Blink of an eye / ideas and people connect / in haiku

The following article appeared in the Press-Enterprise, Sunday, December 6, 2015.

When my grandmother’s hearing had grown too poor for the telephone, we started exchanging letters. Once a month—on the same day as the Edison bill—I’d receive a handwritten letter, pressed firmly with a retired schoolteacher’s perfect cursive, yellowed paper cut neatly from the same ancient notebook. Family gossip, news of my father, the weather back east, details of her various ailments.

She’d close every letter with a haiku. It was both a hobby of hers, and a nod to my odd profession. Her last was probably her best:

snow-covered sundial
waiting
to tell time again

I imagined her as the sundial, snowed in by age, her bed long-since moved to the living room so she wouldn’t have to negotiate the stairs, waiting patiently for whatever spring might come in whatever existence might come next.

When I had a moment, I’d tap out a hasty reply, glancing out at the palm trees on Ventura Boulevard from my office window, and close with a responding haiku.

it’s December too
in California
the crickets shout!

There was a joy to the haiku that I’ve only recently come to understand. Easy to write but impossible to master, they never grow old. You can write them in the car stuck in traffic, or plop them easily at the end of a newspaper article. Haiku are so simple they can be simultaneously silly and profound, and that contrast has kept them fresh for centuries.

Most often my grandmother’s haiku would offer a shift in mood, adding levity or perspective or clarity to the information that the letter had shared.

lost my other shoe—
now even the right
isn’t left

Almost a decade later, I still remember many of them fondly, and they always embody my grandmother’s quietly sarcastic personality.

More recently, I interviewed Richard Gilbert, a haiku scholar at Kumamoto University in Japan. He described with great enthusiasm the beloved space haiku holds within Japanese culture. With a total population of 130 million, it’s estimated that 12 million attend a regular haiku group. Witty celebrities compose haiku-like senryu live on TV.

Haiku itself descends from a party game, so it should be no surprise that they’re fun to write. At the kukai, as it was called, friends would gather around a bottle of saké, taking turns composing lines on a chosen topic. Class boundaries and social conventions dissolved as participants adopted pen names, many of them humorous. Bashō was named after the banana tree outside of his hut.

Listening to Gilbert tell it, haiku as a social act sounds like so much fun that I can’t help wishing we made it a part of our culture in the West. An outlet for playfulness and creativity and face-to-face interaction, haiku embody much of what we seem to be lacking in the age of smartphones and Facebook.

So let’s start now. Why not cap off your annual holiday letter with a summary haiku? Turn a family dinner into your own kukai, composing short poems about the season.

Before you start, it’s important to know what haiku are and what they aren’t. No other form of poetry is so misunderstood. Haiku are not three-line poems of five, then seven, then five syllables. Counting syllables doesn’t make any sense in Japanese, which is divided into units of time and not sound. You can think of traditional haiku as three lines that are short, then long, then short in duration, but even that generality isn’t an important rule in modern haiku.

The heart of a haiku is really the kireji, the cutting word, which is almost a form of punctuation that divides the poem in two. In English we might use a dash or colon—this division separates the first image from the last, creating a comparison that can be evocative or uncanny. The best example is Bashō’s famous frog:

old pond—
frog jumps in
the sound of water

That dash is the kireji, and it signifies a complete cut in time and space. The haiku presents one image, an old pond, and then another isolated image, the frog jumping into the sound of water. How the two images relate to each other is left up to the reader—and it’s that interactive, connective leap that stirs our thoughts and emotions. This is one of the many things Bashō meant when he said, haiku jiyu, or “Haiku is for freedom.”

Much more goes into classical haiku, but this is all you need to know to write decent modern haiku in English. Don’t count syllables, just count images or ideas: There should be two.

watching football
my keyboard
almost silent

To learn more about the history of haiku, you can find my interview with Richard Gilbert in issue #47 of Rattle, or read his translations of contemporary Japanese haiku poets at his website.

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