Haiku Essay, January 2010  

In World Haiku Review we publish from time to time essays written on haiku or relating to haiku. In this issue, Jerry Bolick talks about his rare and moving experience.


Learning to Trust Haiku (Part I)

By

Jerry Bolick

 

Introduction: For the last year or so, I have volunteered as a literacy tutor for English speaking adults, men and women who want to develop or improve their reading and writing skills. This of course involves working with individuals; but I have also had the good fortune to work with a small women’s group, made up of residents of a local drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. Meeting at their “house” once a week, our sessions easily organized around poetry. But the women moved rather quickly from reading and writing about the poems of others, to wanting to write their own. In this essay, I hope to share some of the excitement and richness that has come of that most simple desire, to make poems.

***

Like many of you, I have been reading, writing and studying the literature known as haiku for a long time. Our appreciation runs deep, as does, hopefully, our understanding. Many of us have also said or written a lot about haiku, and because of our enthusiasm and its importance in our lives, we would, if given the opportunity, likely say more. But I have recently learned, in no uncertain terms, that all that really needs to be said, all that can be said about haiku, is said  primarily  in the process of writing them; and, a very close second after that, in reading the poems themselves. All else might be helpful, but is, nonetheless, after the fact.

And this is so, even at the most fundamental levels of the art. And by that I mean 5 – 7 – 5 and a word or phrase referring to nature. Take into account the following: “I was introduced to haiku three days ago. My experience thus far has been exhilarating….After applying the basic rules and the whole nature thing it was quite soothing and relaxing. I was in a peaceful place.” These are Tina’s words, an adult learner in a literacy workshop I have been conducting. Tina joined the group in the midst of our third session with haiku, so I asked the others to bring her up to speed. Although she was with us only a short time, she confided that writing haiku gave her “a sense of security and safety” and allowed her to get in touch with her “spiritual side.” These, from Tina:


Sunny on my arms

Warmth not seeing or feeling

A  miracle happen

 

Our lives safe

inside the walls of program

Father God please bless


Generally quiet during our sessions, Tina decided to leave the facility and the program. Before her departure, however, I learned from one of the other women that Tina was writing four or five haiku every day, choosing one each morning to put on the board in a common area, to inspire the others. While engaged in the life and death struggle of recovery, Tina was able to find, in the straight-forward rhythms and simple form of haiku, a sense of safety, of solace and a “peaceful place” to be.

Is there more to haiku than 5-7-5 and the “nature thing”? Of course there is; but take note that we’ve just been told as much by someone with only the barest connection with the tradition. This confirms for me that it is all too easy for us to make the mistake of talking too much, of going on and on about the more of haiku, so that we lose sight of or even cover over, the profound impact the simple accessibility of the form can have for others, for those who have never ventured into the world of poetry or ever imagined that they would or could do so.  

Another of the women, Annie, did not write about her appreciation of haiku for me; her writing skills are at about the third grade level, so it’s hard for her. But Annie quickly became a haiku zealot, sharing her poems with anyone who would listen, even trying to teach the uninitiated, namely the facility staff. It was as if the flood gates had opened; she became the most prolific haiku poet of the group. These are four of the first haiku she wrote:



Through the open blind

rain soaked through the window

and ran down the wall

 

In the summer breeze

the sun flashes high against

the side of the house

 

When he walks away

my cold tears ran down my face

on that stormy night

 

Repainting my dreams

all the colors that I love

just like that white dove



Despite all of our study or appreciation, if we somehow find ourselves “teaching” haiku, there is much to learn from the Tina’s and Annie’s who try their hand at it, under our guidance. But all in all, I believe it comes down to this: we need to be aware enough to step aside, to trust the “haiku way” we have come to love and allow it to bring newcomers through the open door. Our most critical role, as I see it, is support-- providing exposure and encouragement.

It was Annie, probably the least literate of the group, who asked the most critical question: five and then seven “words?” “No,” I told her, “not words, syllables.”  Syllables—it hovered there, in the air over the table, in a palpable pause of collective consideration, then dropped into an almost audible “Aha!” that circulated the table like a current, pens and pencils moving, thumbs and fingers coming together for the count.  And so it began, in the early summer months of 2009.

