The Whys and Wherefores of Writing Poetry
In the last issue, without any fanfare, I introduced Haiku Heaven. Now I’d like to explain why. First of all, why poetry? Hundreds of studies have shown that writing poetry improves our mental and physical health. Although reading poetry is certainly helpful, it is in writing where we reap the greatest awards.
Why Haiku? Because of its utter simplicity, this Japanese form of poetry is accessible to all. Moreover, more than any other form of poetry, in my opinion, it plugs into nature. It is experiential, relying on what we feel, not what we think, but more about that later. First, let’s look at poetry in general and then examine Haiku in particular. Finally, I will invite you to join us in Haiku Haven; that is, I invite you to send your Haiku to be posted in our Haiku Haven column (see the end of the article for details).
An Overview of Poetry
Pulsating poetry permeates passionate people. Does that sentence seem to have a rhythmical beat? So does life and the cosmos. Everything vibrates, from the beating of your heart to the humming of our planet (which vibrates at 7.83 Hz).
What better way to express life’s significance than by poetry? For like our heart, our planet, and our universe, it carries its message rhythmically. But our universe can not only be heard, it can be seen as well. In fact, the sight of it is far more spectacular than its songs. The same can be said for poetry. Its rhythm is merely the background accompanying imposing imagery painted by words.
This article is neither about poetry nor a call for poetry appreciation. Rather, it is a call for poetry creation. Yes, that’s right, if you’re not already doing so, I suggest you consider writing poetry. Let’s look at some of the reasons for doing so.
1. Although art, literature, and music may not be necessary for existence, they almost certainly are for life. For as French scientist and philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote, “To feel most beautifully alive means to be reading something beautiful, ready always to apprehend in the flow of language the sudden flash of poetry.” You see, not to experience poetry is, in a sense, not to feel and be aware of life.
2. Consider for a moment, the many levels there are in enjoying music. You can enjoy it at home. Yet, you will enjoy it more in the concert hall. And you would enjoy it even more if you were a member of the orchestra in the concert hall, still more if you were the conductor of the orchestra, and most of all if you were the composer conducting the orchestra. So it is with poetry. You enjoy it most when you are the composer or creator. So, poetry is worth writing for the sheer pleasure it will bring.
3. Poetry is magic, for it unveils and reveals the beauty in our surroundings and experiences. Here’s how Jean Cocteau describes it: “Such is the role of poetry. It unveils, in the strict sense of the word. It lays bare, under a light which shakes off torpor, the surprising things which surround us and which our senses record mechanically.” Another magical aspect of poetry is it distills life, much as Haiku distills the moment. So, as a poet, you will share insights, reveal hidden beauty, and illuminate others with your sparkling revelations. Poetry, then, is an opportunity for you to express the inexpressible.
4. As a poet, you will grow increasingly aware of your surroundings, relishing the moment. For you will “Take a commonplace, clean it and polish it, light it so that it produces the same effect of youth and freshness and originality and spontaneity as it did originally…” (Jean Cocteau). In a word, you will restore to life “what is lost in translation.” (Robert Frost)
5. Poetry is a venue for you to express your emotions. Just as when the stings of the Stradivarius are stroked, they resonate and fill the room with music, your poetry will cause your soul to resonate, filling the hearts of your readers with the melody of life. Your poetry will allow you to share, contribute, move, and inspire. What’s more, you will learn that your poetry doesn’t belong to you, but to those who need it.
6. Another reason to write is for the challenge. Writing poetry is no easy task, for as Carl Sandburg wrote, “Poetry is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the sky.” Yet, neither is it difficult, for it is about doing what comes naturally. We may have temporarily lost our natural gift, but with a little bit of practice, it will soon return.
7. Following the path of poetry leads to growing more attuned with your inner life. It allows you to discover your hidden resources and become your own best friend. Once your heart ignites with passion, you will be able to pass the torch to others. People need to hear your message, for as Dame Edith Sitwell wrote, “The poet speaks to all men of that other life of theirs that they have smothered and forgotten.” Similarly, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.”
8. Is something disturbing you? Are you going through a painful experience? What better way to get it out of your system than by writing poetry? Poetry is cathartic. It allows you to transfer the pain from your mind to a sheet of paper. And as you focus on the rhyme, rhythm, and resonance of the poem you are creating, all thoughts of pain recede, much like the ebb tide. Pain has given birth to some of the finest works of art and is a perfect example of how we can extract something positive from even the most negative circumstance.
9. Poets learn how to be both brief and precise. They develop clarity of mind.
10. Writing poetry develops creativity. Besides learning how to see things in new ways, we also learn how to use words in new ways.
