Haiku and why I write it

During this pandemic, I have taken to writing haiku. I wrote my first attempt, “Frangipani” on the 14 August 2020 whilst sitting in the garden of the house we rent in Yorkshire. The warmth of the day and buzz of insects took my mind back to a night in Africa years ago. It was a warm night, my mood mellow and walking past a walled garden with a friend, a beautiful scent wafted through the night air. That scent, I was told, was from the blossoms of a frangipani tree. The experience unforgettable.

I do not remember what first drew my attention to haiku, but I have done some research.

Haiku is about capturing a moment in which observations, thoughts, events or sensations are brought together in a non-rhyming poem of 17 syllables, traditionally in a 5-7-5 sequence of three phrases with a cutting word.

Nowadays there are variations to that pattern. Haiku originated in Japan with perhaps the most acclaimed being the poem of the frog jumping into an old pond, and the return of silence after, by the great poet Basho.

Here, and now during the pandemic, I recall Basho’s beautiful poem and think deeply and perhaps darkly about what it could mean. Could the frog represent the human condition, the loud splash we have made in the world, then the return of silence?

Haiku, as it was, embraced nature, its beauty, images or events caught in a moment; and change. It is to my mind about the juxtaposition of different or contrasting thoughts, aligning or opposing in a parsimony of words. Haiku can be joyful, or morose, serious or humorous but always short, succinct, to the point.

Richard Wright (1908-1960), spokesman for Black Americans, discovered haiku in his latter years and wrote around 4000 before his death. Eight hundred and nine of those are published in a collection “Haiku: The Last poems of an American icon” by Richard Wright, Arcade Publishing, New York.

Wright’s poems are inspiration to many, and I wonder why I discovered them so late in my own life. Good haiku have a timeless quality in their style and in our current era and present predicament, can encourage us in the reading, or writing of them to stop, pause, take note and move on.

Wright’s haiku capture both the mundane and the extraordinary. Executed with technical precision and a deeply considered choice of words, the imagery evoked remains long after reading, and for me triggers a stream of questions and articulated thoughts.

Why, I ask myself have I never before considered a cat, in a fog, in a doorway a memorable image? Yet Wright’s haiku on that particular scene is less of an image than an account of his own experience. How we understand it depends on our own experiential interpretation. Haiku, in its exact and parsimonious form, is wide open to interpretation, and omission has the effect of rendering it personal.

Haiku implicitly evoke the senses. Sight, sound, smell, touch and taste, intuition, kinesthesis and anthropomorphism all have their place as do the micro and macro and their relationships one to each. Objects may become animate, and each word weighty in this form of poetic prose.

Amongst my favourite of Wright’s haiku are one where tulips receive rain with “nervous pleasure,” and another in which a “plum tree apologises” with a scattering of petals – for what we are not told, but to my mind the petals are a gift rather than recompense for a misdemeanour.

As the pandemic drags on I find great solace and pleasure in reading and writing haiku. What began for me as simple curiosity and a writing exercise to do in a spare minute has become a habit, no a compulsion to capture fleeting thoughts and moments in tiny morsels of prose. I find writing them both pleasing and comforting. It takes my mind to a place of calm hopefulness.

I hope in reading my haiku you may enjoy them too.

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