I began to write poetry for the first time a few months ago. I have been able, at times, to express myself more than in the past. But I barely understood what haiku is until I read The Art of Haiku 2000 by Gerald England (Ackworth Born). This slim book is a compilation of fourteen articles that England commissioned from poets. The topics range from the history of Japanese poetry to the form of haiku to, of all things, science education. Each article is followed by beautiful examples of what was discussed. This book has become my reference book for haiku and other forms of Japanese poetry such as senryu, tanka and haibun.
Geoffrey Daniel, in his essay "Unfreezing the Moment" in The Art of Haiku, quotes The Haiku Society of America when he writes that haiku records "the essence of a moment keenly perceived." The Haiku Society defines haiku as "a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition."
I observe nature every day at my home in northern Vermont, which brings pleasure and companionship to my life. You must be a patient observer of nature in order to see. You must also be a slow reader, and re-reader, of haiku in order to feel. Nature is lonely and often sad — as is haiku. This sadness of haiku has a name: sabi — "the lonely quality which each thing has in its singular existence when observed from a state of detachment." This quality of haiku has attracted me as I try to express with poetry my loneliness, sadness and pleasures. According to Jean Kahler, haiku describes a moment in nature — a "fleeting image" that celebrates "the importance of a tiny bit of the universe." This is familiar to me because of Emerson's and Thoreau's essays on nature that are so important in the history and culture of New England. The Buddhists may have begun writing haiku but I know that Emerson would have enjoyed and understood them.
The rules of haiku are both simple and complex: you must have the correct number of syllables, proper punctuation, kireji (or "cutting word") and seasonal words. There are special dictionaries of seasonal words called "saijiki" for poets to reference. While looking for an online saijiki, I found that many people are making regional seasonal dictionaries. I found them for Europe, India, Japan, the North American prairie and Alaska. I was unable to find a saijiki for New England, which was disappointing. I have been considering beginning one and asking other New Englanders to contribute as they observe the seasons pass. (Cherry blossoms are a seasonal word for spring for us in northern Vermon as in Japan. The wild cherry trees began to blossom this past week, as you can see in the photo for this post.) Observation is not just the hallmark of haiku. It is the hallmark, also, of science. I finally understand how the simple observation of nature and the simple writing of haiku can express the deep and complex emotions of our lives.
I urge any person who wants to understand haiku to buy The Art of Haiku, mark it with notes thoroughly and use it constantly for reference. Then go outside and observe the gift we have all been given.
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