The Deep Sigh: Meditations Upon Haiku

There is a traditional Andalucían expression on the nature of poetry, which translates roughly as…

The sigh told to the tongue;
go and search for words
to say what I can say.

Though not a haiku itself, to my mind there is perhaps no greater expression of the spirit of the form than this simple folkloric poem.

Before my own immersion in haiku, I had experimented with different forms and styles of poetry, developing a better understanding of my approach to the craft. I came to realise that I could usually muster two or three lines that were maybe worth something, but would then find myself attempting to expand those lines into what I perceived to be a ‘proper’ poem of ‘proper’ length. What I actually ended up doing was distorting the original experience into a series of ugly riddles, finding shallow, symbolist alternatives to express what I had already expressed in the moment of initial inspiration.

Needless to say, a growing awareness of this process lent itself to a feeling of incompetence and, for some time, a reluctance to write anything again. Then I discovered haiku, through Jack Kerouac’s Book of Haikus. I had not ever really read haiku very seriously, but there was something in the form, something in the attitude, that resonated deeply with me.

I realised that the moments of inspiration that had given way to those poor offerings for so long, were actually all I needed – there was no need to embellish each moment with pale literary imitations of itself.

When I read Kerouac’s…

Early morning yellow flowers
–Thinking about
The drunkards of Mexico

I was struck with the understanding that, in that moment, the moment was enough. I felt all of the romance, the mad, tragic beauty of the thought, the purity of the expression, the simplicity and humble brevity of the form, the mystery lying deep in the contrasts of the poem’s parts. Kerouac’s determination, ‘I will find the right words, and they will be simple’, was a revelation.

Haiku is a familiar form yet perhaps most ideas or preconceptions of the form carry the impressions of very strict technical rules and requirements, syllable counts, cutting words and nature references. Without entering into a historical survey, it is enough to say that this is not, nor has it ever really been, the case.

For me, a great haiku carries the feel of the sigh of the Spanish poem, both in feeling and in form. By its nature it is brief, yet it carries within it a tremendous depth – it is a vision of the world reflected in a single drop of dew. It is a deep sigh, the life and death of a momentary experience, an expression of life distilled to its purest form.

A haiku is not an expression of a writer’s feelings about a given subject or experience; it is, in fact, the experience itself. When writing a haiku, the poet is instructed to leave not a hair’s breadth between him or herself and the subject. Take as an example, this poem by Basho, the first haiku I remember reading and, perhaps, the haiku which retains the most profound impact on me…

reeds cut for thatching
the stumps now stand forgotten
sprinkled with soft snow

There is no need for anything else. There is nothing grand or ornate. Great haiku cultivates its images in such a way that they mean nothing beyond themselves, and at the same time express so much that it is not possible to catch their final meaning. There is no room for ‘I feel this way about…’ or ‘this is what I thought when…’ – it is the sharing of experience; not to express what you felt, but to offer the moment that caused you to feel. Take another astonishing example by Basho…

the first snow –
the leaves of the daffodils
are just bending

The reader has to be absorbed into haiku as into nature, to lose himself or herself in its depth. There are very clear demands on the reader, yet if one can enter this depth then the experience is all the more beautiful – beautiful because the moment, caught and fixed, is one, and falls into eternity.

Indeed, the impact of reeds cut for thatching is evident in a poem I wrote in response, years after first experiencing it as a reader, which is being published in the autumn issue of Acorn haiku journal…

rusted rail track
fading slowly
early snow

Inevitably, my first efforts at haiku were poor, usually no more than an imitation or a Zen gimmick. Yet, with time, and with studying the work of the great haiku masters, I found myself more and more open to the reception of the ‘haiku moment’. Though strongly identified as a form of nature poetry, there are a vast number of urban haiku in existence, and it was the urban landscape that first informed my first published poems, the very first appearing in Presence haiku journal…

pigeons mating
dark water trapped
in the grout lines

As my craft developed, the technical awareness of the power of each individual word, and even the space between the words, became more apparent. Take, for instance, the unnatural break and the double-meaning of the word ‘still’ at the end of the second line in this poem, published by Chrysanthemum haiku journal…

winter sky
the dead child’s clothes still
hanging on the line

The challenge of the brevity of the form, of the succinct nature of the expression, becomes more organic the more you work at it. For me, it has become an almost natural form of expression. Having been a student of film, Eisenstein’s theory of editing, of contrasts and juxtapositions of images and expressions, has had a strong effect on my thinking about poetry. Along with my experience as a script writer and script editor, refining the brevity and clarity of style at work in film screenplays, I suppose I had already harnessed two essential technical elements of the form.

The greatest thrill I have had in publishing haiku thus far is the appearance of my work in Modern Haiku, the longest running and most prestigious English-language haiku journal in the world, and in Bottle Rockets haiku journal, which has published work by Beat Generation heroes of mine such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso.

A sequence of poems published in Bottle Rockets illustrates one of the most well-known of haiku traditions, the seasonal reference…

summer dusk
girls chalk their shadows
on the new tar

field of dead grass
the wind
loses its breath

sun in the ribs
of the old pier
ebb tide

a donkey tethered
to a tractor tyre
dead sunflowers

One of the stigmas surrounding haiku is that there is some strict imposition of rules and requirements suffocating the natural expression of a poet. Clearly these haiku are all set in summer, yet only one actually names the season itself. Working within the tradition established by haiku masters, it is clear that you can utilise and experiment within these traditions to strengthen the sharing of the haiku moment – in this instance, to use empathetic expressions of the natural world to root the poem in time and space and convey the experience of life more deeply.

To my mind, there is a common tendency to hold imagination as the greatest gift of vision. While there is undoubtedly much mileage in this, it is my own belief that the greatest gift of vision is, in fact, insight – not the gift that adds a picture, no matter how true, to the fact, but that which pierces through the fact and discovers the meaning hidden in its heart; that which breaks through the crust of the outward event to its core of spiritual reality.

As well as our acquisitive faculties, those which go out to seek the truth, we have others, the nature of which is receptive – they are there to receive such truth as may come to us, and both are essential to our knowledge of the truth. If you go out to meet the truth, with intense insight, the truth will come to meet you. If you do this, the rest will come, and that is the process of revelation. It is by precisely this process that one becomes attuned to the perception and cultivation of the ‘haiku moment’.

The reading and writing of haiku is always a process of searching. It is endless, infinite. It is offering up mortality to the light of the infinite, and falling infinitely deep inside all that is mortal. On his deathbed, Basho composed this, his final poem, and a work which perhaps best encapsulates the most profound elements at work in a great haiku. In its greatest moments, is the deep sigh of life…

falling sick on a journey
over withered fields
dreams wander on

You can read Paul Chambers’ haiku cycle, with powerful accompanying images, here, published exclusively by Wales Arts Review.