11. You can write for fun and humor, limericks are an example.
12. The subject of mindfulness and meditation is raised with great frequency because of the physical and mental health benefits. Well, one cannot write poetry without being mindful or living in the moment. Writing poetry is similar to meditation and spending 30 minutes to 1 hour a day on it will produce profound benefits by reducing the damaging effects of stress and will bring about peace of mind.
13. Spiritual growth. Poets grow in acceptance, compassion, and understanding. You need not deliberately seek these attributes, for they are naturally cultivated as you tune in to the world around you.
14. Discipline. You reap the greatest rewards when you make the writing of poetry a daily habit. Once you do so, the discipline you have established will spill over to other areas of your life. Discipline is the foundation of success in life.
15.Gratitude. A great deal has been written about the attitude of gratitude and its positive impact on our health. Poets appreciate life and are thankful for it.
16. Humility of spirit is as beautiful as a butterfly resting on a wildflower. And when writing poetry about butterflies and wildflowers, all attention is removed from the self and directed toward the wonders of life. How can one not grow humble when writing poetry?
17.Making time for poetry is making time for the enjoyment of life. And with each poem, there is the joy of accomplishment.
18. Poetry develops reflection, introspection, and contemplation.
19. Poets develop focus, shifting focus from the general to the specific, and then refocusing on the big picture.
20. Poets learn to probe deeply. They see things sharply.
21. Poems are meant for sharing. As a poet you will be in a position to share your gift with others. You will help inspire and enhance the lives of others.
22. Because of their clarity of mind, poets learn how to unravel the mysteries and complexities of life.
23. Poetry adds beauty and meaning to life.
Does becoming a poetappear to be beyond your reach? Well, the ability to write poetry is innate. That is, it is as natural as walking. True, those who spend time practicing can walk more gracefully, but most of us can walk with little or no effort. The same is true for poetry. We can write it if we try. However, a little guidance will make our efforts much more fruitful. See the References section at the end of this article for some good books.
Also, look for poetry clubs you can join and courses you can take. And be sure to explore the vast poetry resources on the Internet.Don’t mistakenly believe you have nothing to add to the world of poetry because everything has already been said. Has every wave struck the rocks? Of course not. You see, your poetry can be, as Ralph Waldo Emersonwrote, “…as new as foam and as old as the rock.” So, write it. Share it, and enjoy it.
The Charming World of Haiku
In the West, Haiku poetry is a Japanese import that is not nearly as well-known as Sushi. But as one is food for the body, the other is food for the soul. Haiku are known for their brevity — just three short lines, totaling seventeen syllables. They are as short as a breath. And good ones take your breath away. A Haiku poet lives with the understanding that “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”
Sushi is no longer only eaten by the Japanese, and is now enjoyed by millions of non-Japanese. Shouldn’t the same be said for Haiku? I’m not merely suggesting that you read Haiku, but that you write it. Why? In addition to the reasons already outlined earlier in my discussion of poetry, here are four additions or clarifications:
1. The subject of Haiku is nature, so writing Haiku is about connecting with Nature, plugging into it, and tapping into something far greater than ourselves. Immersing ourselves in nature is like diving into a pool of spirituality. It is like becoming a raindrop and falling into the ocean, where we lose our identity and become one with the world.
2. Writing Haiku frees us from idle dreams of the future or meaningless lingering in the past because it forces us to live in the present moment. How else can you taste and savor life than by living in the now? And that’s precisely what Haiku trains us to do.
3. Like meditation, creating Haiku quiets the mind and envelops us with peace. Patricia Monaghan & Eleanor G. Viereck write about using Haiku as a form of meditation in their book, “MEDITATION, The Complete Guide“. Since writing Haiku has the same stress-reducing benefits as meditation, isn’t it worthwhile exploring?
4. Writing Haiku exercises the right hemisphere of the brain, thereby strengthening our intuition and creativity.
But before we can write Haiku, we need to know a little more about it. Haiku has four characteristics:
1. FORM. It is written in three lines. Line one has five syllables; line two, seven syllables, and line three, five. So, the form is 5-7-5 syllables. Here’s an example:
Stormy mountain night: (5)
Following a way revealed (7)
by moments of day (5).
Actually, writing the 17 syllables in three lines is the custom followed when writing in English. In Japan, however, the entire poem is written in a single line of 17 syllables.
2. SUBJECT. The subject matter of Haiku is Nature.
3. SEASON. In addition to dealing with nature, the season is suggested or implied. For example, in the above poem, it is the rainy season (summer).
How do we know? Well, the poet is struggling to find his way on a mountain path on a stormy night. And flashes of lightning (“moments of day”) help him by lighting his way. We know it is summer because that is when we have lightning storms.
