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.