Zen and the Art of Direct Seeing: Cultivating the Haiku Moment

First published in Woodnotes #7, Autumn 1990, pages 20–21 (a scan of this essay from Woodnotes appears below). See the new postscript at the end, and see also “Dripping Rain: Learning Haiku from Shunryu Suzuki.”          +

“You have come to the shore. There are no instructions.” —Denise Levertov

Every writer faces at least one occupational hazard—writer’s block. For the poet intent on writing haiku, this interference can frustrate the process of writing and block the experience of haiku moments. If you have reached a plateau in your writing, if you find yourself stumped for subjects on which to write, or if you find your current writing mediocre at best, take heart—there are ways to overcome your writer’s block and cultivate the haiku moment.

        In Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Phaedrus overcomes one of his student’s blocks to writing by asking her to focus on Bozeman (at first she wanted to write about the United States). When she couldn’t write anything, the teacher asked her to narrow down her subject to Bozeman’s main street. Still no luck. He told her to narrow down her focus to a single building on Main Street, and to start with the top-left brick. Then voilá! Out came an essay!

        This experience has plenty to do with haiku, and more importantly, haiku writer’s block. Pirsig explains: “She was blocked because she was trying to repeat, in her writing, things she had already heard . . . She couldn’t think of anything to write . . . because she couldn’t recall anything she had heard worth repeating. She was strangely unaware that she could look and see freshly for herself . . . The narrowing down to one brick destroyed the blockage because it was so obvious she had to do some original and direct seeing.”[1]

        Indeed, so it is with writing haiku—the art of direct seeing. It takes what Natalie Goldberg calls being a tourist in your own town. In her book Writing Down the Bones she says “A writer’s job is to make the ordinary come alive, to awaken ourselves to the specialness of simply being.”[2] Conceptually, this sort of direct seeing is a cure for writer’s block.

        Nevertheless, writer’s block persists in many haiku writers. For some, it’s a convenient excuse for laziness. Others fear that their writing isn’t good. Kirk Polking, in his Writer’s Encyclopedia, says that “One step toward conquering writer’s block is to acknowledge the fact that it comes from within the self and is not determined by outside circumstances or persons. Performing work-related tasks, such as reading, tidying one’s desk, corresponding with other writers, or speaking before a local organization can help the writer during a period of block. Also, buying a new piece of equipment or a reference book may raise the writer’s spirits.”[3]

        Cynics might argue that writing comes more easily if you have something to say. Haiku writers aren’t really trying to “say” anything, however, since “saying” something implies intent. Haiku, at its finest, is intentless. It simply is. [However, see the following postscript.] The blockage, as Scott Edelstein reports in The Indispensable Writer’s Guide, may instead be caused by “physical or emotional stress, overwork, excessive distraction, personal problems unrelated to writing, a looming deadline, physical illness, poor diet, poor or too little sleep, and changes or disruptions in your routine . . . Writer’s block can also be the result of asking or expecting too much of yourself.”[4] Whether causes are internal or external, “searching for the causes,” as Edelstein emphasizes, “isn’t always the best way to get rid of writer’s block.”[5] He suggests, in a more practical sense, to try physical exercise, meditation, and ignoring the project or changing to a new project for a while. Another approach is to get your mind off the problem by going to a movie or reading a book, thus letting your subconscious resolve the problem or reorient itself. He also suggests changing how, where, and when you write, discussing your writing with others, or giving yourself a reward when you finish the current project.[6]

        Many of these ideas will work for general kinds of writing. With haiku, however, the problem may lie with failing to experience the haiku moment. How can we write haiku if we never experience its catalyst? For me, this sort of blockage can occur when I get caught up in the mundane chores of life—shopping, doing laundry, paying bills. The best response in this case is to get back in touch with nature. I put myself in new surroundings by taking a walk, or driving to the beach to visit the tide pools. Communing with nature, more than anything else, is the best way to cultivate the haiku moment. I take a notebook with me and write what comes, without polishing or judging my words. Haiku writer’s block can sometimes be caused by confusing the subjective and objective phases of writing. The first phase, done without thinking, is subjective. Later phases are objective and analytical, done with an editorial pencil in hand. If these two processes are combined or confused, you can tie yourself up in knots. The solution is to let your words come freely. There will be time for review and judgment later.

        Another common cure for haiku writer’s block is reading the works of Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Shiki. When my own work seems to falter, I reach for Blyth’s translations, or read biographies of the four great masters. Their benchmark words often turn my writer’s blocks into building blocks.

        On the other hand, I sometimes find myself imitating others, simply regurgitating what has already been said. When this happens, my work seems tired and lifeless. At these times I try to get out of the rut by deliberately choosing a new topic, writing something I don’t ordinarily write about. There is no one way to solve writer’s block, but the best solution for me is to clear my head and recreate my beginner’s mind, to focus on the top-left brick and do some of my own direct seeing. As Robert M. Pirsig says, “If your mind is truly, profoundly stuck, then you may be much better off than when it is loaded with ideas.”[7]



[1] Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York: Bantam, 1974. page 171.

[2] Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Boston: Shambhala, 1986, page 99.

[3] Polking, Kirk. Writer’s Encyclopedia. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1983, page 434.

[4] Edelstein, Scott. The Indispensable Writer’s Guide. New York: Harper & Row, 1989, page 39.

[5] Ibid., page 40.

[6] Ibid., pages, 40, 41.

[7] Pirsig, op cit., page 256.


I’m not sure I still agree with myself entirely here. I think haiku can and does have some degree of intent, although the intent has to be handled carefully. Though not quoted in the preceding essay, I generally disagree with Roland Barthes, who asserted that haiku is just a signifier, just a sign (Barthes seems to have been overly influenced by R. H. Blyth who has been criticized for putting too much emphasis on suchness and Zen in haiku). Haiku that simply “are” can veer too easily into being just so-what poems, being mere reportage. Mary Oliver has said that “Attention without feeling is only a report.” I think haiku can and should be much more than reportage, and to achieve anything more, it would seem to need some sort of emotional or other intent as a driving force or learned habit—that is, an authorial intent or vision to achieve particular effects through reliable techniques [see “Spiritual Freedom: Learning from Wassily Kandinsky”]. Now, many good haiku are just written, without conscious intent, as a product of practice and discipline, but it’s nevertheless a given that nearly every haiku intends to at least communicate experience clearly, often to create nearness rather than remoteness, or a kind of intimacy—and thus, by turns, intends to be quiet, jarring, or anywhere in between. Ultimately, if a meaning or emotion is implied, as is always the case with effective haiku, then the poet typically will have had the intent to imply that meaning or emotion, or close to it. When I wrote in the preceding essay that haiku is intentless and simply “is,” I would now say, if anything, that haiku poems should not have agendas, such as seeking world peace (yes, that happens), and that such poems are doomed to failure, not only in achieving the agenda in question, but, more importantly, as haiku.

—24 October 2009, 11 March 2012