Learning Haiku from Pico Iyer
First published in Frogpond 43:2, Spring/Summer 2020, pages 120–125. A PDF version of this essay is also available on the Haiku Society of America website. Originally written in December of 2019, before the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, but quickly relevant to this global situation. I’ve given this as an online Zoom meeting presentation, during lock-down, for the King County Library System (view on YouTube; this presentation lacks the PowerPoint show I created for later online presentations), the Southern California Haiku Study Group, Haiku Northwest, the Vancouver Haiku Group, the Haiku Poets of the Garden State (New Jersey), the Ohaio-ku Study Group (Ohio), the San Diego Haiku Group (California), the Kiwi-ku Haiku Poets (New Zealand), the Paperbark haiku group in Perth, Australia, the London Haiku Group in England, for the Fringe Myrtles haiku group in Melbourne, Australia (see a report about this meeting), for the Japan Writers Conference, for Haiku Arbutus in Victoria, British Columbia, and elsewhere. I’ve also made a few revisions to the following text since its original publication. The first postscript was included with the original publication in Frogpond, but since then I’ve added “A Few More Nowhere Poems” at the end and a second postscript about the charge of escapism. In a similar vein to Iyer’s book, I also recommend Erling Kagge’s book, Silence in the Age of Noise (Vintage Books, 2018). +
“Stillness is what creates love. Movement is what creates life.
To be still, yet still moving—that is everything!” —Do Hyun Choe
nowhere I have to be . . .
on the tide
Cara Holman, A Hundred Gourds 2:3, June 2013, 11
nowhere I need to be
a cabbage moth flits
among the daylilies
Hannah Mahoney, Acorn 39, Fall 2017, 2
deep autumn . . .
knowing there is nowhere
I have to be
Bill Kenney, Frogpond 35:1, Winter 2012, 22
It would seem that travel writers are always eager to extol the virtues of travel, how it broadens your mind, makes you aware of other points of view, challenges your assumptions about possibly everything, and thus gives you growth. But Pico Iyer is a travel writer who recognizes the value of home, of going nowhere, of how an appreciation for the ordinary, as with haiku poetry, can enhance your daily life. It’s a different kind of growth. As he says, quoting Dorothy from Wizard of Oz, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.”
out of nowhere isn’t
Marlene Mountain, Roadrunner VII:4, November 2007
Timothy Russell, Heron Quarterly 2:2, April 1998
summer i go nowhere twice
Gregory Hopkins, Roadrunner IX:2, May 2009
Many haiku poets know Pico Iyer for his 1991 book The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, about a year spent in Japan. His most recent books, both published by Knopf in 2019, are Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan. In 2017, he published The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (New York: TED Books / Simon & Schuster). It grew out of a 2014 TED talk that you can find online. The book is enhanced by contemplative pictures of oceans, mountains, clouds, and forests. He begins by describing a meeting with Leonard Cohen at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, and tells us that Cohen’s monastery name was Jikan, which means the silence between two thoughts (2). This is the space of “ma” in haiku, the “dreaming room” between the poem’s two juxtaposed parts where the best haiku find their deepest reverberation, much like, as Iyer notes, “the rest in a piece of music that gives it resonance and shape” (53). He also says, “Going nowhere, as Cohen described it, was the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else” (4). Iyer also says, “as Cohen talked about the art of sitting still . . . I observed the sense of attention, kindness, and even delight that seemed to arise out of his life of going nowhere” (5), and that “Going nowhere . . . is not about austerity so much as about coming closer to one’s senses” (6). I think of Mary Oliver, who said, in her prose poem “Yes! No!” (from New and Selected Poems, Volume Two, Boston: Beacon Press, 2005, 151), “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” She also said, in A Poetry Handbook (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994, 106), that poetry “began through the process of seeing, and feeling, and hearing, and smelling, and touching, and then remembering—I mean remembering in words—what these perceptual experiences were like.” That’s haiku. We can practice this sensing, this attention to the ordinary, right at home—nowhere. Home is the realm of haiku, of self care, and Iyer invites us to join “the adventure of going nowhere” (7). Nowhere, he asserts, is “a place of trust” (65). Or, as the Beatles once sang, “Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go.”
