More Haiku

I count myself extremely fortunate that I was able to take part in a Zoom conference about haiku recently. It was organised by Upaya Institute Zen Centre, Santa Fe and the main speakers were Roshi Joan Halifax, Kazuaki Tanahashi, Clarke Strand and Natalie Goldberg.

This was an in-depth exploration lasting nearly six hours, with breaks. There was the opportunity to ask questions but with 370 participants the hosts had to be selective.

One of the most interesting discussions was about translations from Japanese (or Chinese) into English – the best translators didn’t try and squeeze the syllable count into the 5-7-5 format thereby avoiding artificiality. When haiku are written in English some thought the 17 syllable constraint encouraged creativity and added an extra punch. In the end there seems to be no hard and fast rule. As Natalie Goldberg said, β€œIt’s whatever kills you!” (Rather like Emily Dickinson’s remark that good poetry should blow the top of your head off!)

Everyone agreed that a really effective haiku wasn’t easy to write although superficially they can appear simple. Reading a haiku is also a learned skill and cannot entirely be separated from writing one. Both reading and writing require attention to detail, effort, a quiet mind and awareness of the depths of the mysteries of existence. There is usually something implied underneath the literal words.

One aspect I didn’t mention in my previous post was the element of ‘turn’ – an unexpected change of direction, sometimes an understated touch of humour or allusion to the ineffable.

Traditionally four elements weave in and out of haiku to suggest depths of meaning beyond the words. These are, sabi (isolation) wabi (poverty) aware (impermanence) and yugen (mystery).

After such an exposure I feel a certain trepidation in offering mine. Please keep in mind that some of the Chinese and Japanese masters rejected many of their attempts and even in present-day Japan haiku-poets may choose one out of every hundred they write.

I might pick three or four out of mine. I’d be interested to know if any stand out for you.




in the passion flower


my vitality

can only boil a kettle

this winter morning


dusk remains

in the bat’s erratic flight


late August

twilight muffles

an owl’s hoot


Christmas day

a nightingale disappears

into a pear tree


skylarks singing

dog walkers ignore the hymn

while we look up



I fumble with

my binoculars


the night sky in June

my telescope in moth-balls

only bats flying


August rain

on a window-ledge three pigeons

huddle headless


a midnight bust-up

I take my binoculars

and look at Venus


in this confused world

even a slug

knows what to do