The Seed of Wonder:
An Antidote to Haiku Inflation

This essay, in a shorter form, was originally presented as the opening address for the 2005 Haiku North America conference, held September 21 through 25 at Centrum (Fort Worden) in Port Townsend, Washington. Originally written in August of 2003, and revised in the autumn of 2005. First published in Frogpond 29:1, Winter 2006, pages 59 to 62. This essay was also reprinted in Big Sky: The Red Moon Anthology 2006 (Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2007). The poem by Garry Gay appears by permission of the author.  See the new postscripts at the end, as well as “Ordinary Lives. I also think of Aldous Huxley, who said, “The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm,” and Ellen Parr, who said, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” And how about Diane Ackerman, who said, “Wonder is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart. Even a tiny piece of it can stop time,” and Lucille Clifton asserted that “Poems come out of wonder, not out of knowing.” And as E. B. White once said, “Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.” Goethe: “The highest to which man can attain is wonder.” And finally, Carl Jung: “If our religion is based on wonder, our chief emotion will be gratitude.”         +

 A dark sea

another star

sets in the mist

            —Garry Gay, River Stones


As haiku poets mature into their art, I believe a sort of “inflation” of expectation often occurs: As we read more and more haiku, it typically takes an ever more superior poem to catch our attention, let alone impress us. Thus we may read journals such as Frogpond or Modern Haiku or any other journal for years and have the growing sense that the quality has lessened. Perhaps you’ve had conversations with people who say they’re less enthralled with haiku books and journals than they used to be, feeling certain that the poems aren’t as good as before. Yet what may be happening is that we, as readers, have progressed to a saturation point where haiku has to accomplish more and yet more to “top itself” and get our attention—not by being over the top, pretentious, or in your face, but by being truly new, fresh, and insightful. Old haiku poets can simply become blasé about the wonder and awe that assails them through the pages of haiku journals and books. Call it, if you will, haiku ennui.

        Indeed, in giving the impression of diminishing quality, it’s not necessarily the journal that has moved, but us. The question is, if we feel this happening to ourselves, how can we revitalize haiku, or our sensitivity to it? I’m reminded of environmentalist writer Rachel Carson, who once wrote in The Sense of Wonder, “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.” As Bashō said, “To write haiku, get a three-foot child.”

        Carson’s wish is perhaps the remedy to the problem of haiku inflation—that we not take the world for granted, and that we remind ourselves that life and experience are precious. Carson also states that “it is not half so important to know as to feel,” and that “If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.” Haiku is the poetry of the senses, and its objective depictions present the facts that can be seeds of understanding and awareness in our lives. If we slow down and take extra time reading each haiku poem, perhaps we can provide better soil for the seed of wonder to grow and flourish—and thus revitalize our sensitivity to these poems in the act of reading them. And perhaps we can revitalize our way of writing haiku, too. By being more acutely aware of our emotions—something that academics call the “precognitive response”—we can be in better touch with ourselves and what it means to be human. The best haiku begin and end with emotion, and if we are too hurried to notice, and to feel, it’s no wonder that haiku and haiku moments sometimes pass by without getting under our skin the way they used to, even while, in an intellectual or habitual way, we continue to pursue our haiku passion.

        Life is achingly wonderful, endlessly brimming with beauty, and the art of haiku lies in capturing that wonder, whether each subject we apprehend is beautiful or not. Perhaps you know the scene in the movie American Beauty, where the character with the video camera is entranced by a white plastic bag that blows around persistently in front of a red brick wall. For many long minutes he films the random and ultimately ordinary beauty that he sees—a beauty of everyday lifefulness. If we keep ourselves from merely consuming haiku, and give ourselves more time to deeply feel and empathize with each poem and the touch of life behind it, we can combat their tendency towards a cumulative dullness, and catch their joy and fullness—or catch, as Carson calls it, “a breathtaking glimpse at the wonder of life.” That’s what authentic haiku is all about. Or, as Franz Kafka once reminded us,“Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”       +