the nowhere voices
Ann K. Schwader, The Heron’s Nest 14:2, June 2012
Under the full moon
I will stay nowhere this evening
but beside this pine tree
Buson, W. S. Merwin and Takako Lento, trans., Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson,
Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press 2013, #530, 143
Footprints in the snow
Anita Arita, Modern Haiku 7:3, August 1976, 23
Iyer extends his invitation to writing too: “Writers, of course, are obliged by our professions to spend much of our time nowhere. Our creations come not when we’re out in the world, gathering impressions, but when we’re sitting still, turning those impressions into sentences [or haiku]. Our job, you could say, is to turn, through stillness, a life of movement into art” (21). German diplomat Karlfried Graf Durckheim once said, “A thousand secrets are hidden simply in sitting still.” And as Wordsworth said, poetry is heightened emotion recollected in tranquility. In A Bamboo Broom, Harold G. Henderson described Bashō’s famous old-pond jumping-frog poem by saying that “there must have been external quiet for the sound to have been heard and internal quiet for it to have been noticed” (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1934, 34, emphasis added). Without silence, we cannot have words, and silence precedes utterance, including haiku. As Walter E. Harris put it in Haiku One Breaths (Hauppauge, New York: Allbook Books, 2004, 29), “Considering that one ‘speaks’ on the out-breath (exhale), it is worth contemplating what occurs on the in-breath, which is another way of saying ‘inspiration,’ a word meaning ‘to breath in spirit.’ Thus, if a haiku can be spoken in One Breath (or really, one exhaled breath), the other half is just as important, or it is the silent place before the words are spoken.” As Iyer says, “it’s only when you stop moving that you can be moved in some far deeper way” (22). And yet, in contrast, he adds, “the external environment can too easily be a reflection of—sometimes a catalyst for—an inner one” (33). With practice, we can balance the inner and the outer, and facilitate a pathway for their communication.
walking the tracks
Tom Clausen, Cornell University Mann Library’s Daily Haiku, 25 January 2010
I’m back here in the middle
At least I think so
Jack Kerouac, Book of Haikus, Regina Weinreich, ed., New York: Penguin, 2003, 89
nowhere to go
Renée Owen, Contemporary Haibun Online 5:2, 2009
Iyer proposes that the art of going nowhere can help give you contentment, and when life circumstances might even require us to stay home, we can learn to make the most of it. He quotes Blaise Pascal, who said, “All the unhappiness of men arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber” (41). Earlier he quoted Cohen, who said “Going nowhere . . . isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply” (13). Or, as Abu Sa’id noted, “Take one step away from yourself—and behold!—the Path!” Indeed, Iyer emphasizes that “the ability to gather information, which used to be so crucial, is now far less important than the ability to sift through it” (42).
a down comforter
and nowhere to go
Megan Elizabeth Monish, Mainichi Daily News, March 2010
A dream of
Yoshitomo Abe, World Haiku, 2007, 6
laughing children going
nowhere . . . everywhere
Robert J. Gaurnier, Modern Haiku 31:1, Winter–Spring 2000, 10
Iyer also speaks of taking a “secular Sabbath.” “Doing nothing for a while,” he says, “is one of the hardest things in life” (53), and quotes Emily Dickinson, who wrote, “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church . . . I keep it, staying at Home” (56). He later says, “The point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or mountaintop but to bring that calm into the motion, the commotion of the world” (63). This desire to gather stillness, a kind of belonging, is a goal of haiku, or at least an effect. Ultimately, Pico Iyer concludes as follows (66):
In an age of speed . . . nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.
In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.
And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.
Of course, there’s no such thing as nowhere. Nowhere is effectively a metaphor for any place that may be ordinary or indistinct. Nor do poems about the “nowheres” of our lives need to use the word “nowhere.” Rather, they can celebrate whatever might be ordinary in our homes, our neighbourhoods, our towns, and in every other aspect of our lives. As Kerouac said, “Haiku should be as simple as porridge.” Haiku poets celebrate the ordinary so we are well inclined and even encouraged to go nowhere as often as possible, to recognize the mysticism of the ordinary. Here’s to going nowhere with our lives, at least at times, and to writing haiku about the adventures of the ordinary.
of going nowhere
Deb Baker, The Heron’s Nest 15:2, June 2013, 5
what the hell I’ll take a walk nowhere
Gerard John Conforti, Modern Haiku 38:2, Summer 2007, 16
in the middle of nowhere
making it somewhere
Graham High, Earth, British Haiku Society, 2009
I had the chance to meet Pico Iyer on 25 May 2019 at the Seattle Art Museum, where he gave a reading from his book, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells. We talked for a few minutes about common acquaintances, Kyoto, the fact that my wife is Japanese, and how much I appreciated his Art of Stillness book. When I asked him if he wrote haiku, he laughed and said, “Oh, no—I stopped very quickly when I discovered how difficult it was!”
A Few More Nowhere Poems
Robert MacLean, Wintermoon (2022)
A cloud of bugs
busily going nowhere
in a ray of sun.
James W. Hackett, The Zen Haiku and Other Zen Poems of J.W. Hackett (1983), 73
a kingfisher calls
from out of nowhere
Renée Owen, Modern Haiku 42:2 (summer 2011), 106
I do up my hair
and go nowhere
Masajo Suzuki, Emiko Miyashita and Lee Gurga, trans., Love Haiku (2000)
my concrete footprints
Ernest J. Berry, Getting On (2016)
cold April wind . . .