In his keynote address to the World Haiku Conference in 2008 (Volume 6 #1, March 2008), Susumu Takiguchi said that haiku should be understood as a “way of life.” And because of this, he said, it cannot “really be taught” in the hour-long curriculums favored in schools today; haiku can only be “learnt by the learner by intuition and practice.” This is to say that haiku will reveal its own worth when newcomers move beyond perfunctory presentations to actual engagement with the form—through repeated practice. The basic form presents and opens the door, but sustained engagement takes the learner through the door and into a different world. I have seen it happen and it is amazing to behold.

The women I volunteer with are all English speakers, all adults in their mid twenties to late forties. Literacy skills range from very poor to good.  Many are mothers, currently separated from their children and families, many have been abused and many have served jail time.  All are addicts who want to recover their lives.

I did not come to the facility to teach poetry, but reading, discussing and responding to poems was something everyone could participate in freely and enjoy. Consequently, we did a lot of this. After a couple of months, I was pleased when the women said they wanted to learn to write poems. I decided to introduce them to haiku.

Of the eight learners in the group at the time, only one had ever attempted to write a poem and none had ever heard of haiku. So the introduction was as basic as could be, the standard hour and a half presentation that Susumu speaks of. We took a walk outside, in silence, collecting nouns and verbs in our notebooks—what did they see, hear, feel, going on around them? During the next hour in the classroom, I spoke about the elements of haiku, gave some examples and had them do a few exercises with prompts I provided.

And when I asked them to open their notebooks and try to write their own poems and Annie asked that fateful question, I have to say that I was completely unprepared for the reaction--the unabashed joy that filled the room was almost overwhelming. For most of these courageous women, for most of their lives, reading and writing had largely been a distasteful, if not insurmountable challenge. But here they found that they could write, that they were in fact writing poems. And, yes, they were feeling very good about it. These first two poems, from Sonia:


 


Shadows of darkness

persevere and reflect, now

seeing the light fly

paper meet,

hello how are you today?

Sincerely, your friend


Annie


 

 

All I can do is

to see myself back together

in my life again

 

I am satisfied

with the way that I have been

In these last past days


the girl in the swing

goes very high with a push

by her mother’s hands

 

The lime on the tree

just sat there waiting for me

to pick them to eat


the wise old white owl

sat high up on the tall tree

looking for the moon

 

Heat makes the leaves drop

one by one on that hot bay

in the summer time

  

Not being a dog

but feeling as though I were

running after him

 

Our shoes on the porch

sitting there on the gray wood

and none of them smell 

Helyna

 


Sisterhood is good

Caring for one another

Expecting nothing

 

Justification

on any and everything

irrational blame

 

Giving what I can

Never not taking nothing

Accepting my past

 

I will love again

Not knowing how, who or when

His presence is near


Stay focused on now

Doing all that I can do

Believing in me


Kizzie

 


They took my baby

I fight hard to get him back

At last I got him.

 

My Prince Anthony

Handsome little boy he is

All over the place.

 

Come my friend and see

In the belly of the beast

lie virgins awake

  

Beating my feet hard

Music plays all around head

cannot understand.

 

Free at last I am.

No more drugs my life is free!

Anything possible.

 

It is cold so cold

Hot chocolate sitting there

Blankets over my shoulders


Sandy

  

Dark dark night, small lights

hanging high and far beyond

pray to them at night.

 

Through the cracked window

among the dusty antiques

a newly spun web

 

Smells of pumpkin rise

Football blaring from the den

It’s time to give thanks


Love the color blue

shadings of aqua and sky

need to feel the cool

 

An old fishing pier

smells of low tide coming up

No fish for dinner

 

Snow capped mountain tops

beautiful clear Lake Tahoe

mother nature’s gift

 

My family tree

see it weather many storms

blossom in the sun

 

Friends who go way back

walking to kindergarten

know my heart and soul

 

Autumn golden leaves

 crisp air, smell of wood burning

days are getting short

 

breezy tall pine trees

standing up tall and proudly

never giving in

 

Just a glimpse of a smile,

being able to see some light

among the dark cuts.