Don’t Pooh-Pooh My Spiritual Discipline of (English) Haiku
Updated: Aug 7, 2022
*Originally posted on a Fuller Theological Seminary blog on August 24, 2017
I stumbled upon a new spiritual discipline this week. I was at a museum garden party that had rented a poet. Yes, you read that right. Apparently, there is such a thing.
This dashing young hipster strolled around the garden, donning a newsboy cap and a vintage manual typewriter that he schlepped around on a wooden tray strapped to his shoulders. As he met folks, he asked their name and if they’d like a poem, and if so, what they’d like the poem to be about.
In a matter of seconds, his fingers were rat-a-tat-tatting away and he was plunking out eloquent snippets of poetry capturing the essence of these strangers, now newly minted acquaintances, on nametags, which he ceremoniously bestowed on each person, much to their delight.
I loved mine so much, that night I went home to write a poem in response to him as thanks. One problem–the only poetry I knew how to write was the form I had learned in third grade–the haiku.
For those of you unfamiliar with haiku, it is a Japanese poetry form that traditionally had 17 syllables, three lines each – five syllables in the first, seven in the second and five in the last. It was typically nature themed. Over the last 14 centuries that it has evolved, the form has become more fluid as poets have played with both structure and topic, some using a 3-5-3 structure or writing entire volumes of haiku on everything from war to baseball.
As I understand it, the beauty of haiku lies within the idea of the "haiku moment." The haiku is a snapshot of a particular moment where the poet juxtaposes the first one or two lines against the last line or lines to make an observation or draw a parallel between the two. In Japanese, they use a kireji, or a “cutting word”, but in English, this can be replaced with an ellipsis or a dash to invite a reflection on the juxtaposition of the two parts.
One of the most famous examples, translated from Japanese (and thus, not utilizing the appropriate number of syllables in English) is:
An old pond! A frog jumps in — The sound of water.
As I went to work composing my haiku, I recognized the constraints of syllables and lines forced me to reflect deeply on my experience and what of it that I wanted to communicate. I had to be more selective than usual, especially since I have an inclination towards verbose ramblings (I prefer the euphemism “verbal processing”). Every word had to carry more than its usual weight–it had to speak phrases, and every phrase had to carry the meaning of a sentence or more. When I was done, I marveled that I had been able to somehow capture a good amount of my experience in a tiny sliver of words and paper.
The next day, as I sat down to engage in an Examen prayer, I thought, what if I reviewed my day, noticing the consolations and desolations as usual, but closed with summing it up in a haiku?
Sure enough, as I wrestled with the words and thoughts within the constraints, I was challenged to reach deeper into my soul to find the right words. I had to sift through my experiences, thoughts and feelings to find those that lay at the core of what was happening within me to find my Examen Haiku Moment. Here are a few examples of what came out of those times:
From a day when I failed miserably at keeping Sabbath…
My Sabbath slipped through Cracks between conflict and chores — Treasure lost, find me! From a day when I felt overwhelmed… Running non-stop but Not getting anywhere, help! Lord, direct my mind. From a day when I went to a great birthday party… Under a grand oak Toasting a well-lived first half– What’s next? Adventure! I can’t tell you if these are any good as far as poetry goes. But I can tell you that they were good for my soul. Not because the poetry was good, but because the process was. I highly recommend everyone try tapping in to their inner poet. What do you have to lose? After all, it’s so simple, a third grader could do it…
Update: since the original writing of this post, I have had my previous paradigm of haiku shattered by this. So now, I call this form of poetry "English haiku."