I watch the snail
Stanford M. Forrester, Haiku Canada Newsletter 16:3
Jody Toya, Modern Haiku 9:3 (Autumn 1978), 45
with nowhere to turn
Christopher Herold, The Heron’s Nest 11:4 (December 2009)
faraway train whistle
the sound of me
Alan S. Bridges, Ephemerae 1A (April 2018)
in the creekbed
Tom Clausen, Upstate Dim Sum 2012/II, 10
standing in the middle of now here
Peter Newton, What We Find (2011)
nowhere to go
nowhere to be
Deborah P Kolodji, Blithe Spirit, 30:2 (May 2020)
One of my online presentations of this essay, using PowerPoint, was for the Japan Writers Conference in October of 2020. In the discussion that followed, Goro Takano raised a pertinent question, which led to a fruitful group exchange. I’ll paraphrase the discussion to ask this question: To what extent is “going nowhere” a form of escapism, and how can escapism be resolved against the pressure of social activism? I agree that haiku need not be all about rainbows and doilies—a sort of escapism. In fact, I would soon tire of poems that were simply perceived as “beautiful” in too narrow or precious a definition. I recently read Mary Ruefle’s “On Secrets,” from her essay collection, Madness, Rack, and Honey (Seattle, Washington: Wave Books, 2012). In it she says “the rose is not beautiful. You think the rose is beautiful. . . . What beauty is is your ability to apprehend it. The ability to apprehend beauty is the human spirit and it is what all such moments are about, which is why such moments occur in places and at times that may strike another as unlikely or inconceivable” (98–99). She adds that “the larger the human spirit, the more it will apprehend beauty in increasingly unlikely and inconceivable situations” (99).
Beauty, obviously, is in the eye of the beholder. But a larger question is whether haiku needs to limit itself to focusing on beauty. Poets may choose to write about whatever they prefer, which could be limited to what they see as being beautiful, but haiku itself needs no such limitations. I immediately think of Bashō’s poem about the horse pissing by his pillow. As James W. Hackett has said, “lifefulness, not beauty, is the real quality of haiku.”
A larger question yet is the danger of escapism. Escape is one of the possibilities that art affords, both for the maker and the consumer, as an antidote to the world’s stresses, but it risks the problems of the ivory tower, the irresponsible disconnectedness of isolation. During the pandemic of 2020, many of us have been forced into isolation, perhaps confronting the value of going nowhere as explored in my essay—written a few months before the pandemic began. Ultimately, I take Pico Iyer’s point to be that it is to our advantage to know or learn how to make the most of going nowhere, whether we have to or not, because it is often while removed from something that we might begin to make sense of it.
You may recall the words of Jesus who urged his disciples to be in the world but not of the world. A key part of that admonition is to remain in the world, and I believe this applies to haiku poets, and indeed all poets—to be aware, not wary, and to be part, not apart. One cannot write of the world without being in the world, and even if one is quarantined, it is the poet’s duty or at least an opportunity to remain connected if he or she wishes to be.
I think too of the notion of “retreat.” We need to recharge ourselves at times, which is why going on a retreat is useful. Think of sabbaticals, vacations, and your garden-variety writing retreat. But “retreat” can also mean to back away, to withdraw and disconnect in possibly negative ways, like an army retreating in failure. Yet even that sort of retreat is a way to save oneself, or as much as possible. I hope my promotion of going nowhere, or seeing the value in that, dwells chiefly in the notion of recharging oneself, connection in balance with useful disconnection, and does not imply the abdication of societal obligations.
We then come to the question of social activism, and its possible role in haiku. In the discussion we had, I mentioned the haiku of John Dunphy, who has frequently written about social issues. Other poets in a similar vein are Marlene Mountain before him and Lori A Minor after him, among others. I am glad that these poets are having their say and saying things that need to be said, whether they are speaking for themselves or speaking for others. But I would also suggest that not everyone has to say such things, in haiku or other poetry. Social activism in poetry, as in life, is a personal choice, and poets are free to engage in such activism to whatever degree they prefer—though I would caution against letting any agenda overshadow the poetry itself, and to avoid preachiness. The power of poetry can be harnessed in many ways, and I don’t think any poet should feel guilty or shamed for not promoting social activism. So, for me, the question really remains on escapism, which is more of a charge to consider than whether haiku or other poetry should engage in social activism.
What is escapism? That’s the question to consider, not just in terms of pandemic lock-downs but the very diversion of poetry itself. Is each haiku a way of pushing the world away, of keeping it at bay, because by naming an experience one somehow controls it? To return to Mary Ruefle, I believe she has an answer. She says, “An expansion takes place [when reading poetry], the hearer is made to feel human, alive; he feels as though the teller’s being were his own, and so experiences a change of being where that which is inside himself takes on the proportions of that which is outside himself” (100). This is a description of connection and empathy, and a benefit of connection and empathy can be empowerment.
I’d like to conclude, therefore, by saying that the best haiku are the very opposite of escapism. Instead, they recognize the full range of outward experience, and the full range of inner emotional or intellectual response, combining both the inner and outer through a charged verbal empathy. To quote Harold G. Henderson again, in describing Bashō’s old-pond poem, “there must have been external quiet for the sound to have been heard and internal quiet for it to have been noticed.” This is the soul of what attracts me to haiku, a poetry of connection and sharing. Haiku is not escapism but realism, not avoidance but engagement, not cowardice but bravery, a bravery so potentially intense that it can crumble mountains.
—18, 19 October 2020 (see also “Beauty in Haiku”)