Tiny American Bird Wins Japanese Haiku Contest

Wrenzai is proud to announce that he’s won Grand Prize in the Non-Japanese (International) Division of the 6th Annual Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum Haiku Contest in Japan. He is stunned and elated by the news. When a package arrived from Japan, he and Ms. Wrenzai were delighted to find in it not only several copies of the book published with the winning poems and an over-sized framed award certificate but also a “small prize.”

Wrenzai with the goods

Wrenzai with the goods

Here is the winning haiku:

the one-legged sparrow—
still embraced by the clan
on the power line

The prize brought tears to the recipient’s eyes. It’s a miniature folding standing screen of the original much larger 18th century screen of Buson’s (second of the great male haiku poets in Japan) calligraphic version of Basho’s 17th century “haibun” (prose with haiku) entitled Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Deep North) including “haiga” (ink paintings accompanying haiku). The book traces Basho’s journey around northern Japan, visiting significant historical and natural sites and guiding writing circles in towns and villages along the way. Wrenzai has read five different translations of this most famous work in Japan, several more than once, and has written a haibun with haiga (photos converted to drawings in this case) entitled Rowing Smitty: Travel Sketches and Haibun, emulating and learning from this great work. The book is to be published in the near future.

First three panels of screen

First three panels of screen

The coincidence is beyond meaningful for Wrenzai. It’s as if a distinct path has opened up before Wrenzai down which he must wander for the rest of his time on the planet. Life sometimes rings with truth!

Wrenzai wrote the winning haiku while (with his ever-vigilant eyes) watching sparrows through his sister Karen’s upstairs apartment window. He selected the haiku for the contest because, when he lived in Japan between 1988 and 1991, the country only then was beginning to provide infrastructure for handicapped people in public places. One rarely saw handicapped people in public. He’s not sure that the reason the poem was selected for the award has anything to do with why he wrote or chose it for the contest, but these are the thoughts he’s had on the matter. One way or the other, the sparrow event occurred and the poem came into existence before any thoughts about it took place.

Here is the other poem Wrenzai submitted to the contest:

the two grasshoppers
parted by my leg—
will they ever meet again?

This haiku is more blatantly traditional in form in that it makes more direct reference to the season, resides more in the natural world, and appeals to a simpler sentiment. But it happened and the words occurred to me….

May your observations and creations burst with passion!

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Why Wrenzai Loves Haiku

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):

dewdrop world

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:

just one seed

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:

trout strikes

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:

pill bug

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:

see shell

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).

irony is

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):

old pond

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.