Haiku as Meditation

First published in Woodnotes #4, Winter 1990, pages 2–3. The photo shows the College of Marin campus at the foot of Mt. Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco, California.

by Carolyn Talmadge

“Haiku as Meditation” is an eight-week course offered at the College of Marin under the aegis of the Emeritus College, designed to provide continuing education for the “meritorious” older adult. The campus is lovely, located beneath the ever-present shadow of Mt. Tamalpais. The landscape includes fir and redwood groves, hedges of spring azaleas and rhododendrons, as well as old and rare deciduous shade trees. Nature there is flamboyant during the seasons and most conducive to poetry.

Students who enroll in experiential art and poetry sessions are often very courageous as they are risking trying something new after being away from school for 30 or 40 years. This is particularly true for haiku classes, where students have had no exposure to this elusive poetry medium. However, by the end of only one semester (16 hours), most of them have reverence and admiration for the art of haiku. Many students finish classes moderately skilled as haijins. To brag a little, one student placed second in the 1987 Henderson competition, and, over the past three years, others have been published nationally as well as locally in Woodnotes. Five adventurous graduates meet outside of the class monthly to write renga.

Although the curriculum varies each semester, it generally includes the following types of subjects: introduction of haiku within the context of Japanese history and poetry; examination of kigo for the particular season at hand; study of classical Japanese poets; the study of contemporary American haiku; ginkō (poet’s walks) in which students make notes as foundations for their own haiku; an introduction to Zen and its impact on haiku, including a field trip to the sangha (congregation) at Green Gulch Zen Center near Muir Beach; and sharing of work and more reading and writing. Critique is implemented by the class as a whole.

A few obstacles that recur each semester are tendencies for students to write sentimental, pantheistic poems, to express metaphysical and moral metaphors, to write statements without the necessary creative tension, to be contrived or unclear in their expression, and, lastly, to write outside of their personal experience. Constant attention is given in which the whole class acts like surgeons, cutting away the superfluous to reach the essence of a poem. Curiously, when a poem is true—in that it expresses what Cor van den Heuvel calls “the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which nature is linked to human nature”—the whole class perceives it as a haiku. When poems are borderline, the class encourages the writer to read them aloud and, with his or her permission, everyone assists in rendering them true. At other times, the poet works on them alone.

The classroom provides safety and trust in which the creative spirit works like silent yeast. Students feel relaxed after the first few sessions and become genuine supporters of one another. Competition is not a part of this haiku mini-world. And there is a sense of respect for each poet’s own creativity when it is gathered at the end of a semester in a class haiku anthology. Confirmation that all were initiated into the sphere of haijins can be seen in the following examples:


high wires


wind songs

     —Muriel Bryam-Annette


Shadow of great wings

Across the sunlit hillside

A rabbit goes still

     —John Leonard


Leaving home . . .

the smell of smoke

from old brick chimneys

     —Kathleen Burgy

       (2nd place, 1987 Henderson Awards)


   Thunder and lightning

Exploding in the old house


     —Charlotte Lucey


    On the Buddha’s face

A gleam of recognition

    the sun goes down

     —John Leonard