The Art of Haiku: Clear Eyes, Clear Mind

When I was a pre-teen, my parents sent me to summer camp on Cobbosseecontee Lake in Maine. We played dodgeball and made lanyard keychains. I developed an unreciprocated crush on a surly French-Canadian boy and coveted the pink satin short-shorts of my more fashionable cabin-mate. I signed up for water ballet and swam around in circles to the tune of “We Got the Beat” by the Go-Go’s. The best part: I took Outdoor Living and learned how to sustain a fire with birch bark and pine needles. I liked the sap smell on my hands and the quiet, hidden geography of the woods.

One damp day, sick of fires, our Outdoor counselor led us to the corner of the empty dining hall and taught us to write haiku. “It’s a short poem from Japan,” he explained. “Three lines: five syllables in the first, seven syllables in the second, five syllables in the third. Mention nature somewhere.” Then he went to raid the kitchen bakery.

I remember the shellacked, wooden table beneath my paper. I tried to describe the frigid lake, the singed pine needles, the sticky texture of my fingertips, and I fell into a self-directed calm that was new for me. I wasn’t worried about the non-boyfriend or my too-long shorts. I didn’t realize it then, but I was allowing myself to stay present.

Though I strayed from haiku, I didn’t forget this feeling—the riddle of it, the absorption. Fast-forward 25 years, and I’m writing haiku again during a weekend program at Kripalu under the guidance of Stanford M. Forrester, prolific haiku poet, founder of bottle rockets press, and former president of the Haiku Society of America.

Stanford has been enamored with the Japanese language since he took (and failed) a course in college. “I’m dyslexic,” he says. “Everything gets crowded together for me. Maybe that’s why I write haiku.”

Haiku began with a form of Japanese poetry called renku, Stanford explains, a collaborative, linked poem written in honor of a wealthy patron. The beginning of the poem followed a 5-7-5 structure and was often the strongest portion because it was able to stand alone. When anthologized, the first three lines, called the hokku, were the only lines included.

Just as my Outdoor Living instructor said, haiku traditionally includes seasonal words about nature. “If you’re writing in the moment, you’re probably using season words already,” says Stanford.

Consider this haiku by Japanese poet Yosa Buson (1716-1783):

napping
on the temple bell
the butterfly

One tiny moment. A butterfly drawn to the warmth of a bell in summer. We can still see it, centuries later, because Buson allowed himself to notice this detail.

Contemporary urban settings are apt for haiku too, as Kripalu Yoga teacher Sam Chase demonstrates in 17SyllableCity, a collection of haiku inspired by photographs. “I decided to write one haiku a day for 100 days,” Sam explains. Author of Yoga & the Pursuit of Happiness, he leads teacher trainings in New York City and around the country, and is a lead facilitator for Kripalu’s RISE program.

“I’ve been teaching yoga for more than a decade in one of the most magnificent cities in the world, and one of the huge perks of doing what I do for such a long time is that I get to see a ton of my city,” Sam says. “Over the years, I have walked literally every street below Central Park. But I was starting to notice I was on autopilot more often—taking the same routes, stopping in the same shops, seeing the same things, or, just as often, on my phone and not seeing much at all.”

This was the impetus for 17SyllableCity. “It was a way to pay more attention to where I live, the people I live with, and how I process it all. You can’t walk a block in New York City without seeing something tragic and something hilarious on the same street. It would be a shame to miss it.”

Such as a tree sapling in the subway grate (“Haiku for New York #42”):

In spite of it all—
no, not in spite, but because—
Life will find a way.

Sometimes Sam’s haiku come to him all at once and, sometimes, “I’ll take a picture and let it roll around in my head for the rest of the day,” he says. “My favorite part of the whole project is that I’ve found I’m not just seeing my city more, I’m seeing it differently.”

This new way of seeing, this change in perspective, is the benefit of a haiku practice, says Stanford. “The haiku poet notices the flowers poking out of the sidewalks.”

Or an abandoned pair of high heels on the sidewalk, as in Sam’s “Haiku for New York #104”:

Bare feet meet concrete
Think of the shock, the freedom
As she walks away

Haiku allows us to slow down and “clean our room,” says Stanford. “When our minds become too cluttered, it gets chaotic in there.” When the mind is clearer, we can begin to see our surroundings. To him, this mindset is more crucial than the syllable count. In fact, the 5-7-5 rule isn’t required when writing in English. Haiku can simply be a concise, three-line poem.

Sam continues to use 5-7-5. “I like the constraint,” he says. “I like that sometimes I can’t have the words and phrases I want, and I have to find something that fits.” The 100-day mark has passed and he still writes haiku. For him, it’s an “exercise in paying attention, in making the little moments larger, in lingering on things that just pass by.”

Lara Tupper writes,
sings, and teaches “Haiku Stew”
for Kripalu’s guests.
laratupper.com

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