Haiku That Changed My Life

First published on the Haiku Foundation blog on 14 September 2013. Originally written in August of 2013, with updates in October of 2014 and May of 2016.

On being posed the question, “show me a haiku that changed your life,” I can’t say that it’s possible for me to narrow it down to a single haiku. I first started writing haiku fairly regularly in 1976, when I learned about this poetry in high school. I wrote perfect 5-7-5 haiku, all with glorious titles, for nearly a dozen years. Then, in July of 1987 I bought my first haiku book (a minimalist Lucien Stryk translation of Bashō) and began buying other books of and about haiku. In November of that year I got a copy of the second edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology. This book, more than any other, confronted me with my naïve presumption that haiku in English was supposed to be 5-7-5 syllables. If I could point to one poet who flew in the face of the 5-7-5 straitjacket, it was Marlene Mountain. Her visual work was especially confronting—in an inspirational and invigorating way. Together with Cor’s “tundra” and other visual/aural poems in this anthology, what most radically shifted my sense of haiku was the general fact that nearly 90 percent of the poems were not 5-7-5 (yes, I counted). That, I think, changed my poetic life. But again, I don’t think I could point to a single poem that changed my life.

        The larger point here is that haiku has more range than many of us might at first believe. This idea is central to the idea of “targets” for haiku rather than rules. Haiku has many possible targets, 5-7-5 being one of them, if one so chooses—although the syllable-counting target is one that comes at a cost because it produces a longer poem than the seventeen sounds counted in Japanese. A given haiku might not hit the season-word target (by accident or on purpose), or might not hit the cutting word or juxtaposition target, and so on, but if a poem hits a preponderance of possible targets, then it can succeed as a haiku, or at least be a haiku. There’s a point where a poem goes too far and is no longer a haiku, and each of us will draw that line where we will. But the general point holds up, I believe, that the difference between haiku and not-haiku is whether a poem hits a preponderance of possible targets for the genre. Beyond a certain point, a poem might evoke a haiku sensibility, or beg to be considered as poetry in relation to haiku, but there simply has to be a point somewhere on the continuum where a poem is no longer haiku. As we learn more varieties and approaches to haiku, we may add new targets to the various possibilities, and thus the threshold point may shift. Also relevant is how territorial or proprietary we want to be in saying “this is haiku” and “this is not haiku,” but the first perceptions most people have of haiku are necessarily narrow—or in some cases exceedingly broad. Exploring the possible targets for haiku is a process of expanding our reading and writing experience, of encountering the strange and uncomfortable. Those encounters don’t stop after one gets past the urban myth of 5-7-5. In this context, I suppose that any poem that one encounters along the way has the potential to change one’s life if it changes the way one draws the haiku map.

        We can become addicted to edge haiku, though, and forget that they’re just the edges. Such poems that “change your life” do indeed tend to be on the fringes, the way Cor’s “tundra” is a fringe haiku—and one that changed my life. It’s a poem I dearly love but would not use as a central model for teaching haiku. So, not to be neglected among “boundary” haiku that might change one’s life are more centrist haiku that might not have changed anyone’s lives but are still dearly loved for aesthetic or personal reasons. Bashō talked about taking the “middle way” with his poetry, and I think it’s important to remember “middle way” poems as much as the fringe poems, even if they don’t necessarily change our lives. I know some people keep notebooks where they record favourite haiku by others that have particularly moved them over the years. I wish I’d had such a practice, as it would be useful to see what mattered to me at certain times, and perhaps to understand why. Over time, we could see how certain poems continue to stand out, whereas others might fade away. In all, I would say that what matters is not just poems that have changed your life, but poems that are your life. It’s not just one’s first and last breaths that matter, but every breath in between.