Wednesday, August 23, 2006


My lunchtime reading at work has been a lovely book called The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan by Abigail Friedman. I finished it yesterday, was surprised actually as I turned the last page. I didn't know I was so close to the end, or maybe I just didn't want to believe it, and then no back up book for the rest of my break! So I sat outside in the sun and the quiet and tried to compose a haiku. I loved this book. What I loved best about it is a certain quality of tone, for lack of anything more specific to call it. No matter how bad my day was going as soon as I sat down to read this book during lunch, I felt like I was gently led away to some other place. I found the book soothing and calming. I don't recall a book ever having such an effect on me. Abigail Friedman is a diplomat, has been in the US Foreign Service since 1988 and has been stationed all over the world. She is fluent in Japanese and the book is set during a 3-year period she was in Tokyo several years ago when North Korea was first being threatening about developing nuclear weapons. Friedman had always enjoyed reading classic haiku but never thought of writing it. She had a westerner's attitude that only "real" poets write poetry. But she discovers in Japan that writing haiku is something everyone does. Imagine the craze we have for book groups, change book to haiku writing, and it's like that in Japan. There are also haiku magazines and television shows. Writing haiku is not a hobby, writing haiku is something people do. Friedman learns that the point of haiku is not to be dazzling, but to write a poem that is true to one's self. Writing in this way requires a person to slow down and pay attention, to work at figuring out what one really wants to say. Maybe because of this attentiveness that haiku requires, the people she talked to about haiku, from a haiku master to someone who began writing haiku when he turned 70, seemed kind and wise, at least in relation to poetry. As Friedman learns to write haiku she also learns about the history of the form. Haiku began as the first verse of a longer poem called a renga. The first verse, the hokku, was considered the most important part of the poem. Then Basho came along and separated the hokku from the rest of the renga, turning it into its own poem. The traditional, and natural in Japanese, five-seven-five rhythm stayed with the poem as did the "requirement" to include a seasonal word. There are huge dictionaries of seasonal words and it seems nearly every Japanese person owns one. The haiku group Friedman belonged to preferred traditional haiku, but she notes that poets are stretching the form, playing with it, seeing what it can and can't do. She makes it all sound so exciting. Friedman wrote her haiku in Japanese. When she returned to America she worried about how to write a haiku in English. After some research she discovered that there are no commonly agreed upon rules of haiku in English. The Haiku Society of America defines haiku thus:

A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.
Apparently, a number of contemporary American haiku poets are writing about things that have nothing to do with the seasons or nature, so even this is not a requirement. The book contains several pages of resources, books and websites, to go to for further information. I recommend the The Haiku Apprentice to anyone interested in Japan or haiku, or just looking for a book to help them relax. I don't think I will be starting my own haiku group, but I like the idea of giving haiku writing a try. The one I began composing at lunch yesterday took me long time to complete. I even worked on it when a big thunderstorm rolled through at 4 a.m.! I don't know that it is very good, but it was fun to do:
A stressful work day an evening of books and blogs I am released