Aha Moments and the Miracle of Haiku

First published in 32:4, Autumn–Winter 2017, pages 33–34. Also published in Blithe Spirit 28:1, February 2018, pages 30–31. Originally written in 2008 and revised in 2017, with a few additional revisions here.

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle.
The other is as though everything is a miracle.” —Albert Einstein

The so-called “aha moment,” also called the “haiku moment,” seems to be greatly misunderstood. Or, perhaps more likely, the term is used in a way that presumes a common understanding even while haiku poets have differing ideas of what it means. Whatever the understanding—or misunderstanding—the notion of the haiku moment needs sorting out.
        Haiku is, first and foremost, poetry. It’s a means of artful expression that communicates from one person to another. The poem begins with an inspiration of some sort. Let’s call that the original “aha moment” or “haiku moment.” This inspiration is not a poem—it is something you experience or realize that may inspire a poem. You then write the poem—and this action may take place either a split second after the inspiration or many decades later (and it completely does not matter which, so long as the experience or memory is vivid—all haiku, after all, are moments of history). The haiku poem you write should not attempt to explain the “aha moment” or “haiku moment” but somehow dwell in that moment or imply the emotions that result. In other words, a good haiku often takes out the most important thing so that it can be implied.

                an old woollen sweater
                     taken yarn by yarn
                          from the snowbank

I don’t say a thing about a bird building a nest in spring, but of course that’s what the poem is about—and precisely why William J. Higginson included it under the spring category of “bird’s nest” in his
Haiku World saijiki (almanac of season words; Kodansha International, 1996).
        So there you are with your finished poem. You share it with others in any of various ways—online, in a magazine, or by reading it aloud. The reader reads the words and “gets” the implication, feeling what you felt. This is what makes haiku miraculous. Intuiting the implication is not unlike the cognitive effect of getting a joke. Thus the reader can experience the realization that you originally experienced—or that you created, which I assert is also acceptable (some readers may object to this last claim, but Bashō heavily revised his poems and pastiched many details, thus there seems to be no valid argument against it).
        So there are perhaps three sorts of “haiku moments”:
  • The original moment of inspiration that motivates the poet to write.
  • The “moment” depicted in the poem.
  • The moment of realization that the reader experiences on reading the finished poem.
References to the “haiku moment” or “aha moment” are often confused as to whether they mean the original inspiration, whatever is presented in the poem itself, or the effect of the finished poem. In a way, the haiku moment is all three, but some people think it’s only one of the three possible options: the moment that inspires the poem, the moment in the poem, or the moment of realization created by the
poem. When they refer to the haiku moment, they may also consider the original inspirational moment to be somehow sacred and that one has to be rigidly “true” to it (we have the excessive association of Zen with haiku to blame for this unhelpful and inaccurate limitation). Authenticity and believability tend to arise if you’re at least mostly true to the inspiration, but who says good haiku has to be limited to this “sacred” sense of inspiration? This is where the “haiku moment” concept becomes a problem, because too many haiku writers may undervalue product relative to process. Consequently, they may fail to do what Bashō and many other master Japanese and Western haiku poets have done in revising their poems to create the best finished product possible. Grant D. Savage comments about this issue in his contribution to the book Deep Breath: A Book of Haiku Evolutions (Lantzville, British Columbia: Leaf Press, 2017, Terry Ann Carter, editor; about revision in haiku). “I’ve come to realize that the ‘haiku moment’ is unimportant,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s the haiku revision of the ‘moment’ that’s important, and often brings the writer and us to a truer moment” (56).
        It therefore seems worthwhile to unfetter oneself from the chains of the so-called “haiku moment.” I do not mean that you should ignore the haiku moment, for it is the very vein of gold that inspires many haiku, and it’s what you want to capture in your haiku—and recreate in the reader (as David Steindl-Rast once said, “A haiku [you read] does not talk about an experience: a haiku triggers an experience—your own”). Rather, you can unfetter yourself from the moment’s chains by using the original haiku moment—the moment of inspiration—as a springboard into writing the finished poem. It’s just a tool, not a sacred and inviolable grail. If you create your haiku well, crafting and revising the poem as necessary, the reader can take the same jump with you, and jump into the same water’s sound. This is the miracle of haiku.