Why I Write Haiku: Because It’s There

First published in Blithe Spirit 30:1, February 2020, pages 24–26. Originally written in May and September of 2019.

Mountain climber George Mallory was once asked why he climbed mountains, and famously replied, “Because they’re there.” Mallory was a national hero in England for his attempt in 1924 to be the first to summit Mt. Everest. He died less than 250 metres from the summit, and his body was not found until 1999. We may not pay the same price for writing haiku, but we often write them for the same reason—because they’re there. For me, though, it’s nice to think that there’s more to it, just as many mountain climbers have grappled in detail with the mystery of why they climb mountains.

                silently I add
                a hallelujah . . .
                first snow

       
                        Gift of Silence: A Haiku Tribute to Leonard Cohen, Ottawa, Ontario: Éditions des petits nuages, 2018

        For one thing, it helps to be wired to write poetry, as I was even as a child—perhaps being named after Dylan Thomas had something to do with that. And being wired for short poetry surely contributes—I immediately gravitated towards haiku when I learned about it in high school (thank you, Mr. Goodburn—you have no idea what you started). Some people, obviously, are more wired for haiku than others. But beyond having predispositions like this, I think haiku also walks hand in hand with an appreciation for the outdoors and its changing seasons, and with caring for the environment. And perhaps above all it fits a desire to pay attention—not just to one’s experiences but how one feels in reaction to them. This sensitivity gives you power to convey your emotions by withholding them from the presentation of each experience—don’t write about your feelings, write about what caused them. In his 1934 book, A Bamboo Broom, Harold G. Henderson wrote of Bashō’s “old pond” poem that “there must have been external quiet for the sound to have been heard and internal quiet for it to have been noticed strongly enough to make Bashō compose a poem about it” (page 34; emphasis added). I like how haiku helps to cultivate this sort of inner and outer attention, which comes, I believe, from an inner and outer stillness. It’s a sort of meditation, a taking stock of oneself as well as one’s surroundings. You can’t hear if you’re not quiet.

                      the silence between us
                a quail finds its way
                   through the underbrush

                               
Modern Haiku
32:1, Winter–Spring 2001

        Another motivation to write haiku is to share them. This includes reading what others have written so you can celebrate or honour what they’ve experienced (it’s only secondary that you might also learn how to write haiku better by repeated exposure to poets of varying skill levels). In the first paragraph of The Haiku Handbook, William J. Higginson wrote that the reason to write haiku is to share them. By sharing our haiku, we are momentarily vulnerable, and it’s worthwhile to revere the vulnerability in the poets we read in addition to accepting our own vulnerability. By taking this leap, that vulnerability often resolves into “Oh, I’ve experienced that—I’ve had the same thing happen to me.” Thus, we bond for a moment—a haiku moment—through shared revelation. Haiku poems validate our human existence and sharing them deepens that validation. In her poem “Vinegar and Oil,” Jane Hirshfield once wrote, “How fragile we are, between the few good moments.” So true, but I think we’re fragile, at least potentially, in all our haiku moments. It’s a fragility that’s worth embracing.

                first day of school—
                I eat my buckwheat pancakes
                in silence

       
                        Snapshots
7, 2000

        An extension of the virtue of sharing our haiku is the many benefits of the haiku community, which is more tightly knit around the world than any other group I participate in or can even imagine. I get the sense that I could enjoy a coffee or a dinner with practically every haiku poet I know around the world, and even those I don’t know (if you’re ever visiting Seattle, let me know—we have superb coffee, as you might have heard, even though I’m not a coffee drinker myself). This global community, with its characters of many colours, adds to my personal fascination with haiku and related poetry (and yes, all those side-shoots are an attraction too—senryu, tanka, haibun, haiga, shahai, renku, rengay, and more).

                snow falling
                after the funeral
                a deeper silence

       
                        Gift of Silence: A Haiku Tribute to Leonard Cohen, Ottawa, Ontario: Éditions des petits nuages, 2018

        Haiku is also fun. It’s an amusement and a creative outlet to play with haiku, to toy with words and the feelings or ideas they can convey, and to have other people enjoy your discoveries—just as you enjoy theirs. And yet, haiku is at once both easy and hard. One motivation to write haiku is its challenge. For such a simple and short genre of poetry, haiku never ceases to amaze me with its capacity for challenge. As a reader, I see poems that may mystify me, but if I stick with many of them, I might reach an understanding—or at least a feeling. As a writer, I can come up with half of a haiku reliably, starting with the seed of an experience, but even after nearly forty-five years at this artform, finding the right juxtaposition is still the hardest task, to help that seed truly germinate and flower. One wants to avoid the obvious, the facile, yet also avoid what’s too personal or private. It’s easy to settle for what comes to you too immediately, such as the obvious metaphorical setting for an experience, but it’s endlessly hard to push oneself and one’s poem, to think of something better that might improve the writing—finding the poem’s second wind, exploring the fullness of what Richard Hugo called the “triggering town” of poetry. The challenge isn’t necessarily to “make it new,” as some people proselytize, but, as Jane Hirshfield put it, to “make it yours.” That’s hard. How do I make each haiku mine? The point is not just to value self-expression but to explore the nuances of trusting your own voice and being true to yourself, even if the challenge is endlessly difficult, like putting one foot in front of the other until you reach the summit of the tallest mountain on earth.
        Ultimately, why do I write haiku? Because it’s there.