Engineered Serendipity: Epistolary Haiku

by Paul O. Williams


First published in Woodnotes #6, Summer 1990, page 20. Personally, I find “desk haiku” to be an unhelpful term, in that it’s fine to write at one’s desk and to write from memory. What’s to be decried, perhaps, and I think the term “desk haiku” fails at this, is poems that come across to readers as inauthentic. That’s a problem that could happen without regard to whether they were written, literally or figuratively, at one’s desk. The point of the following essay, though, is about serendipity, which, fortunately, is another matter. For additional essays by Paul O. Williams, see The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics, Foster City, California: Press Here, 2001, edited by Lee Gurga and Michael Dylan Welch. See the Press Here page for this book. See additional essays from The Nick of Time on the Further Reading page, and see also the book’s introduction.       +


It’s clear that serendipity aids the haiku writer. Poems are often what the side of the eye catches itself seeing, what the ear notices in the whispers of the moon. And lately I have been hearing fellow haikuists comment on how undesirable “desk haiku” can be—that is, those poems that result when one sits down and determinedly squeezes them out.

All haiku writers know those times when poems do pour into their consciousness, and one may write a dozen interesting haiku in a short time when some clarity in us has burned through the clouds of the mundane. But usually the vapor of everyday concern hangs over us, and all our piety and wit produces desk haiku. We breathe but are not inspired.

But serendipity, which is so desirable, cannot easily be engineered. The moon may float like an unexpressive rock in the sky while the poet thinks about taxes despite all efforts to be free of such concerns.

Yet I am often surprised by what comes if I add a haiku to a letter. The stimulus of the context, and its emotion, can bob some interesting poems to the surface of consciousness. The presence of a known audience directs the poem and often provides the human context that is missing in so many published haiku. To use this technique to advantage, one has to let the letter write the haiku, which can be an added comment, a feeling about the communication, or something it suggests. It may even be something one would like to tell one’s correspondent but really can’t. At times the haiku called up by the letter need not even be put in it. But it still may be captured by the occasion and stimulus of writing.

Of course, there are no guarantees. The virtue of writing letters is its own reward, or punishment, and epistolary haiku may be duds. Yet often they are not. We need to venture them. We need also to write them down elsewhere than in the letter, lest our correspondent tell us they really liked the haiku in our letters, and we respond, “What haiku?”

I used to be astonished by stories of haiku poets asked to compose on the spot at a Zen monastery where they had stopped for the night. With little hesitation, they could put down a credible effort. Did the brush handed them come with inspiration in the handle? No, but the occasion helped (as well, perhaps, as the fact that the poet had anticipated such a request during the last several miles of his journey). At any rate, just as the aura of the occasion supported the composition, and since each letter one writes is an occasion, one can use its impetus in germinating poems.


in morning light

the spots the fence painter