…. I feel fragmented. I do get a little time to myself on Saturdays when my mother comes over to mind the children. But even then, as I walk in the park, my mind is everywhere…. I used to read a lot, especially poetry…. I even used to try my hand at writing poems, but they always became too complicated, and I never finished one to my satisfaction. I would love to be able to write one good poem…. Eithne
How about a poem that you could write in a minute – if it was the right minute? Haiku. It is possible that there are poems even shorter than haiku, the Japanese miniature poetic form of just seventeen syllables – five in the first line, seven in the second, and five again in the third. (In translations and in other languages, people don’t feel bound by these numbers.) It is a poem stripped down to the bare essentials. You may be familiar with this already. A haiku is almost like a photograph (and often goes well with one), but it should subtly hint at further depth. It excludes almost everything we associate with poetry: it wants no rhymes or metaphors or metre, no literary allusions, no decorations of any kind, as few adjectives as possible, and little or no punctuation. This marks it off from other poetic forms. Commonly, everything is said to be like something else: in one poem A is like B, and in another B is like A. Shakespeare had a moment of fun with this:
‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun:
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red….’
He poked fun at cliché metaphors, and in that same sonnet he brought everything down to earth, including his beloved.
‘I grant I never saw a goddess go—
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.’
Haikus avoid literary gymnastics of all kinds, and keep their feet—and ours—firmly on the ground. They are about directness, simplicity, experience. Here is an example, by Buson, an 18th-century Japanese poet:
in the bedroom
stepping on my dead wife's comb’
When you go for your Saturday walk, Eithne, why not keep a small pocket book with you, and a pencil? Even if you don’t write anything, the possibility of writing will keep your mind present and alert to the things around you rather than to the things inside you. Because you are not searching your mind for metaphors, your attention will be ‘one-pointed’, as they say in Zen. You will be looking directly at things that are present to you, rather than imagining things that are not. In this way, nature is able to heal you, because you are present to it. Comparing one thing with another is a way of being absent to both. In that sonnet, Shakespeare made it clear that he loved his lady no less for his refusal to make comparisons.
‘And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.’
Writing a haiku—or just being open to writing one—is a form of meditation. There's only one way to begin, and that is to begin. To give you confidence, I'll put in here a few that came to me from being around trees.
Pine felled by the storm—
I sit down beside its head
intimate with death
The apple-tree down—
one root still gripping the earth
new apples swelling
Standing on the spot
where once stood a much-loved tree
I almost am it
That should give you courage to begin, Eithne. As you see, the quality doesn't matter. The key is to see it as meditation: a return to what is near at hand. A haiku puts an end of that sleepy romanticism that many people still associate with poetry. Here, to make just that point, is Taniguchi Buson again:
folded soft on the temple bell—
The bronze gong booms!