The Haiku Life

Octavio Paz, 1914 – 1998

Two years ago, after writing a haiku a day for nearly five years, I stopped. A funny thing happens when you fulfill the same form day after day after day. It becomes abstract and alien, artificial, nearly ceremonial. I couldn’t find room for innovation in haiku and feared I’d seen today’s syllables before, that I was circling the same shadowy woods as last month, last week, yesterday.

Originally I wrote haiku to practice. The economy was good for me, and my haiku never quite spoke aloud. Their whispered observations, I hoped, might teach me to let meaning be and allow echoes to speak for the original voice. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once said, “The practice of haiku was and is an education in concentration.” But soon I discovered it was not the sort of education I expected.

Writing a haiku is ultimately not exercise, not about using words sparingly and still “getting everything down.” In haiku, the writer discovers how much a reader needs to know and how much should be said, how often incompletion is whole enough. Writing necessarily involves omission. Octavio Paz says that, to Japanese artists, “Imperfection is the acme of achievement” and then adds quickly that “it is not really imperfect: it is the voluntary act of leaving unfinished.” In ellipsis, the haiku writer finds an instant balance between the comfort of knowing and the vitality of doubt. Paz says haiku rely on the equilibrium between death and life, “vivacity and mortality.” I’m sure I never thought so grandly when I composed my daily haiku at four a.m. before gym and work. Writing a haiku was a morning constitutional, and any tranquility I found arose from resignation, acceptance of imperfection, being willing to tell a story that couldn’t be told whole.

Sometimes I tried to prime the pump by reading the work of writers I admired, especially Matsuo Basho, whose hokku evoke a universe in the most minute reflections. Octavio Paz describes Basho’s work as having “An alert serenity that unburdens us.” It reproduces a rare and profound clarity. Readers are “unburdened” because Basho releases feelings and thoughts never quite said. In itself, haiku is simple. What we hear are its reverberations.

One of the most prominent values of haiku is “kokoro,” which is translated as “heart” but may be closer to what we mean by “spirit,” a blending of emotional and intellectual. It’s not a fusion, because the two different responses to the world are never really fused; but you shift between what the heart feels and the mind knows… sometimes so rapidly you couldn’t say which is in control now.

Writing haiku, I often thought of technical issues—how to compress a picture or idea into finite syllables, what word order would make the picture “legible,” where I might break lines or what image should end the poem. Yet the technical never overcame the image at the center, something precious, a compelling sense of an image seen but never known definitively.

All of these meditations on haiku might lead you to believe I miss writing them. I suppose I do, but not at all the production of haiku—I’m sure I don’t need to compose another—so much as the state of mind. I liked my haiku self. I could present subjective reality objectively and believe the commonplace extraordinary. I could depend on overtone and resonance.

Nature and how we perceive nature are bound. In describing his response to Basho, Paz said, “Our smile is one of understanding and—let us not shrink from the word—pity. Not Christian pity but that feeling of universal sympathy with everything that exists.”

I still use my fingers to count syllables as I compose the haiku sonnets I post on my other blog, derelict satellite, but that is not quite the same as living in a haiku world, one that demands assurance more than scrutiny and compassion more than attention.


Filed under Aesthetics, Essays, Gratitude, Haiku, Identity, life, Meditations, Poetry, Solitude, Thoughts, Writing

13 responses to “The Haiku Life

  1. I just took a look at your other blog.

    Your haiku sonnets are beautiful. So is your artwork.

    I’m not even going to ramble on here about my own attempt at haiku or how I understand what you mean about missing the haiku state of mind or about my own strange cartoon-y art.

    It’s possible that it’s because it’s 3 AM, but I think I’m just *that* moved.

    • dmarshall58

      With school well underway and a drawing class that takes most of Saturday, it’s been hard to keep up with my blogs and my paintings and doodles. I carry ideas around all the time and hope to jot a few fragments into the moleskin I carry in my back pocket. It’s inspiring to know you’re out there reading, however, and I deeply appreciate your visits and comments. I’m also enjoying your blog! –D

      • I’m always amazed that people can hold down a regular job, have a family, and still find time to write and create art. Even with my fairly quiet life, It seems I have to choose these days between drawing or writing.

        Glad you’re enjoying my blog– I usually just power through those, and I know they could be better if I took more time with them. Lately, I’ve been struggling to write *anything* decent, blog or otherwise, though something compels me to keep writing anyway.

        I hope you find all the time you need for your pursuits– really looking forward to reading/viewing more.

