Seeing Into the Heart: Vulnerability in Haiku

This essay was published as the introduction to Lighting a Candle (Two Autumns Press, 2010), the 21st volume in the annual Two Autumns reading series sponsored by the Haiku Poets of Northern California, held on 22 August 2010 in San Francisco. The book celebrates the work of four haiku poets—Roberta Beary, Deborah P Kolodji, Victor Ortiz, and Ebba Story—and I served as its editor. I have added all the epigraphs because of my ongoing interest in their relevance to the subject of vulnerability in haiku, but they did not appear in the book with my original introduction.

 

 

“Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries.” —Theodore Roethke

 

“To describe simple, pure, intense experience requires a drowning of self in the oblivion of language. There can be no self-consciousness. Then the experience comes out of a language that is personal, convincing, and yet absolute.” —Betty Kray

 

“Being small, haiku lend themselves especially to sharing small, intimate things. By recognizing the intimate things that touch us we come to know and appreciate ourselves and our world more. By sharing these things with others we let them into our lives in a very special, personal way.”
—William J. Higginson, The Haiku Handbook

  

“I believe that we don’t share poetry to revel in our differences, but rather to seek comfort
in our similarities.” —paul m., Few Days North Days Few

 

“We open ourselves to people, it seems to me, by reading them a poem. They, in turn, open themselves to us. . . . I think poetry can take the armour that we wear . . . and shatter it. Poetry can connect us with each other as humans as no other art form I know.”
—Wendy Morton, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast


“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” —Brené Brown

 

 

 

燭の火を燭にうつすや春の夕

shoku no hi wo shoku ni utsusu ya haru no yū

 

lighting one candle

with another—

spring twilight

 

                —Buson (1716–1783)

 

What makes us “click” with certain haiku but not others? We’ve undoubtedly had the occasion to read a number of haiku and find that we resonate more with some than with others. This happens, so it seems, simply because we share certain life experiences. We’ve walked the dog’s old route by ourselves after the dog has died, or ordered seed packets for brightly colored flowers in the depth of winter. So when others write haiku about such subjects, we immediately relate. But I think there’s more to clicking with certain poems than just shared experience. If this weren’t the case, why do we resonate with some haiku even when we’ve never had that experience ourselves?

        The reason, I think, might be vulnerability. In a sense, each haiku is an assertive act of becoming vulnerable, for both writer and reader. The best haiku are not necessarily vulnerable in terms of revealing dark personal secrets but in simply saying this is who I am, and this is what happened to me. And perhaps they also ask the reader, has this happened to you? As poets, we routinely trust the image-moments we receive and the reader’s gentle reception of them, but if we go further and make ourselves at least a little bit vulnerable, in our poems, we open ourselves to others, and thereby share a momentary emotional bond. By risking vulnerability, our haiku reveal something about who we are—where we live, what matters to us, where our attentions lie.

        This is true for the reader just as much as it is for the writer, where readers risk vulnerability by opening their own hearts to see into the heart of another. The haiku we read need not be strictly autobiographical, but often they are, and frequently their value lies in how their implied stories connect us to each other. As Margaret McGee put it in her recent book, Haiku—The Sacred Art (Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2009), “When you sincerely try to see into the heart of another object or being, your own heart becomes vulnerable and opens in response” (135). Similarly, in Click: The Magic of Instant Connections (New York: Broadway Books, 2010), authors Ari and Rom Brafman list vulnerability as one of eight “key aspects of clicking” in social relationships. They cite psychologist Sidney Jourard as saying that he “believed that self-disclosure is an essential ingredient in establishing intimacy” (197)—which seems to be one of the unspoken goals of haiku, a poetic act of self-disclosure that creates intimacy and bonding between writer and reader. “There’s power in vulnerability,” they say. “Most of us are reluctant to open up and disclose personal information to others. We fear coming across as needy, unprofessional, or overly emotional. But our willingness to risk being vulnerable can deepen the quality of our relationships and make us more likely to connect with others” (187). Surely the same is true of our haiku poetry, and we see many examples of such intimacy and vulnerability here in this book.

        When Bashō told haiku poets to learn of the pine tree from the pine tree, and of the bamboo from the bamboo, he was telling us, at least in part, to be vulnerable to the subjects of our haiku, and to humble ourselves so that we might learn something, and speak of it authentically. The full teacup cannot receive more tea, so we must empty ourselves, and become vulnerable, in order to receive. Many of the poems in this book are exactly such acts of making oneself vulnerable. Consider, for example, this poem by Roberta Beary:

 

platelets—

the trip we were planning

to plan

 

The illness here is suggested by a single word. We are not told what is happening with these platelets, or whose they are, but we immediately feel the sadness of loss, the cancelling of more than just an anticipated vacation or trip. The poet reveals her loss to us, and thus reveals herself. The sensitive reader is likely to feel compassion and concern. We are able, at least for an instant, to join the poet in crying.

        The vulnerability in haiku need not be sad or negative. We can also be vulnerable in our joy, as in this poem by Deborah P Kolodji:

 

summer quiet

the stars dare me

to count them

 

This moment of hushed contemplation explodes into a feeling of awe and wonder as the poet shares her oneness with the universe—and also with us. If you’ve ever noticed people laughing in a crowd, they often turn their faces to someone nearby, to share their moment of joy. This desire to share that joy is a momentary act of becoming vulnerable to the acceptance of another person.

        The vulnerability of haiku can also be an acceptance of strangeness or ambiguity, which might be the case in this poem by Victor Ortiz:

 

wildflowers

each of them

a different me

 

How can this be true? Simply because we have many different shades to our personality—just as there are many different kinds of wildflowers. The poet recognizes this commonality, and confronts—or accepts—the fact that he himself has bright and delicate colors—as well as, perhaps, thorns and prickles.

        We can see vulnerability in the work of Ebba Story, too—in this case an acceptance of vulnerability brought on by growing older, in addition to the poetic and aesthetic vulnerability of writing haiku itself:

 

tell me

how to grow old

winter moon

 

It is no accident that this is a winter moon—the last season of the year, a season of rest and dying. The poet reveals her condition of growing old, her uncertainty in how to cope. Yet she also reveals a solace found in nature, trusting that perhaps the rabbit-man in the moon, that old sage, has some helpful advice for her. She is willing to accept that advice, whatever it is, and eagerly seeks that advice. She has opened her heart, and we can resonate with her poem if we open our own hearts too.

        Not only are haiku acts of making oneself vulnerable, but when we read a haiku, we recognize and honor that act of vulnerability in others. When we click with a poem, it’s because we have let down our guard, allowing our emotions to be affected, feeling what the poet felt. The poet has dared to hint at what he or she has felt, and thus lights a candle, proudly yet vulnerably, against the imminent dark.