Those seeking enlightenment should not need or want to write. This was a conflict for the great Japanese haiku master Basho, as he was a serious Zen aspirant. Writing, let alone writing poetry, is viewed as a kind of “attachment.” But to borrow from a well known Zen koan, one can stay on top of a 100-foot pole for only so long and, as enlightened, must shinny back down to teach and provide guidance. And if writing and sharing haiku and related forms involves teaching the Way and providing guidance, then why not? Certainly, the following haiku, by another famous Japanese haiku poet, Kobayashi Issa, teaches and guides (my version):
Wrenzai loves haiku (there’s no grammatical distinction between plural and singular in Japanese). He loves reading, writing, and reliving haiku. But how can one love a few words, such a small form, a sub-sub-genre so far removed from the mainstream of American culture that it seems beside the point—so tiny and immaterial it comes and goes as fleetingly as a chickadee and costs nothing in cash? I’m reminded of a tiny image I wrote a few years back:
We pay so much lip service to “being in the moment” and getting back to nature,” yet we get caught up so easily in the work-a-day world, in getting ahead, in ruing and glorying in the past, in the “blocks and binds” of the city that these two universal values fall by the wayside. Writing haiku is all about being in the moment and getting back to nature, as I may have succeeded in expressing in this “fishing” haiku:
Writing haiku aligns us with the present, brings us deep into the now. We begin to notice what daily we overlook, the small things, the tiny creatures—instances and events as meaningful in their context as our actions are in ours. I experienced this haiku moment a few months back:
Writing haiku sharpens our eyes, ears, and attention, much as taking pictures does. We begin to see the interfaces and cruxes of creatures and rock-hard earth, how we survive and even live with gravity, birth, work, love, and death—all packed into a few words or syllables. In other words, the universe is found in a cup of tea. But sometimes we look too hard and see our own minds looking back, instead:
There are many myths and misconceptions about haiku. While counting syllables is a good way to get started, in the end the syllables matter less than capturing the vast in the minute in a moment’s seeing or connecting, the juxtaposition of the infinite and the finite (and it generally takes fewer syllables to say in English what it takes in Japanese). Writing haiku often involves a realization, as in Zen or other meditative practice. And the most successful haiku manage to evoke that realization in the reader (the irony in the following haiku is that the word “haiku” consists of three syllables in Japanese).
Traditionally speaking, a successful haiku is likely to manifest certain aesthetic traits: 1) contraction, brevity, reduction to essential, understatement; 2) caesura, interjection, interruption, juxtaposition; 3) novelty, freshness, the new, invention; 4) mysteriousness, the ineffable; and 5) deep appreciation of beauty and deep melancholy because beauty is fleeting (“The Aesthetic Coordinates of Haiku,” Dietmar Tauchnar, Frogpond, Vol. 36:3). The most famous haiku ever, inscribed by Matsuo Basho, is successful for all of these reasons (also my version):
Thus we are taken so deep into a moment we’re left to flail helplessly and happily even in the mere reading of a haiku. For Wrenzai, the love is in the magic and the discovery. Being attuned to the possibility of writing haiku is a kind of yoga of the moment’s literary spirit, as the mind’s eye stretches to see and relate.