4. BREAK. A Haiku usually consists of a point and counterpoint. It has a subject and an element of contrast. Or the break may reveal a new insight or change of perspective. For instance, in the above poem, written by James Hackett, the author invites us to look at lightning in a new way; mainly, as “moments of day.”
The best way to learn more about Haiku is to look at more examples. But before doing so, I will briefly mention a controversy among Haiku poets who write in English. One school of thought says that English Haiku should adhere to the same form as Japanese Haiku; that is, 5-7-5 syllables. The other school believes that 17 syllables in English are too many to capture the brevity of Japanese Haiku. That’s because English 5-7-5 Haiku have more words than their Japanese counterparts. How can this be? Well, English is rich in one-syllable nouns, adjectives, and verbs, whereas in Japanese they are all polysyllabic. Here are some examples. Cloud, snow, rain, grass, and sky are all one syllable in English, but two syllables in Japanese. And walk, run, jump, or fly, are one in English and two or three syllables in Japanese. Finally, cold, hot, warm, big, and small are one in English and three or four in Japanese.
Although Japanese Haiku cannot contain as many words as English 5-7-5 Haiku, this ‘weakness’ is more than offset by the nature of the Japanese language. You see, Japanese implies much more than is spoken or written. As an example, let’s look at a poem written by one of Japan’s legendary four Haiku Masters, (Masaoka) Shiki. Here’s his poem in English:
After coming out
to close the gate, I end up
listening to frogs
And here’s a literal translation of the Japanese:
To close the gate, after coming out. Ah! Frogs!
Note how the Japanese “Ah! Frogs!” is equal to many words, for what Shiki is saying is, “After I left my house to close the front gate, I unexpectedly heard frogs croaking in my garden and stopped to listen. Ah!”
So, in conclusion, although it is fine to write Haiku with fewer than 17 syllables in English, I don’t believe it is necessary to do so. One could argue that using less than 17 syllables in English is to ignore the form and write without rules (free verse). And as Robert Frost wrote, “I would as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.” So, my suggestion is to stick with 5-7-5 when possible or practical.
Now, let’s look at a series of poems to get a greater feel for what Haiku is about. We’ll begin with a sample taken from each of the three other Japanese Haiku Masters: (Matsuo) Bashô, (Yosa) Buson, and (Kobayashi) Issa.
A clear waterfall:
Into the ripples fall green
A strong gust of wind:
And the flock of water birds
now all become white
(Because the wind exposes their white down.)
ISSA: (Example of free form translation)
and the village floods
(After the heavy snow melts, the village children can come out to play onceagain.)
Here are examples from my own Haiku:
Lively children play
among the cherry blossoms:
In the old graveyard
(In Japan, cherry trees are often planted in graveyards
because the blossoms remind us of the brevity of life.)
A wilted lily
resting on a rusty gate:
Stolen by the wind.
Winter morning mist:
The receding village fades
like a memory
Rugged mountain path
disappearing in the clouds:
Voices from afar
Wave, splash, foam, wet feet:
Sinking in the sand of time
A glistening trail:
on fallen leaves is all that
remains of the snail
Barren winter trees
sprouting birds on every branch:
Memories of spring
A swaying tree branch:
Hidden in the swirling snow
tightly clinging dove
Cat paw prints in snow:
Melting and leaving behind
warmth of early spring
To get you thinking, here are a handful of techniques that can help your Haiku:
1. Alliteration (using several words that begin with the same or similar consonants)
Warm snowy day:
Slurping sounds of slush
follow me home
2. Evoke multiple senses
Dripping pearls of dew
Sparkle in the sun amidst
fragrance of flowers
(Evokes senses of sound, sight, and smell)
3. Synesthesia (evocation of one kind of sense impression when another sense is stimulated)
In the bitter cold
walking with hunched shoulders on
sounds of crunchy snow
(It is as if the sounds of crunchy snow were supporting my weight)
4. Break. The break is the fourth characteristic of Haiku that I wrote about earlier. It is a point of contrast or comparison, a striking difference.
The fragrance of spring
Flowers everywhere —
Hothouse in the snow
5. Metaphors. (A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action that it does not literally denote.)
Lowering its head
the melting snowman sighing—
The March breeze moaning
I’ve touched on a few techniques; there are many more, and I’m sure you can come up with your own new way of seeing things.
What do you think? Are you ready to begin? All it takes is a walk in the park and a willingness to allow nature to speak to you. The purpose of prose is to inform; the purpose of poetry is to stir one’s heart, and the purpose of Haiku is to connect to life. Don’t miss out; plug yourself in and discover how Haiku is proof that good things come in small packages.
Please join in the fun, adventure, and discoveries offered by Haiku.