Taking the Ordinary Seriously

In Robert Fulghum’s book What On Earth Have I Done? (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007, page 10), he says that “Montaigne, who coined the word ‘essais’ and refined the process of taking the ordinary seriously, remains my mentor.”

        Literally, the French word “essai” means trial or attempt, and Montaigne “invented the literary form of essay, a short subjective treatment of a given topic” (to quote the Wiki page on Montaigne), so Montaigne is an obvious model for Fulghum’s sort of writing, celebrating the ordinary as he does (he is most well known for his bestselling book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten). But more important to haiku poets is Montaigne’s refinement of taking the ordinary seriously. It seems that the point of each haiku is how it takes some aspect of experience or perception, whatever it is, seriously.

        Later in the same Fulghum book, the author says that “many sensibilities affect my essays and stories—family, friends, and editors—each adding a creative step along the way. But it is the reader who finally completes the process with the additive of self” (page 232). Indeed, for haiku, it is the reader who completes the poem, for haiku is an “unfinished” poem without the reader. Haiku, like any good writing, respects not only the subject of the writing, but also the reader, trusting him or her to “get” the writer’s conscientious intent—or, in the case of a haiku, to “get” the leap of imagination and implication laid out in the clues of objective sensory imagery, the overtones of seasonal reference, and the mysteries of careful juxtaposition.

        Here is how Fulghum describes a haiku moment while looking out the window in a restaurant on a small island in a Geneva river on a stormy day, October 11, 2006 (page 282):


        Outside, tall plane trees are being thrashed by a blustery wind. Their dry yellow leaves are launched out onto the Rhone River as it races by on its way to the sea at Marseilles. The leaves float like a brave regatta of tiny sailboats, floating and whirling in unison. The rain fills them, sinking them into the current of the river.

        Evanescence is the word that comes to mind—the inevitable brevity of the beauty in life. If I were Japanese, I would write a haiku about this moment.


This, naturally, is where haiku come from—a wabi-sabi sensitivity to the evanescence of life, an appreciation for the ordinary blessings that life engulfs us with every day.



[Aside: It is too bad that Fulghum thinks he has to be Japanese to write a haiku, or so it would seem. As another aside, regarding the notion of taking the ordinary seriously, I recommend reading a book by James P. Carse, titled Breakfast at the Victory: The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience (HarperOne, 1994). And while I'm at it, I recommend giving a listen to Sarah McLachlan’s song, “Ordinary Miracle.”]