The Frame of Haiku: Awareness of Daily Life

First published in Kokako #25, September 2016, page 57. I’ve made a few minor edits since initial publication, such as breaking this piece into three paragraphs and adding the Mary Oliver quotation. Originally written (in a shorter draft) in an email message on 29 April 2010.       +

I believe that haiku influences how you experience daily life. On 26 June 1985, I had my camera stolen out of my car. For about a year, I wasn’t taking photographs. And then I noticed something very interesting when I got another camera. I began to think again in terms of the frame. I began to see scenes as they would appear through the viewfinder, and I would imagine changing that frame—to move up or down, to the left or right, or closer or farther away—to improve the pictures I would see in my head (whether I was holding a camera at the time or not). That change made me aware of how, when I didn’t have a camera, I had fallen out of that habit.

        I think the same thing is true with haiku—it trains us to be sensitive to specific occurrences. For example, it wasn’t until after I had started to write haiku that I truly noticed that the plum tree in front of my house in California blossomed in mid to late January, with the cherry trees down the street starting about a month later. Haiku gave me an improved awareness of seasonal flow, and I began to notice not just the events themselves but also notice when they happened. This heightened sensitivity includes seasonal indicators, of course, but also sensory experiences, and—even more important—the emotions we feel in response to them. This is perhaps the most underappreciated part of haiku awareness—to notice not just images and experiences but our emotional reactions to them.

        A heightened sensitivity also trains us to be aware of how words can describe these sensory experiences, and how we can use words to respond spontaneously to the world around us. If we wish to share what we observe and what we feel in response, it is not enough to have rich sensory experiences, and emotional responses to those experiences, but to take the next step and to put them into words—and then into the best words, and then to put those words into the best order. As Mary Oliver said, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” So, yes, the haiku life makes you aware of the ordinary, and helps you celebrate it in poetry.

                night of stars—

                my fingers falling

                through your hair