A haiku milestone

It’s great to have a couple of poems in issue 69 of Presence. This pretty much marks a haiku milestone for me because it was about a year ago when I started to write haiku. And Presence was the first magazine to publish one of those poems, which was enormously encouraging. It’s always a boost to have a poem accepted by a magazine, although haiku have become more than just writing and sending out poems to me; they’re a way of seeing things, of noticing, of finding connections, particularly between the small and the vast, how a rain drop on a leaf can somehow hold the whole sky.

For me, writing haiku coincided with the first lockdown. I had more time than I was used to, and I was determined to redraft the novel I’d been working on. Well, I did the rewrite, 80,000 words or thereabouts, but rather than feeling like I’d achieved something, I simply felt relieved that it was out of the way. I’d been keeping my poetry ticking over alongside the novel, but that wasn’t anywhere near as satisfying as it had been either. In short, my writing was feeling more and more like work.

I thought haiku, as a shorter form, would be worth a try. Maybe the novel had caused me to burn out. Of course, what I thought I knew about haiku boiled down to a syllable count, a seasonal reference, a nature reference … you get the picture. Not that any of this is wrong. But it’s not right either, because it misses so much. What I’ve realised is that, for me, haiku is very much about the doing, the making, the process. I’ve always been interested in the writing process, but with haiku the process somehow involves being: being me, alive, here and now, in the moment. I think it’s Alan Watts who says, ‘There is no future, only now’ or something along those lines. Haiku really teaches you that. My truest haiku moments are when I’m outside. I do a lot of walking, often very early in the morning when no one’s about. Walking, I mean walking alone, is good for listening, for noticing, good for being present.

Often my observations seem mundane, but they’re real, and they’re true, and that feels important, I’ve no doubt that writing haiku has been a coping strategy during the pandemic. Going for that morning walk, writing those few lines, has felt stable and constant, and importantly, it totally lacks ambition. That might seem like an odd claim for a writer, but haiku are about taking things one moment at a time, not writing a poem, but capturing an experience, an observation. It may shape up into something later. I might like it enough to send it out. But at the heart of this is the moment of experience that comes before the words, or at least before the written word. This is how if feels to me. I don’t pretend to be an expert. In fact, I feel like a complete novice, but that’s good because it removes any expectations I might have for the work (expectations belong to that slippery construct, the future – and remember, there is no future).

I’ll end with these two beautifully concise haiku from Presence:

between
wildflowers
a comma

by Jeff Hoagland


in its own time
a folded
cyclamen bud

by Marshall Hryciuk

I admire the deceptive simplicity of both poems. Hoagland’s haiku takes me back to the text, a reference text where the names of flowers are listed, separated by commas. If a description is being checked, there must be an unknown flower to identify, so the poem allows me to participate in the act of discovery and naming.

Hryciuk allows us to see/ experience the slow motion of a cyclamen bud opening, and yet at the same time reminds us that we’re necessarily excluded from it, unless we have some sophisticated filming equipment. It’s a slow imperceptible unfurling; the cyclamen has its own time. I’m not quite sure how Hrycuik does this, but when I read this poem I feel small, insignificant, and the cyclamen seems elevated, a thing of great importance. By the way, lines 2 and 3 are indented, but WordPress keeps insisting on left justifying them!

There are other possible readings, of course, but these two poems, with the depth of thought and feeling they achieve, stand out for me as great models for what a successful haiku can do. I hope you get as much enjoyment out of them as I do.

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