As I have worked on these skills over the years, my ego needs have been served but a vague worry has nagged at me. We are splattered daily by a gusher of metaphors—like this one—that exaggerate the messages they convey. Manipulative writing tricks like this come from all quarters—commercial, political, religious—and jump up and down and scream for our attention. But a small voice from the recesses of my soul insists: What about authenticity? Isn’t there a real world out there, a world that surely exists but is obscured by all the metaphors, alliteration, exaggeration, and manipulation?
Then I found myself called to the ancient practice of haiku. A good haiku, I discovered, must be as plain as most writing is fancy. Understatement and restraint govern. Haiku describe, they do not explain. There are no metaphors, no abstractions, no anthropomorphisms.
A haiku is a seventeen-syllable poem about a moment in nature that expresses the season. Haiku reveal the eternal harmony of nature, of which our lives are mere blips. However disharmonious our lives may seem to us from our ego-centered point of view, from the eternal perspective of nature we fit its cycles neatly—we are born, we reproduce, we die; we start from dust and we return to it. We may make a mess in nature, but we cannot make a mess of nature. Even if we were to succeed in incinerating the Earth with a nuclear holocaust, on a cosmic scale it would be the blink of a distant flashbulb compared to, say, a supernova. Nature would simply absorb the quarks and leptons we’ve been lent and put them to another use.
Both the ego-centered and cosmic views beg for proportion. Haiku helps me understand that between these extremes is an ideal where the ego is present but not in charge, where one respects others by giving up all posturing and striving in favor of the uncontrived, where authenticity is not obscured by cleverness.
To write haiku I’ve had to tame old habits. My first effort, before I’d read much about the practice of haiku, came as I waited for a ride home from the commuter train station one autumn night. It went like this:
Half moon slips behind
cirrus scrim and takes a bow
as nimbus curtain falls.
I counted the syllables on my fingers—five, seven, five—and worried about whether it was bad form to break the line after the preposition “behind.” Otherwise I felt pretty clever. After all, in a mere seventeen syllables I had managed to anthropomorphize the moon, then deploy a theatrical metaphor to make it an actor on a stage. But the next day I started to suspect that it was too clever, and learned that I was right when I read a wonderful book called Seeds from a Birch Tree by Clark Strand.
Ever since, I have been looking for haiku in nature wherever I can find them. For a while, I was tempted to assemble haiku from observations made in two or three moments, not one, or to embellish a bit here and there, perhaps to imagine that a falling leaf had landed where it would work best poetically, not where nature had placed it. But this does not respect the eternal harmony of nature. In writing haiku—perhaps discovering them is a better verb—the challenge is to so thoroughly squeeze my impulse to be clever out of my efforts that I become a medium through which nature’s own holy voice can speak for itself. As I have grappled with this I have come to think of haiku not as poems—poets’ success is measured by the evocative power of their metaphors—but as moments. Many of my haiku aren’t worth keeping, but even those do wonders for me when I’m writing them—they get me focused on the eternal harmony, focused outside myself.
In our contemporary culture of materialistic hubris, we are desperately short of humility, and focusing outside ourselves creates a seedbed for it. The words human, humility, and humus come from the same ancient Indo-European root meaning soil. Like all parts of nature, we humans come from the soil—from the dust or, in the view of science, from the stardust—and we will return to it. Haiku ensures humility because it keeps us close to the soil we came from and thus will admit none of the strutting and cleverness that fuel most other writing.
With haiku, the ego must stand aside.
see below for links to related resources, including four haiku by Tom Stites.