Learning Haiku from Anna, and Maybe Mister God

First published in Haiku Canada Review 18:1, February 2024, pages 16–22. Originally written in January and March of 2015, with revisions in November 2023 and January 2024. The quotation from Pico Iyer is a new addition since this essay was originally published. If you know the books I refer to here, and know Anna, then youll know that the joy of Anna is the joy of haiku.       +       +

In 1974, an author named Fynn, whose real name was Sydney Hopkins, published a bestselling book called Mister God, This Is Anna. It had two sequels, Anna’s Book (1986) and Anna and the Black Knight (1990). These books tell Fynn’s story of meeting a profoundly wise four-year-old girl named Anna in London’s East End in the 1930s. Her simple and unshakable faith in God and delight in life inspired Fynn into his adult years. The child died in an accident at the age of seven, and her precocious wisdom seemed too amazing to be true. Many of her words speak also of the haiku spirit, in their joy and their acceptance of life, and have much to say to haiku poets.

     All three books have made readers wonder how much of their stories are fact or fiction. These books appeared in various versions, and one version, Anna, Mister God, and the Black Knight (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), includes an introduction by theologian Vernon Sproxton. Sproxton refers to Jeanette Winterson, who wrote Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which he says “centered on her strange, constricted, religious upbringing in a northern [British] town.” When asked how true the story was, Sproxton reports that Winterson had said “it was difficult to say, because the memory manipulates fact and fiction, and blurs the distinction between them” (6–7). The same seems true of Fynn’s story, perhaps a melding of fact and fiction, and the stories are compelling whether they are “true” or not.

     What this has to say to haiku poets is that fiction can be truth just as much as nonfiction, and that authenticity lies in the reader’s interpretation, regardless of whether something really happened or not. Not everyone will agree, of course, but there’s something to be considered in Fynn’s writings, because of their spiritual overtones, that applies to haiku—and not just on the topic of authenticity. As Sproxton also says in the introduction, “elements of transcendence [are] hidden in the space between the [author’s] words, as he speaks and writes about simple, ordinary things” (5–6).

     At the beginning of the Black Knight book, the narrator’s mother says, “You’ve got to learn more . . . to protect your self from what you already know” (11). Isn’t that the way it is with any specialty, any art? With haiku, one typically begins by learning to count syllables. One certainly needs to learn more to protect yourself from that superficiality. And so it goes, with everything one might learn about the haiku art—or any subject. At any point you can please yourself in what you choose to believe or accept, or at least try, but there’s always something more to learn, something just around the corner that might challenge what you thought was true—and that you might need protection from. Indeed, it’s worth knowing about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a cognitive bias, according to Wikipedia, “in which people with limited competence in a particular domain overestimate their abilities.” Of course, we all start in haiku knowing just a little, but the best poets remain open and seem to be on a permanent path to learning more.

     Children in the book, meanwhile, are like children everywhere. The narrator of Black Knight is a teenager. He is in school for the first day of the term when he is asked to write his name and address on the cover of the exercise books. He says, “like so many other pupils must have done, mine ended up with: / London / England / Europe / World / Solar System / Universe” (12). I’ve seen my own son write the same thing, and I did it too. Have you? What this means, I think, is that where we are is a fundamental question, and this particular way of answering the question is a primal urge in children everywhere. To the extent that haiku poets promote primal experiences, perhaps it is no wonder that we repeat ourselves and others with our haiku, producing what I call “déjà-ku” more often than we may realize. It is not necessarily plagiarism, but simply our turn to write what everyone must surely write. Once we know where we are, we can begin to write more inventively.

     The narrator’s schoolteacher, John D. Hodge, later says that “people will protect their wrong beliefs with greater ferocity than they ever will their right beliefs” (24). He was talking about religion, but he might as well have been talking about the belief that haiku in English has to be 5-7-5 syllables. I guess that’s another sort of religion, isn’t it? Religion need not be considered wrong in this scenario, and even 5-7-5 can be a conscious and seemingly conscientious choice. What’s relevant here is that, in any belief system, including religion and haiku, one may have wrong beliefs. And oddly, one may defend them with irrational ferocity. I wish I could better understand the psychology of those who cling to the myth of 5-7-5 in English-language haiku. Is it because they learned this supposedly simple and reliable “truth” in grade school, when they were impressionable, and have forever tucked haiku away into that little syllabic box?

     I once taught a haiku workshop in which I referred to 5-7-5 as an urban myth, explaining the reasons why. At the break, one student came up to me, visibly shaken. It turns out that she had been writing a daily haiku—all of them 5-7-5—every day, for thirty-five years. That’s nearly 13,000 poems. I had pulled the rug out from under every single one of those poems, so no wonder she felt shaken. That’s how insidious this misinformation is, and if you’ve invested thirty-five years of daily practice into trotting down what might be the wrong path, of course you’re going to be defensive. But I’ve also found people to be defensive who don’t write haiku daily, or who write just a handful of times in their entire lives. They’ve “learned” haiku, and even if they’ve not written a single one since grade school, they are ferocious in their defense of what they think to be fact. To me this is a lesson in how impressionable young children can be. And it’s also a lesson in learning that teachers need to be ever vigilant with even the most trivial details of their lesson plans. It’s a literary travesty that nearly all of the hundreds of lesson plans on teacher websites such as Lessonplanet continue to perpetuate the urban myth of 5-7-5, as do countless instructional videos on YouTube.

