deepest almost religious enlightenment. You see, haiku are truly the heart of poetry and therefore they can be the seed of any poem.
This is a reason haiku is taught in the schools. And haiku should be studied as the first introduction to poetry. But what I would like to impress upon you is the idea that you need not outgrow haiku. As you grow up, haiku will grow up with you, become complicated enough to entertain you until your hair turns white.
Now comes the courage part. To stay with haiku is to earn you the disrespect of poets and the poetry mainstream. To them haiku is too simple (because they have not studied it enough to even write a good one), too child-like, and yet as poets we need to become like children, still filled with the wonder of the universe.
Western poetry is to often a teaching of one’s philosophy of life or built around the poets’ feelings. And that is the most fun stuff to work with. We love our feelings, we delight in letting others know how we feel, and we find our feelings very, very important. The problem with building poetry completely on feelings, is that they are our very own. Perhaps a poem may touch someone who has had similar experiences, but no one can duplicate the description of another’s feelings.
Haiku bypasses this pitfall. By putting into the poem mostly images of things, without description, the reader is given the material to evoke a feeling but is not bound to follow the author’s feelings. Do not go to sleep on me at this point, because here is the crux and secret of Japanese poetry.
By using the names of things, and especially the images of nature (and this includes human nature as well as nature-nature), you are aligning your poem with the eternal the everlasting, the world of nature. Our feelings are fleeting. In fact you cannot hold on to any emotion very long, even if you write a poem about it. So the poetry that will last is the poetry built on everlasting images. Notice the popularity of Basho’s poems, now over 400 years old and teaching us new things with every translation. How much 400 year old Western Poetry are you studying or even reading? If you do read Shakespeare’s sonnets you will notice that the poems that survived are the ones filled with the images of things.
Writing poetry is the art of being exact. And nothing teaches you this faster than haiku. When you have so less words to work with, you must make every effort to make each word count and therefore poetry IS the choosing of the best words for the deepest feelings.
Maybe this is the best place to end this speech. And it has been a lot harder to make a short one. Three hours would have allowed me to make a proper beginning. Saving you that on such a lovely day, I do want to encourage you to stick with haiku. You have proven you have a talent for it. Do not throw away this gift because it may have seemed to be easy for you. I would wish that you would delve deeper into the form. Study its beginnings, read how it has developed, listen to what people are doing with it. You can make a difference! The form is still evolving in English, and all the non-Japanese languages, and you can make a difference in what it becomes by sticking with the form. As you continue to write haiku, continue to evolve yourself, you will, in this process, change the form. Haiku is just beginning to be recognized as a valid poetry form, and you are here on the ground floor. Whatever the genre becomes it will become what those of us today are writing. Each haiku, like a drop of water, becomes the sea of haiku literature. Through our eyes and ears, come the images of our world. They pass through the nets of our hearts and are offered up on the plates of pages of ink or monitor screens for others. I wish you well and many haiku in your lives! Blessed be!