Thursday, July 12, 2012

Life in Seventeen Syllables

Browsing through the vacation cottage’s bookshelves, I pulled out Robert Hass’s The Essential Haiku like attending yet another reunion. There were my old friends Basho, Buson and Issa and some of their familiar memorable poems about frogs, butterflies and fleas. Such a pleasure to remember this poignant and powerful poetic form, the Japanese haiku.

I first encountered haiku in some thin hardcover books in late high school (was that the Pauper Press?) and was immediately intrigued. Soon after, I found R.H. Blyth’s volumes with more detailed information and commentary on their Zen Buddhist background. When I moved to San Francisco and lived with my sister and brother-in-law, all three of us had begun a Zen practice and developed a passion for miso soup, samurai movies and haiku. Sometimes while walking through the city streets or Golden Gate Park, we would have “haiku contests.” No winners or prizes, but just the pleasure of attending to the world a different way and sharing it with your companions.

Sometime later, while camping with the SF School 3rd, 4th and 5th graders each year in Calaveras Big Trees, I initiated the haiku walk. The rules were that we had to walk in silence for a set period of time, armed with pencils and a pad of paper. The point was not to make up a poem out of your imagination, but attend to the world with all your senses. Listen, look, smell, touch, taste, take a snapshot of a moment and then capture it in words. Small was beautiful, no need for big epiphanies or dramatic feelings, simply notice something simple—the wind in the pines, the smell of the Mountain Misery plant, the cracking of twigs under hiking boots. No need to insert “I” into the occasion, but simply be the “eye” the sees and reports and brings the reader by your side to enjoy the scene.

And if you could follow the old Japanese structure of 17 syllables—5 in the first line, 7 in the next, 5 in the last, well, good for you. But since this structure evolved for the Japanese language, it didn’t necessarily make sense in English. Especially when translating haiku. R. H. Blyth felt this way, translating Basho’s famous poem to an 8-syllable reduction:

The old pond.
A frog jumps in.

Early in his career, my colleague James Harding worked in a school where the teacher was teaching haiku. One of the young students was thrilled when he “found” a haiku!

Frosty the snowman
was a jolly, happy soul.
with a corncob pipe.

Hmm. A case of mistaking structure for substance. Haiku typically have a seasonable reference and a sense of movement in the still image, a tension that leads to, or implies a punch line. The splash of Basho’s frog, Buson’s “butterfly asleep on the temple bell,” Issa’s “the man pulling radishes pointed my way—with a radish.” And one of my favorites: “The snail crawls two feet—and the day is over.” (Well, I guess you can make a case for a seasonal reference in Frosty and the corncob pipe as an intriguing movement in the image—Frosty’s smoking? Maybe that poem is better than I thought.)

So this morning, I had haiku on my mind and that’s all it takes for them to appear. And contradicting my own feeling that we needn’t feel confined by the structure, I did find the 17-syllable challenge intriguing. Like 12-bar blues or sonnet form, prepared forms and structures often sharpen the creative mind and aid rather than hinder the imagination. So below are four (are you counting syllables?) from my morning ramble down the beach and up the dune with my brother-in-law’s dog.

Footprints in the sand.                                  The morning lake sings
Early morning walk reading                         in whispers, then wind-whips to
yesterday’s stories.                                        an afternoon roar.

Bounding down the dune,                              Sand-covered, the dog
the dog pauses— and waits for                      washes in the lake, then rolls
his aging master.                                            again in the sand.


  1. I loves those haiku walks. A nice reminder to invite some haiku back into my life. My English grandma, who passed on a few years ago, very much enjoyed writing haiku.

    One that I always liked from Calaberas, I think it was by Marcus Davies went:

    Too many flies, say the people
    Not enough people, say the flies

    1. Typos writing on a small phone with a sleeping 7 month old in arms... Where I read most of your blog posts :)


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