      • dmarshall58

        I suspect you don’t find the time for creativity so much as make time for it. It sounds as though you prefer writing to sleeping, for instance. It’s the same for me. I’m not sure how healthy I’d been if I passed even a week without a poem or essay or drawing or whatever. Perhaps it’s a novelty addiction, having to see the world anew all the time. –D

      • As much as I love sleep, I do prefer writing. It keeps me sane as much as sleep does. I’m always referring to writing as cheap therapy. I haven’t been writing like I am now all of my life, but I’ve always had some sort of creative outlet.

        I like that “novelty addiction” approach. 🙂

      • dmarshall58

        Looking at your time stamps, I think you and I might be on opposite schedules. I am part teacher, part dairy farmer and rise at 4 am. That was when I used to write haiku, but now I work on whatever writing project possesses me. It seems strange to being doing visual art when it’s dark and silent, but sometimes I do. What I should be doing, of course, is schoolwork, but it’s more and more challenging to balance what I have to do and want to do. The older I get, the more the want-to-do category obsesses me.

        But you really ought to get some sleep too. –D

      • I’m not sure if the time stamps are correct. It’s 1 pm here now, so we’ll see when I post this. If you are in Chicago, it should be three hours ahead of me, right?

        I am a night owl, that’s for certain, but I do have my days where I have to wake up at 5:30. (M,T,W). Not quite as early as you, and I have no cows to milk (?) but I do need a little more sleep to do that. Speaking of cows, you are a dairy farmer too?? You get more interesting all of the time.

        I like the quiet time alone in the morning, and I understand doing your visual art then. There’s this cocoon feeling when the rest of the world isn’t up yet. I think that’s why I like to stay up late as well– it’s dark, it’s quiet. Plus, I need some decompression time when the kids are here. It’s when they’re not that my schedule kind of flips…sometimes I stay awake writing and drawing until 4 AM. It just seems to happen.

        I know what you mean about getting older and wanting to do the things you want to do rather than the thing you must do. I feel that too. I wonder sometimes if it isn’t more of a feeling of time escaping too quickly to get to do all the things I want to do rather than a tiredness or boredom of doing the things I have to do. I don’t like this feeling of time passing faster as I get older. It’s a little scary sometimes.

      • dmarshall58

        They say some people are owls and others larks, and I’d decidedly larkish. I get about twice as much done in the morning as at night. Maybe it’s that I’ve been up so long by then, but my mind is fuzzy and unfocused at night. I wish I could strike more of a balance actually.

        And, by the way, I’m not really a dairy farmer. I was kidding. Living in Chicago, I’ve only seen cow’s in the farm zoo in Lincoln Park. –D

      • I’m actually fine if I MUST wake up early, I think I just prefer the night.

        I get it now, dairy farmer= waking at the crack of dawn. I always have been a bit gullible. :-/ …and I was just going to ask about cheese.

  2. seems like a good reminder of our impermanence and good practice for facing mortality. accepting what is without making more out of it. thanks again for giving me something interesting to think about.

    • dmarshall58

      The great haiku scholars would say it’s all about accepting impermanence. Acknowledging the transience of existence is one of the chief aesthetic values of haiku, along with poverty. Me, I just like being here now. Thanks for visiting and commenting! –D

  3. Peter Newton


    I have found, in writing my own small poems, that so much depends on creating a door for the reader to enter. Haiku is, after all, an inclusive poetry. A collaborative act. But I never know where the door goes. Or even where the poem is. And I keep trying. Maybe here. Or now. Day after day. Haiku after haiku.

    Your phrase: “the vitality of doubt” speaks to the life of a haiku poet. Writing haiku is learning how not to think.

    Of course, that’s hard to make sense of. And, of course, I thought so too, at first. As Basho said: haiku offers the opportunity to see the ordinary, everyday world with “fresh eyes”. A worthy and rewarding goal.

    Never knew Paz had much interest in haiku. Will have to look into that.



    • dmarshall58

      My quotations come from an essay by Paz called “The Tradition of the Haiku,” included in a collection of Paz essays, Convergences. I’ve looked everywhere for the book (and wonder now if I’ve loaned it out), but I have notebooks and notebooks full of quotations I’ve gathered from everyplace. The book is well worth finding, as it also contains Paz on Andre Breton and–I think I remember–William Carlos Williams. Paz, along with Borges, wrote haiku long before it became fashionable in the west.

      I agree that haiku is collaborative, though I’m never sure who or what is on the other end of the line. When I was in graduate school a classmate and I were cooperating on a renga chain, and then it was literally collaborative, full of strange doors leading to stranger rooms. There was no end because we just stopped, but I remember feeling as though I’d stepped into an elevator and stepped out in Arizona.

      Fresh eyes are exactly what I need–maybe it’s time to try haiku again. –D

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