        The British critic and philosopher Owen Barfield has said that “wonder is our reaction to things which we are conscious of not quite understanding.” Wonder at the beauty of life, and in poetry, can take us closer to what Barfield calls “strangeness.” This strangeness, he says, “arises from contact with a different kind of consciousness from our own.” Because haiku is such a personal poetry, in both the writing and reading of it, the wonder that can help us appreciate the subjects and content of haiku can also help us appreciate the varying and sometimes “strange” consciousness of their writers. “Strangeness,” Barfield says, “arouses wonder when we do not understand, aesthetic imagination when we do.” As Harold Bloom says in The Art of Reading Poetry, “poetry at its greatest . . . has one broad and essential difficulty: it is the true mode for expanding consciousness.” This difficulty, he concurs, he has “learned to call strangeness.” This strangeness requires our acceptance, as A. R. Ammons put it in his poem “Scribbles” from Worldly Hopes (New York: Norton, 1982, page 24):


perplexity is such that sometimes it must be

embraced before it will clear, to the deep

clear, when it may be put aside, as a bee


puts aside color, pattern, flight when he reaches

at the stigma’s base the pure nectar:


As W. B. Yeats said, “Art is meeting something you didn’t expect, something that isn’t yourself.” And no wonder Paul Valery once said that “The advantage of the incomprehensible is that it never loses its freshness.”

        Perhaps if some of the haiku we encounter seem not only remote but strange, this may be a signal that they stem from a different sort of consciousness from our own. We can more deeply appreciate “strange” poems not only with a renewed sense of Carsonian wonder, but with the realization that they may be challenging us with the very strangeness of the unique consciousness out of which every haiku is written. We should apprehend haiku not just from where we are, but from where the poet is. If we put ourselves where the poet was, rather than remain indolent and always expect the poet to come to where we are, we may find that poems we might otherwise let pass by will instead streak brightly to life. An attitude of empathy, which can begin with the seed of wonder, will take us to new places from whence each haiku originates. These new places are often psychological, and will include not only the consciousness of the poet, but places where our own consciousness is expanded as well. In both strange and wonderful ways, if we let it, haiku can change our consciousness.

        I would like for all readers and writers of haiku to know the following anecdote, also conveyed by Rachel Carson in her book The Sense of Wonder. I hope this story will take you to the intuitive, passionate, and consciousness-altering place where haiku can always begin, where both the reading and writing of this transformative poetry can always be fresh and intense.

Exploring nature . . . [Carson writes] is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies all around you. It is learning again to use your eyes, ears, nostrils and finger tips, opening up the disused channels of sensory impression.

        For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind. One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?

        I remember a summer night when such a thought came to me strongly. It was a clear night without a moon. With a friend, I went out on a flat headland this is almost a tiny island, being all but surrounded by the waters of the bay. There the horizons are remote and distant rims on the edge of space. We lay and looked up at the sky and the millions of stars that blazed in darkness. The night was so still that we could hear the buoy on the ledges out beyond the mouth of the bay. Once or twice a word spoken by someone on the far shore was carried across the clear air. A few lights burned in cottages. Otherwise there was no reminder of other human life; my companion and I were alone with the stars. I have never seen them more beautiful: the misty river of the Milky Way flowing across the sky, the patterns of the constellations standing out bright and clear, a blazing planet low on the horizon. Once or twice a meteor burned its way into the earth’s atmosphere.

        It occurred to me that if this were a sight that could be seen only once in a century or even once in a human generation, this little headland would be thronged with spectators. But it can be seen many scores of nights in any year, and so the lights burned in the cottages and the inhabitants probably gave not a thought to the beauty overhead; and because they could see it almost any night perhaps they will never see it.