     Latin comes up now and then in the Anna books, and there’s a delightful instance in Black Knight. The narrator describes a brooch that Anna has, with a Latin phrase on it, and then says, if he were to make one for himself, it would say Quantum sufficit (34). This means “As much as is sufficient.” Isn’t that a good guideline for haiku? When people say that haiku should be “as short as possible,” I always wince, because that stance too often leads to unnatural brevity or awkward truncation, including the lopping off of natural articles (which in 1975 Paul O. Williams called “Tontoism”). Rather, I think it’s better for haiku to be as short as necessary, balancing both sound and sense in an efficient and aesthetic whole. Later, when asked to say what poetry is, six-year-old Anna says, “It’s the least said the better” (93). Well, I’d say she’s on to something, and it’s just what haiku is on about. Such brevity needs bravery, a kind of assertiveness that says this is what is, and to trust the well-chosen image to have its predictable emotional effect (while avoiding manipulation and sentimentality). The poem has to say what it needs to say, to be as long as necessary. And we as writers and readers can learn to trust the well-crafted poem.

     Later in the book, Anna is asked to define love. She says, “I think it’s got something to do with seeing in others the mystery of yourself” (66). For many years now, I’ve thought that the core of haiku lies in empathy, perhaps even more than in reality. If we can see in others, and their experiences, the mysteries of ourselves, and our experiences, isn’t that a good place for haiku to come from? It relies on a sensitivity to mystery, and perhaps that’s just another word for wonder. If we find wonder in the world, especially in ourselves, surely we can find it in other people too. What a wonderful world!

     Thoreau is often quoted as saying “It’s not what you look at that matters, but what you see.” In Black Knight, the narrator’s mother dances with this idea, even if unknowingly, when she says to the narrator, “You never notice what you see most often” (72). Here she means the mere looking that Thoreau referred to rather than a deeper seeing. But the point is that if everything is routine for us, we may never really see it. The challenge here is to make sure we truly see. As Pico Iyer once wrote, “If you want to see something new, take the same walk every day.” We must figure out how to meet the challenge of noticing deeply what we see most often. In her book The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson tells the story of wanting all adults to retain the wonder of childhood, where everything always seems to be new. W. S. Merwin has said that “Poetry is a way of looking at the world for the first time.” Haiku, of course, is an art that helps us see, to pay attention, to feel joy and gratitude, and to share our moments of celebration—even if the subject is dark. Haiku is brimming with existential gratitude, as Billy Collins once said. As Anna also observes, “All things were bright and beautiful . . . if you only stopped to look at them” (123).

     At another point in the book, Anna says, “you have to know much more to be silent than you do to keep talking” (102). Surely that thought resonates with haiku. For how “silent” haiku is, by saying so little, it surely “knows more” than it would seem to let on. Or at least this seems true with the best haiku poems. There’s wisdom behind them. Not the wisdom of a platitude that you might embroider on a decorative pillow, but the wisdom of a deeper understanding that doesn’t need to embroider anything, an understanding of being part of a larger whole—a transcendent acceptance. The moment in a haiku, as fleeting as it is, points to all the moments before and after it, all the spaces around it, the unfolding of all seasons in context of the current season, whether a falling leaf, a falling snowflake, a falling blossom, or falling sunlight. The careful reader of haiku will seek these moments, these unsaid silences, the larger knowledge that the poem refrains from spilling.

     Right near the end of Anna, Mister God, and the Black Knight, the narrator’s mother consoles him by quoting his teacher’s words about Anna: “Anna has shown me . . . that to know God is altogether different from describing God” (175). If you believe that nature is God’s handiwork, but even if you don’t, haiku is a love letter to nature’s handiwork. Yet the best haiku, it seems to me, don’t just describe this handiwork, but somehow know its maker, its design, its harmony, its transcendence. And from this source haiku gains its ultimate power to commemorate and communicate.

     In Upstream: Selected Essays, Mary Oliver said, “Writing is neither vibrant life nor docile artifact but a text that would put all its money on the hope of suggestion. Come with me into the field of sunflowers is a better line than anything you will find here [in Oliver’s essay], and the sunflowers themselves far more wonderful than any words about them.” Haiku dwell in commemorating and communicating all of life’s sunflowers, in conveying their truth, a truth beyond mere fact that does not limit itself to what we might believe “really happened.” Indeed, Kathleen Rooney’s 2013 essay from Poetry magazine, “Based on a True Story Or Not,” says that an audience’s refusal to accept made-up poetry seems to be “a catastrophic failure of imagination and empathy.” What, therefore, is the larger truth in each of our haiku?

     Whether Anna’s words are fact or fiction, they are imaginative and empathetic. They have something to say to all of us, even about haiku.