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The Space that is God: Some thoughts on haiku

Updated: Jun 25, 2023

While I am in no way any sort of authority on

haiku, this form has been on my mind

lately, as something that greatly influenced my writing. Unlike Natalie Goldberg, who wrote "Three Simple Lines: A Writer’s Pilgrimage into the Heart and Homeland of Haiku" (brilliant!) I have not traveled extensively through Japan and studied with Alan Ginsberg, or connected to the ancient haiku lineage by visiting the birth and death places of those great writers. But something has always drawn me to the simplicity and economy of words and phrases embodied by this form.

As a younger poet, haiku was the first formal poetry that piqued my interest, simply because it seemed doable. 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables. Three lines. Done. It’s a poem! Easy right? Think again. In haiku we can catch ourselves trying to say too much, but also tempted to say too little, so as to be obscure, and possibly meaningless to anyone but ourselves. It’s a kind of balancing act.

The haiku structure limits your word choice, but probably eliminates words that take away from the poetic voice of a poem. English words, like "Irresistibly" (a very sort of ugly word in my opinion) would take up an entire 1st or 3rd line, and, depending on the poem of course, not sympathetic to the nature of haiku. Trying haiku taught me a lot about word choice, about how to be economic, how to be simple in my thinking about complex things. In that sense, writing haiku, can be therapeutic if complexities abound in your life.

In the above mentioned "Three Simple Lines" Ginsberg told Natalie that "the only real measure of haiku is upon hearing one, your mind experiences a small sensation of space…

which is nothing less than God." I would add that a haiku contains an element of time. Taking a moment that might be less than a second, and stretching it into a series of words that expands that brief moment into something digestible, something recognizable to others who might experience similar moments.

As an example, just recently on a cool spring day I was walking my dog and there was a gust of wind, which lifted up a bustling of brown leaves blowing each and every way as my dog tried to chase them in all directions. It was just a second or two. But it evoked in me this sense of how we all sometimes need to make split-second decisions like this and how hard it is, not knowing which way to go. A perfect haiku moment.

In reading about haiku I was often intrigued by the 5-7-5 structure, and how the instructions said the form "usually" followed it. Later I discovered the west has translated the haiku into the syllabical structure, based not on the Japanese language syllable, but breaths or sounds in the language, which are mostly lost in English. Really, haiku embraces a moment, or a space, and while the structure can be helpful to uncover the words for the expression of that moment or space, it may not be necessary. Now there are two schools of western haiku writing — the "counters," who adhere to 5-7-5, and the free form, who don’t. Neither approach is right or wrong, though the "counters" may think otherwise.

All of the rules about haiku, I found out, can be taken with a grain of salt, and are modified with the word "usually." Usually it describes when, what and how. Usually it evokes something in the natural world. Usually it identifies a season. And usually it bridges two different seemingly unrelated things or concepts. While effective, these approaches, really at the heart of my own writing, can be embraced or not embraced. In three simple lines it’s often hard to say whether all these elements have been achieved.

My time spent counting syllables while writing haiku taught me to ask the question, "Is that the right word?", which I now do over and over when I write a poem. Ultimately, once completed, I ask myself how does the haiku make me feel? Are there words that might better match the space or moment that originally grabbed me? Most importantly, haiku teaches me (if I can remember) to walk through life with an openness to moments and spaces that are worth holding on to, or that might remind others of moments they have had. Ironically, this little embracing of the past requires a full surrender to the present moment, the space that is "God."

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