Haiku Inspirations and The Pocket Notebook
I’m pleased to introduce Kelly Shepherd, who is providing a guest post here. I enjoy his blog, which combines information about writing, travel, and nature, plus great photos. Kelly currently teaches English in South Korea, but returns to Canada this fall where he will attend grad school in Environmental Studies. He spends his free time hiking, exploring, writing non-fiction, and working on his second chapbook of poetry. Thanks so much, Kelly, for writing about your work with haiku, one of my favourite poetry forms.
What is haiku poetry?
I am a relative newcomer to the world of haiku and don’t pretend to be an expert. However, I have a few ideas and suggestions which I hope might be useful. I’d like to begin with a question for you: What is haiku poetry?
One of the more fascinating descriptions I’ve read is on Alan Summers’ haiku website, with words:
Traditionally haiku are rooted in natural history and the seasons, and make us co-conspirators with wildlife, as nature half-writes the haiku before we’ve even put pen to paper.
What does the term ‘haiku poetry’ evoke in your mind? Perhaps you learned about haiku in elementary school—short nature poems with a clever ‘punch line’ for an ending—and you haven’t thought much about them since. Maybe you studied Japanese in school, or lived in Japan, and have been at close quarters with the real thing, haiku in its original language. Perhaps you write them and have been published. Or maybe you’ve never tried, but have always been curious.
Depending on their background, people will give dramatically different answers to the question, ‘What is haiku?’— and I’d like to think that none of the people would be entirely wrong. Nor would any of them give a perfect and sufficient definition in and of itself. According to Summers: There are as many descriptions of haiku as there are stars in the night sky.
Haiku’s form and subject matter
What is haiku poetry? Traditional haiku do not rhyme. They are written in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. They generally include a seasonal reference.
Many modern and / or international poets take a more liberal approach to writing haiku, one closer to the spirit if not the letter of the law. Some question and abandon the 5-7-5 structure, not to mention some other formal and obscure rules. Perhaps reflecting our society’s increasing disconnect from nature, many poets have replaced the nature references and seasonal words with a more urban sensibility.
Beat-generation poet and novelist Jack Kerouac is a good example. He emphasized haiku’s brevity and potential enlightenment and paid less attention to the rules regarding syllables and so on. He wrote:
I propose that the ‘Western Haiku’ simply say a lot in three short lines in any Western language. Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture…. (Kerouac, Jack. Book of Haikus. Regina Weinreich, Ed. New York: Penguin, 2003.)
As an example, here is one of my own haiku:
smell of salt:
sidewalk ice melting
in front of fish tents
Other haiku are accessible from the DailyHaiku site.
Kerouac described how a little notebook that he carried in his shirt pocket influenced his poetry writing. The size of his notebook’s pages dictated the line length and therefore the rhythms and images in his poetry. One wonders if this was also the case with some of the early Japanese haiku masters. They often traveled long distances on foot and may have opted not to carry large scrolls, books, or cumbersome stacks of paper. Was haiku invented based on traveler’s sized writing paper?
Using a Pocket Notebook
Several years ago, I too began carrying a small notebook in my pocket wherever I went. It came in handy for telephone numbers, addresses, shopping lists—but these were not the reasons I carried it.
I was trying to become a writer. A poet. Recording striking images or moments I didn’t want to forget; bits and pieces of conversation overheard on buses or in restaurants; or anything that happened to catch my eye or my ear. But most of all I was trying to write haiku—or, for the sake of the purists out there, let’s say I was trying to compose Western Haiku. I was hitch-hiking and camp counselling and peeling potatoes; I was traveling; I was teaching elementary school; I was attending university; and I was doing landscaping and construction work. And I was always carrying that little notebook and a pen in my pocket.
For me, the pocket notebook has become a refuge. A place of privacy, of personal freedom. A spontaneous storage unit for memories, for those times when so much is going on so quickly I think I can never keep up. The pocket notebook has become a part of me. I never go anywhere without one.
It has become a repository of lines, images, and fragments—the raw material that I use as the building blocks for later writing. Some of my haiku-like poems appear as if by magic. At other times, I need to work on them painstakingly, scribbling out lines and reworking the rhythm until it fits. And sometimes it just doesn’t fit. At the end of the day, anything worth saving can be transferred to another more permanent notebook—while the chaff is allowed to blow away.
Kelly Shepherd, Seoul, South Korea
May 31, 2009