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Thank God for Haiku


I don’t know where I would be today if not for haiku. Haiku is a form of brief Japanese poetry; many in the West have been exposed to it in grammar school, taught that it consists of three lines with a 5-7-5 syllable structure. But I never studied haiku in grammar school; I first discovered haiku while studying Eastern philosophy, particularly Zen Buddhism, but didn’t start writing seriously until the mid-nineties after taking a haiku class at a local adult education program.

About ten years ago, I developed some mystifying health problems, which have become
chronic. I’ve been to numerous doctors and specialists, but nobody seems to know what’s wrong with me. The official diagnosis has been “chronic fatigue,” but I regard this as useless, because it has not led to any meaningful treatment, let alone cure.

Among the numerous disabling symptoms is difficulty with concentration and short-term memory. Deficits in these areas of cognitive functioning don’t exactly bode well for a writer. I used to love to write and felt that I had at least one or two books in me yet to be written.

But, the reality has been that my attention span is seriously compromised and I lack the stamina necessary for extended periods of writing. Without making a conscious decision to do so, I found myself turning to haiku more and more. I have always loved the challenge of capturing a haiku moment--an intuition grasped by the juxtaposition of
two seemingly disparate images--and representing that intuition in the brief poetic form that originated in Japan. It’s all way easier said than done, and although I’ve written hundreds of haiku over the past fifteen years, I still regard myself a hit-or-miss haiku poet. I’m never quite sure that what I’ve written is really a haiku.

Yet, the act of writing haiku has improved the quality of my life in some significant ways. I love writing haiku in nature, although “nature” is typically a quite domestic context such as a children’s park with a paved walk that runs parallel to an active creek. At my favorite park, I ordinarily set up my lawn chair in a spot between two shrub oaks that gives me an unobstructed view of a towering mountain in the distance. I come equipped with pen and pad as well as bottled water. There’s a restroom about 100 yards from where I sit. For the next six hours or so, I focus on whatever is happening right in front of me and a myriad of scenes--from crows pecking the ground for food to children bursting into tears as they are dragged away from the monkey bars--become the subject of poetic observation.

I wasn’t always so attentive to the world around me. Growing up with an overanxious mother, I have a tendency toward worry and rumination. Haiku has enabled me to bring
my awareness more into the present moment where anxiety and worry dissipate during the act of being mindful. Haiku, in effect, is a form of mindfulness meditation and, God knows, I can afford to be a bit more attentive to the world around me. In writing haiku, I feel like I am bringing recognition in some small way to the beauty that still exists, despite all that is depressing in the news.

Although the big writing projects I once imagined doing have long since been abandoned, I have been enlivened by editing haiku anthologies on various subjects that I’m interested in. In 2009, I published an anthology of recovery-oriented haiku--the first book of its kind to address the subject of addiction through the poetic lens of haiku.
And I have recently completed an anthology of poems, mostly haiku, written with awareness of one’s own mortality. I am presently working on a new collection of haiku dedicated to grief, loss and change. With each of these projects I have had the good fortune to meet many creative and talented poets from around the globe, and each has greatly enriched my life.

Haiku has thus been an important outlet for creativity and connection, despite the limitations imposed by chronic health problems. Haiku has kept the flame of writing alive in me, and I feel blessed.

zen garden
stands out

-- HSA Members’ Anthology, 2007

checkout time is noon
I turn in the key
and everything else

ragged clouds
what it feels like
to hold a rake


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