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The Lure Of Haiku

Beautiful brevity

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Like any publication, the RLF’s ‘Collected’ series has its own requirements when it comes to length. Contributors must limit what they say to 1200–1500 words. As every professional writer knows, editors don’t want more than they ask for — though they’ll often welcome a little less. Submitting 3000 words where half this was the stated maximum, or offering a mere 500, would simply be inept. Placing work for publication means it’s got to fit the space available. If you write for different outlets you need to be able to cut your verbal cloth according to a range of lengths. By necessity, this is something that I’ve learned to do; it’s part of the business of writing. But that doesn’t mean I like it. I often feel constrained and want to go beyond the limit set.

Left to my own devices, the essays that I like to write are between five and eight thousand words. My books, where a clutch of such essays is shepherded together to make a collection, tend to be around 80,000 words. Given my preferences, it’s not surprising that 1200–1500 words feels tight. That being the case, why am I so drawn to haiku, a form of words that sets far more stringent constraints?

Described by D. T. Suzuki as ‘the shortest form of poem we can find in world literature’, haiku work their magic in three lines, using only seventeen syllables. Closely associated with the minimalist mood of Zen Buddhism, and following its emphasis on paying attention to the present moment, haiku find their classic expression in the work of the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694). He is to haiku as Montaigne is to the essay.

Bashō’s most famous haiku, traditionally seen as expressing the moment of his enlightenment is:

The old pond
A frog jumps in
The splash of water

To be honest, I’ve never much liked it. I prefer:

Fish shop —
How cold the lips
Of the salted bream

As with any poetry, haiku can strike different people differently. It’s hard to predict their impact. They can appear profound or close to pointless. Two of my favourites are by Buson (1715–1783) and Shiki (1867–1902):

You can see the morning breeze
Blowing the hairs 
Of the caterpillar

Such silence —
Snow-tracing wings
Of mandarin ducks

The syllable count – five in the first line, seven in the second, and five again in the third – is rarely preserved in translation, where the focus is on catching the spirit of haiku, not their formal structure. The origin of the seventeen-syllable rule has to do with what can be said in a single breath in the original Japanese. Opinion differs as to whether it’s appropriate to observe the same syllable count when writing in other languages. However this is decided, there’s now a rich tradition of writing haiku in English.

Given the word-lengths that I opt for when I have a choice, haiku surely shouldn’t register on my literary radar. Put my essays side by side with haiku and it’s not hard to make a prima facie case for discord and mismatch. Far from appealing to me, they look like something I’d welcome about as much as a shoe that pinches. Haiku seem several sizes too small for my preferred stylistic tread. Yet despite the fact that these deft slivers of verse occupy such different wavelengths from the ones I’m normally attuned to, they’ve become important touchstones. They’re something I find myself repeatedly drawn back to — and repeatedly surprised by how much they contain. They punch far above their weight.

I first discovered haiku in my teens via one of those lucky accidents that secondhand bookshops are so good at engineering. The fact that the first volume of R. H. Blyth’s Haiku in Four Volumes, published in Tokyo in 1947, happened to be on the shelves of that particular bookshop on that particular day in 1972 seemed improbable. It was in an area of Belfast more noted for ugly sectarianism than an appreciation of Japanese literature, still less the Zen aesthetic in which this literary form is steeped. I’ve often thought there must have been an interesting story behind this battered volume’s journey. In the several decades since buying it, reading, composing, and sometimes publishing haiku have become part of my writing life. R. H. Blyth’s monumental – and monumentally eccentric – work has become well thumbed. The three other volumes were acquired along the way, together with his intriguing Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, which sees a haiku mindset in all sorts of places we’d not expect to find it.

I refer to haiku in the introductions to several of my books, using them as points of reference to cast light on what my essays do. My third collection even embedded the name in its title – Irish Haiku – a choice I sometimes now regret given how often the book is mis-shelved under Irish poetry. But how can the seventeen syllables of a haiku help elucidate what the several thousand words of an essay are attempting? Comparing essays with haiku sounds a bit like trying to explain the nature of mountaineering by pointing to short walks on a beach. The two forms are surely worlds apart.

Despite their obvious dissimilarities, haiku and essays share considerable common ground. Their modus operandi is different, but both are sparked by a desire to express as accurately as possible what falls upon the fabric of their writers’ attention. They’re both concerned with seeing clearly what’s there and putting it into words as precisely as possible. But though they often start from something seen, haiku, like essays, are more about insight and realization – how a moment falls upon the mind, how extraordinary it is – rather than its purely visual components. Both forms foster a sense of wonderment at the familiar. As Issa (1763–1827) puts it:

What a strange thing
To be thus alive
Beneath the cherry blossoms

Writing haiku, like writing essays, requires a sensitivity to what Alexander Smith calls ‘the infinite suggestiveness of common things’.

One of Bashō’s comments sums up how much haiku and essays share: ‘Let not a hair’s breadth separate your mind from what you write’. Isn’t that what any essayist (any writer?) is attempting? Trying to get down on the page as perfect a tracing out in words as it’s possible to achieve of whatever thought-feeling-perception you have in mind and wish to communicate to others.

Haiku often remind me of William Strunk Jr.’s famous – or infamous – seventeenth rule of composition: ‘Omit needless words’. What E. B. White refers to as ‘the masterly Strunkian elaboration of this noble theme’ is one of my favourite passages in The Elements of Style:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no 
unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary 
sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

Strunk would surely have approved of the way haiku, as R. H. Blyth puts it, ‘take away as many words as possible between the thing and the reader’. But if their brevity makes haiku look easy, think again. Remember Pascal’s comment to one of his correspondents: ‘I have made this [letter] longer than usual only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.’ It would be foolish to assume that concision of form equals effortlessness of composition.

I love the pared down immediacy of haiku, their directness and simplicity, the way they offer snapshots of a moment that brings it back to life. I’m drawn to the way they so nearly close Bashō’s hair’s breadth, how they flense away what’s unnecessary with the scalpel of their form, honing perception as they do so. And I’m intrigued by some of the wider questions an encounter with them poses: how briefly can something be said without so truncating it that it fails to come across? What’s the impact of length on meaning? What’s lost and what’s gained when expression is limited to three lines?

Yet for all the allure they exert, I’d not want to have haiku as the only frame within which I write. Yes, their precision is appealing. Their lucid, uncluttered exactitude gives the pleasing sense of having hit the bull’s eye, of having cast the net of words in one graceful throw so that it catches whatever it was aimed at. But sometimes an essay is a better fit for the quarry I’m pursuing. Instead of filling a single breath with all the syllables of sense it’s capable of holding, I want to chronicle a stretch of more extensive breathing, to move from the one-pointedness of haiku to that unravelling of linear magic that sustained prose writing offers.

Perhaps moving between essays and haiku involves a kind of Jekyll and Hyde transformation (though I’m not sure which genre is which character). Maybe it shows a lamentable indecisiveness, chopping and changing because I can’t make up my mind. I prefer to see it as invigorating alternation, enrichment by diversity, a change of literary gear that helps the engine of my writing keep on running.

Chris Arthur lives in St Andrews. His most recent essay collection is Hummingbirds Between the Pages. Among his writing prizes are the Sewanee Review’s Monroe K. Spears Prize, the Akegarasu Haya Prize, and the Times Higher/Palgrave Macmillan Writing Prize in the Humanities.

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