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Haiku started as a kind of parlor game among the Japanese aristocracy, and the little poems have survived to this day. Poems of three lines with syllables of five-seven-five can be found about almost any subject, from casual observations of nature, to political commentary or the dirty joke.
One Hundred Poems of Spring 020817 AE 1 For the Capital City Weekly Haiku started as a kind of parlor game among the Japanese aristocracy, and the little poems have survived to this day. Poems of three lines with syllables of five-seven-five can be found about almost any subject, from casual observations of nature, to political commentary or the dirty joke.
Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Story last updated at 2/7/2017 - 8:06 pm

One Hundred Poems of Spring

This essay is reprinted with permission of the author, John Straley. It accompanies his recently published book, “100 Poems of Spring.”

By John Straley

Haiku started as a kind of parlor game among the Japanese aristocracy, and the little poems have survived to this day. Poems of three lines with syllables of five-seven-five can be found about almost any subject, from casual observations of nature, to political commentary or the dirty joke.

But the little poems have a noble lineage. Both Haiku and Tanka, a slightly longer form, evolved in the Japanese court where a host would provide the first line of a short poem and as the evening wore on guests would drink wine or strong spirits and provide the subsequent lines. The host and the guests all venerated the aesthetics of the ancient Chinese wilderness poets who had been influenced by the Taoist and Zen Buddhist attitude toward nature. But officialdom in China and to a lesser extent in Japan had stood in opposition to Taoism and the Chan form of meditative practice. This lent an air of naughtiness and rebellion to the drinking game from which the Tanka and the Haiku came. By the time the three great masters Basho, Buson, and Issa began their practice in the late seventeenth century, the little poems of five-seven-five had evolved an aesthetic all their own, one with the Buddhist sensibility of a mind in nature. The poems were tied to a season of the year, and relied on natural imagery.

In this form everything in nature is contingent, transient, and it suffers in its deepest being. There is no creator God, and there is no fallen state. These rules affect everything, on both sides of the poet’s eyes. Everything, both in the mind and in the world, is connected to everything else, everything is here for only a moment, and everything has an awareness of suffering.

The philosophical awareness that a mind is part of nature was often expressed as a kind of delightful surprise…an “aha” moment. The haiku is intended to give that feeling of a sudden realization. A realization that both awakens and sobers its reader.

Or at least that’s what I believe. I am a contemporary American writer, and as such I can only pretend to understand the deep cultural relationship that the ancients had with these poems. First off, I don’t read Japanese. I imagine the translation from the logogrammatic form of their language to the English alphabet must always be incomplete. The relationship of an English speaker to the Japanese language, where one symbol may stand for a cluster of concepts must be fundamentally different from the deciphering that goes on with the code breaking of our own phonetic alphabet.

As haiku came to America, many poets stayed with the form of five-seven-five and let go of the philosophical underpinnings. Other poets threw out the form and went for the short poem that expressed the “aha” moment in nature using the fewest possible syllables. I started writing them strictly within the form because I found it comforting and over the years I’ve internalized it to such an extent that even when I allow myself the freedom to go far afield, like a bottle-fed calf, I always come back to the barn of the form. Some of the poems in this book have the requisite syllables and some do not, but most of them stick close to the path.

I started writing haiku every day more than thirty years ago. I wrote them as part of my journal keeping practice.

I ease into a journal entry with a description of the weather and after dumping out my personal concerns, and descriptions, I finish with several haiku. I have not come close to mastering the making of these little poems, and I suspect that the task is akin to a spiritual quest: one without an ending.

I also write haiku as part of a psychological practice. Like millions of others, I suffer from unipolar depression, which I apparently inherited from my father’s people. Besides daily medication, the practice of writing haiku helps me reach past the bubble of ego, and touch the substance of that thing in nature, which I intuit is beyond self. Of course, the process is incomplete, like a scientist studying animal behavior, I am always there, always affecting the outcome.

I’ve had many influences in the practice, Robert Hass’s fine book The Essential Haiku is one. Its clearly written introduction has been a great help understanding the form. I also love the poems of Richard Wright, who spent the last years of his life in exile writing formal haiku in English, and then of course the translators of all the great masters have moved me along like a snail up Mount Fuji.

My goal in writing haiku is to capture a moment as if the windows of awareness were open to that specific moment: a right here, right now experience that avoids ego interpretation. Almost all of the moments experienced in this book occurred in my front yard facing the ocean in Sitka, Alaska, and all of them happened in spring. These poems are not meant to be difficult, and they require no interpretation. All they need is the willingness of the reader to lean forward, like a bird watcher with their binoculars, wanting to be visited by another.