Postscript 1

I recently read Erling Kagge’s Silence in the Age of Noise (New York: Vintage Books, 2017, 2018, translated from the Norwegian by Becky L. Crook). His appreciations for silence echo with appreciations for haiku, and he refers to haiku briefly in Chapter 28, quoting Bashō’s “old pond” poem. What’s relevant to my preceding essay, however, in Chapter 12, is Kagge’s mention of “experiential poverty.” He says “Such poverty may not only be about a lack of experiences, where nothing is happening. An abundance of activities can also create a feeling of experiential poverty” (63). He adds that “Things just get to be too much. The problem, according to Lars Fr. H. Svendsen, is that we carry on seeking ‘increasingly more powerful experiences’ instead of pausing to breathe deeply, shut out the world and use the time to experience ourselves” (63). This seems like a description of haiku ennui (and a possible solution), where the abundance of poems that we read in haiku journals or online may numb us to their individual energy and vibrancy—or as W. S. Merwin once put it (in A Zen Wave, quoting someone unnamed), reading a lot of haiku is like being pecked to death by doves. An endnote in Kagge’s book explains that “Svendsen’s thoughts on boredom are from his classic The Philosophy of Boredom” (138), first published in 1999 (and in 2005 in English). He also says the phrase “experiential poverty” seems to have first been used by German philosopher Martin Doehlemann. Kagge cautions his readers by saying “The idea that boredom can be avoided by constantly pursuing something new [or writing so-called gendai haiku?] . . . is naive” (63). This matter is hardly as important as third-world poverty or other concerns, but what are we to do about it? Kagge’s solution is to find a sense of purpose. Yet he says that “the differences between a lack of purpose that leads to boredom and the purpose that leads to happiness are not always easy to distinguish. . . . Regardless, it is worthwhile reflecting on what brings purpose and joy” (64). We might well extend this thought to the writing and reading of haiku, such as to read haiku with an eye for thinking about each poem’s seasonal reference or line breaks or punctuation (or lack thereof), or to write haiku with these or other thoughts in mind. Or we might read each poem more closely as a way to get to know each poet, empathizing with what we learn of the poets life and their sensitivities through their poems. Or we might find some other much larger purpose in our haiku, lest our art become a vain squandering of artistic power. This may be a practical way to reenergize the haiku we write and read.

—21 September 2020

Postscript 2

Goethe once said, “I am here, that I may wonder!” He was not alone in emphasizing the central value of wonder in human existence—and I would add, haiku. In the following quotation from Butterflies: Reflections, Tales, and Verse (Kales Press, 2023), in echoing Geothe, Hermann Hesse might well have been speaking of haiku, of opening to its epiphanies:


Wonder is where it starts, and though wonder is also where it ends, this is no futile path. Whether admiring a patch of moss, a crystal, flower, or golden beetle, a sky full of clouds, a sea with the serene, vast sigh of its swells, or a butterfly wing with its arrangement of crystalline ribs, contours, and the vibrant bezel of its edges, the diverse scripts and ornamentations of its markings, and the infinite, sweet, delightfully inspired transitions and shadings of its colors—whenever I experience part of nature, whether with my eyes or another of the five senses, whenever I feel drawn in, enchanted, opening myself momentarily to its existence and epiphanies, that very moment allows me to forget the avaricious, blind world of human need, and rather than thinking or issuing orders, rather than acquiring or exploiting, fighting or organizing, all I do in that moment is “wonder,” like Goethe, and not only does this wonderment establish my brotherhood with him, other poets, and sages, it also makes me a brother to those wondrous things I behold and experience as the living world: butterflies and moths, beetles, clouds, rivers and mountains, because while wandering down the path of wonder, I briefly escape the world of separation and enter the world of unity.


We might also ask of haiku, does the moment that each poem celebrates indeed have the ability to sweep us away from the world of separation and into the world of unity? As such, haiku is not an escape but a joining. That, to me, is the transformative power of haiku poetry, a power that continues to attract and addict. And it all begins with wonder. As Mary Ruefle said in her poem Inglenook (from Dunce, Wave Books, 2019), I live in the museum of everyday life.

—9 July 2023