Defining Moments

First published in Haiku Canada Review 16:1, February 2022, pages 4–7. Originally written in May of 2020 as a postscript to my essay “A Haiku Writer’s Time: Learning from Kenneth Atchity.” Expanded and revised in September of 2020 and in August and December of 2021. See also “Aha Moments and the Miracle of Haiku,” “Taking a Bite: The Haiku McMoment,” and “A Moment in the Sun: When Is a Haiku?"

“By the time a thing is

  noticed, it has happened.”

—Kay Ryan


“When you write you do not know whether you are obeying the moment or eternity.”

—Edmond Jabès


“This spectacular thing, the dream of all poetry, to cut a hole in time.”

—Mary Ruefle


“Wonder is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart.

  Even a tiny piece of it can stop time.”

—Diane Ackerman


In his book In Praise of Wasting Time (New York: TED Books/Simon & Schuster, 2018), Alan Lightman writes a chapter on “Chronos and Kairos.” He defines these terms from ancient Greece in ways that may be relevant to writers of haiku. “Chronos is clock time,” he says, “quantitative time . . . sequential time . . . relentless time” (73). In contrast, kairos “is time created by events,” and he says that “Kairos time is forever. It is the time of memory. It is the time of being” (73). Or as Frank Kermode wrote in his epilogue to The Sense of an Ending (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1967, 2000), “within human time one can distinguish between the chronos of mere successiveness and the kairos of high days and holidays, times or seasons that stand out (red-letter days, as one used to say) as belonging to a different temporal order” (192). It would seem, in fact, that haiku poets seek kairos time amid chronos time. A haiku may look like it is recording chronos time, but its deeper goal is to discover, uncover, or at least to suggest kairos, that different temporal order that infuses the best haiku with transcendence. Haiku seeks to capture quotidian moments of chronos time, to be sure, but what the poem releases is kairos time—the eternal, the momentous. As Thoreau said, “Now or never! You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” Or as Edward Hirsch put it in The Demon and the Angel: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration (Orlando, Florida: Harvest/Harcourt, 2002, 163), “The epiphanic experience ruptures time.” Or, more gently, as Bob Dylan once said, “The purpose of art is to stop time.” And as Charles Simic said, narrowing the focus, “The secret ambition of all lyric poetry is to stop time.” And to narrow the focus even further, so too of haiku, releasing the timeless.


         first snow . . .

         the children’s hangers

         clatter in the closet


     Additional thoughts on this topic may be found in The Postman’s Round (Toronto: The Dundurn Group, 2005, translated from the French by Liedewy Hawke, 2008; republished as The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman, London: Oneworld, 2017). In this magical novel by Denis Thériault, in which haiku figures prominently, its readers are reminded that “haiku sought to juxtapose the permanent and the ephemeral” (45). Using Japanese terms, Thériault’s protagonist explains that haiku seeks “the delicate balance between fueki—the permanent, eternity extending beyond us—and ryuko—the fleeting, the ephemeral that passes through us” (46). These terms have also been described as immutability and fluidity, or as constancy and change. In many ways, chronos time equates to ryuko, kairos to fueki, and haiku is a marriage of both. It takes a moment to notice haiku, as both writer and reader, but in haiku a moment’s notice is noticing more than just the moment.


         first star—

         a seashell held

         to my baby’s ear


     The dictionary defines kairos as “a propitious moment for decision or action.” A defining moment. Haiku poets present moments of time, moments of heightened awareness. They may not be highlighting instances of decision or action but simply isness or suchness—the fleeting and ephemeral. And yet, aren’t such moments in haiku also moments of decision or taking action? On one level, haiku poets decide to appreciate the ordinariness of each moment, recognizing that certain moments may well be as propitious as others. And yet, the dictionary definition does not say kairos is a moment of decision but a moment for decision—a moment at which one could or perhaps should make a decision. So, on another level, the moment in the poem, as with every moment in life, can be a moment of choice. When another player passes a soccer ball to you in front of the net, you may have one propitious moment to swing your foot to score a goal. That’s a sort of kairos time, made even more momentous if the score is tied and a championship game is in its last minute of overtime play. But the haiku poet recognizes the subtler moments before and after as being equally momentous, of having a different kind of value—the way the ball rolls on freshly cut grass, or the way a waning sun angling through the bleachers catches that part of the playing field. And through each instant in time lies a path to the timeless, if the haiku poet can find it. In How to Write a Haiku (n.p.: Verborum Editions, 2016, 37), David Lindley says, “We might in fact redefine the haiku as the art of recognising the universal in the particular, of apprehending something enduring at the centre of transitory experience.”


         first frost . . .

         the downy woodpecker

         stops a moment


     Rather than being moments of here and now, though presented as such, haiku poems are more accurately understood as moments of history, as I’ve explored in my essay, “Haiku as History: The Ultimate Short Story” (Modern Haiku, 1998). All haiku are moments from the past (even if very recent) presented as if in the present. The idea is that haiku offers these moments on silver platters, claiming that they matter, each one brimming with “existential gratitude,” as Billy Collins has described haiku. Or as Carl Jung once wrote, “If our religion is based on wonder, our chief emotion will be gratitude.” In this way, haiku can convert chronos time to kairos time, balancing ryuko with fueki, deepening our gratitude for the momentous value of highlighted events in ordinary life, moving them from the timely to the timeless, asserting that all moments are defining moments.