Everywhere, ordinary people are writing haiku. An American soldier in Iraq, a retiree in Scotland, a South African housewife. A daycare worker in British Columbia, a California psychologist, a technical writer in New York. These are just a few examples of adults who compose haiku regularly. What’s more, English-speaking children nearly always learn haiku in school. Haiku has for some time been the world’s most popular genre of poetry—not only because it’s quick to write and quick to read, but because it serves as a simple poetic outlet for everyday experience that everyone can relate to.
The immediacy and accessibility of this poetry can be deceptive, however, for haiku is very challenging to write well. French philosopher Roland Barthes once wrote that “haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we ourselves can write such things easily.” While haiku is easy to write, dedicated poets still spend lifetimes exploring the depths of its history and aesthetics. They study such key techniques as the use of a kigo, or season word, that anchors the poem in time and alludes to other poems, and of a kireji, or cutting word, that typically divides the poem and engages readers in intuiting the relationship between its two juxtaposed parts.
In Japan, an estimated seven to ten million people write haiku every month. All who write literary haiku—both ordinary people and professional poets around the world—share a desire to write with simplicity and empathy, to write authentically of their personal experiences, whatever those experiences might be. The tone and content of haiku can vary from wonder and joy to melancholy and sadness, with both authors and readers appreciating life in all its phases, not merely the beautiful. Typically, the poet dwells on the details of seasonal and human events in order to represent and celebrate the ordinary and everyday, thereby making it extraordinary.
In the gently unfolding memoir that follows, American diplomat Abigail Friedman tells the story of her first encounter with a Japanese haiku group and how she began to learn the aesthetics of this centuries-old poetic genre. Her diplomatic work in Japan charged her with coordinating the U.S. and Japanese approaches to North Korea, to improve the situation especially regarding the nuclear threat and human rights. With haiku she learned to describe experience without an agenda to change anything. While she found haiku writing relaxing, she also discovered an important similarity between the poem’s careful objective description and her own work as a diplomat: both are concerned with truly understanding and describing things as they are.
Haiku proved to be a useful part of Abigail’s modern, busy, care-worn life. Though not previously a poet, she fell under haiku’s spell, dipping her toe, and then her foot, into its captivating pond. Under the tutelage of Kuroda Momoko, the sensei or “master” of the Aoi haiku group, she learned not just the aesthetics of haiku but the aesthetics and values of traditional yet modern Japanese culture. Abigail learned that, just as she herself was a professional diplomat, haiku poets come from all walks of life, and that this very richness of experience helps make haiku captivating.
Kuroda-sensei, it should be noted, is one of Japan’s foremost haiku masters and a leading member of Japan’s Haiku Poet’s Association. Born in 1938, and once a student of Yamaguchi Seison, she declined an offer to succeed Yamaguchi as leader of the Natsukusa (Summer Grass) haiku group, proposing, in deference to her master, that the group’s name be retired to honor him. She then formed her own group and called it Aoi (Indigo). Kuroda-sensei has published many haiku books and books about haiku, including well-respected saijiki (season-word almanacs). She also appears on haiku television shows and judges major Japanese haiku contests. While many hundreds of haiku groups in Japan have prominent haiku masters, Kuroda-sensei is among the more esteemed, giving the narrative here added import. Yet, as you will see, Abigail’s story and the people in it retain an unpretentious humility and a respect for tradition even as tradition is modernized in contemporary society.
This book, with its focus on the traditional poetic art of haiku, reveals both Japan and the author’s life in the context of modern stresses—both political and personal. Yet it shows how haiku can be a rewarding addition to anyone’s life, not just the life of Abigail Friedman. In Japan, one encounters haiku in hotel lobbies, in restaurants, in roadside shrines, and in most daily newspapers. While haiku is not as ubiquitous outside Japan, this engaging memoir clarifies why that situation is changing, and it explains how haiku can be a meaningful part of your life, whether you consider yourself a writer or not.
This is a book for poets and nonpoets, for the culturally curious, for those who have visited Japan and those who would like to. This is a book for those seeking an antidote for the assaults of modern life; it is for those who also recognize that global awareness can have tremendous value in our changing world, and that all of life rewards our close attention. Turn the page and join Abigail Friedman on her journey into the haiku poetry of contemporary Japan, a poetry rich with awareness and wonder that cannot help but bring us to deeper attention.
Michael Dylan Welch
Vice President, Haiku Society of America