e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

More deeply into haiku

Stepping Stones coverI’ve started to read Stepping Stones: a way into haiku by Martin Lucas, a former president of the British Haiku Society. I was very sad to learn that he has recently died. He leaves behind much influence and inspiration for those who enjoy haiku.

This book is not a technical ‘how to’, apart from the introduction which concentrates mostly on the important differences that the Japanese and English languages force on haiku. It is an anthology of modern English language haiku with a commentary on each one.

The commentaries encourage a deeper and more thorough reading of the poems by questioning and speculating about the context and significance of each of them.

For instance, on the haiku about the actions of a monk while swimming in a river by Steve Dolphy, some of the questions to consider are: was he alone or with other monks? was he wearing his saffron robes or had he stripped? was his ducking under the approaching oar hasty and fearful or calm and dignified? Of course, we don’t know. Each reader must ‘see’ the scene for themselves and arrive at an understanding accordingly. In another, by Andrew Detheridge, about clinging to a donkey’s tail we are encouraged to ask the circumstances: a children’s game? a moment of disorientation? a real donkey or a paper one?

Considering questions like this has made me take note of how selective a haiku writer is. The points important to the poem are abstracted from a much more complex scene.

A lot is left up to the reader. This is one reason haiku don’t contain judgements – the reader’s response should not be coloured by someone else’s opinion.

I am learning a great deal from this way of looking at an individual poem – more as a reader than a writer. But if we can’t read properly, how can we write?

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6 thoughts on “More deeply into haiku

  1. Wow, what a timely stumble onto your blog. I’ve just started to try and write haikus. I don’t know why – one day I just came home from work and wanted to experience something beautiful without getting out of my chair. Somehow the thought reminded me of cherry blossoms and haikus, so I googled it and have decided to give it a go. Will now be following your blog too 🙂

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  2. I envy those who can write haiku – although I love reading it, I can’t seem to pack so much emotion into 5-7-5 syllables. Lovely book review – thank you for sharing!

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  3. Isn’t this true of most poem? Unless the writer gives you an explanation we interpret what we read to relate to what we feel ourselves. With Haiku it’s complete thoughts in seventeen syllables that make them extraordinary. I will have to check out his work.

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    • Thank you for your comment. I agree that all poems leave a great deal to the reader. I would like to find a similar book of commentaries on western poems, but so far the one on haiku is the only one I’ve seen.

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