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1st Sailing

Sails is a section of troutswirl that is devoted to presenting questions for discussion and debate on the nature and possibilities of haiku. Sails will be overseen by Peter Yovu. For an introduction to this section, see Sails.

1st Sailing

by Peter Yovu


Why do you read haiku?

In interviews, writers are often asked: “Why do you write”? I don’t think I’ve ever come across the question: “Why do you read”? For us, the question is: “Why do you read haiku”? If you are a writer, do you bring a poet’s sensibility to reading, or something different? If you are that rare person who does not write but only reads haiku, please tell us what your experience is. If anyone wishes to tell the story of their first encounter with haiku, please do. What effect does it have upon you? What would you tell others to encourage them to read haiku (or perhaps you could change the question slightly and say how you like to read—while listening, for example, to Debussy, or to Led Zeppelin)? There are of course many questions within the question presented, and that will likely always be the case. And by the way, in a few weeks a new “sail” will be hoisted, but that does not mean this subject will be closed. In time, I hope, there will be an accumulation of many questions and many responses which may be visited and revisited at any time. Okay then, I look forward to what you have to say. I’ll drop a line or two myself at some point.

This Post Has 35 Comments

  1. Good question:

    I’m sorry to say that I do not own a copy of any Wills’s
    books, although I have acquired a number of John’s
    poems, especially his bird haiku and I have them printed
    out. Why? Because John takes me to those places that I
    know and am familiar with; probably better than anyone
    else can. That said. Nicolas A. Virgilio’s Selected
    Haiku, is probably the only volume of haiku that I have
    reread say a dozen times(?). Why? Because I have writ-
    ten a lot of poems about loss, especially about my still-
    born son, as Nick did about his younger brother. And
    honestly, I do not recall how many times that I have
    given away my copy and/or have sold copies for the
    Virgilio Haiku Assoc., at HSA meetings along with the New

    But, I am not a great reader, I am a fan of poets, and as
    Micheal, I also look to see what some friends are doing
    whether we’ve met at meetings, or are simply good Net

    The main reason that I do not read a lot of haiku is
    because I do not want to be influenced by anyone, not
    that there is anything wrong with it, it’s just the way I am.

    Some of my favorite poets are: Peter Yovu, Vince Tripi,
    Yu Chang, the late John Crook, Gary Hotham, & H.F. Noyes.
    I’ve followed here, both Burns & Mason, since they came

  2. Follow up to last post . When I said “if there was ever a haiku photographer… it was H C-B” I was referring to one aspect of the art of haiku, to what we usually refer to as “the haiku moment”. Cartier-Bresson, not only in his photos but in his writings, is brilliantly linked to the aspirations and practices of those who write in that fashion, and I believe much can be learned from him. But if you accept, as I do, that there are other aspects and possibilities re: haiku, than it is possible to look at and learn from other photographers. One might go to Minor White, for example, for sacred and inner geometries; and one might go to Jerry Uelsmann or Robert ParkeHarrison for work that corresponds to gendai haiku, or at least some aspects of it. The connections between haiku and photography go far beyond “snapshot”.

    Click on my name for Minor White photo.

  3. Quick heads up. The 2nd Sailing while be posted very soon. In the meantime, if you haven’t said a few words about why you read haiku, won’t you take a moment and do so?

    By the way, sometimes I like to *look* at haiku. If there was ever a haiku photographer (or some such illogic) it was Henri Cartier-Bresson. I look at (read) his haiku-photographs to experience the geometry of things. Click on my name for an example. Notice for one, the jux of cobblestones and cakes….

  4. I hope I’m not too late. I couldn’t let the subject of bears go by without adding some haiku of Carol Purington. Carol certainly knows here bears”
    Spring thaw
    bear prints
    on the picnic table (Carol thinks this is an unpublished haiku so I guess it’s published now)

    Moon of Baby Bears
    In the quiet-shadowed room
    the children’s dreams

    Our eyes
    following the path through tall grass –

    Chokecherry ripeness –
    beyond the bear’s gorging
    white-cold hunger

    Carol has sent all of these haiku to me with permission to publish them here on this blog. If you’d like me to forward the e-mail with the permission I will be happy to do so.

    If you want to know why I read haiku, Carol is one of the reasons. Carol is a quadraplegic. When I met her I was battling paralysis. I am now facing the fact that I may have to deal with that again as I age. I got the news today and today I got Carol’s bear haiku. She had to look them up. She has other tanka bears also.

    Carol also sent along roses…ancestry, fragrance and thorns.

    I read haiku for people who speak my language. I am not alone. And I am full of gratitude and wonder in the friendships haiku has brought me that help me deal with “bears.”

  5. Others have already pointed out many of the reasons I read haiku, but I’ll throw in my two cents.

    The simplest response would be that I enjoy it and reading a well-written haiku makes me unbelievably happy. When I read a haiku that blows my mind or makes me think in a new way, I’ll often have a lighter step for the rest of the day.

    My needs for writing and reader haiku overlap. Depending on the day, I may be looking to strengthen my skills as a writer, and other days as a reader, but in the end, they complement one another. As a writer, I like to see what others are writing (Michael Welch made a good point about catching up with friends), and what seems to work for them–word choice, style, form. As a reader, I look to become more perspective, but also to let my mind explore new territory and come to a better understanding of the haiku, of the art of haiku, of people around me, etc.

    Perhaps more importantly I find reading haiku to be a discipline in its own way. Something that must be done on a regular basis to seriously engage the art and the community. But at the same time, it’s therapeutic, and sometimes I approach reading as a meditative practice. Sometimes I will read haiku to pause and breath, to take a break and to put myself in a certain frame of mind–to let go and to open up. Haiku is a form of escape without really escaping reality. It merely means stepping back and looking at things quietly. Haiku offers an experience for both the reader and writer that is equally welcoming (albeit challenging at times) to both parties. I’m fond of the the fact that the text, the lines/words are just the beginning. Perhaps what I’m trying to say is that even as a reader I am participating. I am not just the recipient of the poem, but then providing something back by my own reading/interpretation of it.

    As others have noted in their own practices, I often read for inspiration and always keep a pen and paper nearby while reading. How I read affects how I write not only my haiku, but my prose and story telling. Sometimes I think haiku is what I was looking for for years but never really realized until I found it.

  6. Getting back to Roberta’s bear, I find that “unspoken” quality that is so vital to poetry that is condensed in haiku. It’s the mystery of the thing.
    The universal unknowing that you feel priviledged to grasp which seems to be so satisfying to the human psyche.

  7. One response I have to this 1st Sailing comes in the form of a question. If you find yourself in a room with two windows, one large, a picture window perhaps, and the other tiny, which one are you drawn to?

  8. Peter,

    Thanks for your question. I follow my thought about haiku taking us into intuition echoing Michael Dylan Welch and Bloom–poems expand consciousness. Yes. Where the intuitive reaches, for example, just happended now as I re-read Lee Gurga’s poem that ends with the milky way.

    That poem took me to my step-dad’s barn, countless nights walking from the barn, to the wondering I imagined then about my future, to the now that is my lunch hour expanded. So I am imagining life over a ham sandwich because of his poem–and what Mr. Welch says about connecting to infinity. I wish it were easily articulated. Its more easily travelled in the province of haiku.

    The Speculations Bob Spiess wrote now over 10 years ago used to suggest to me that the place where a haiku touched the human was at the nexus of intuition and image. This is a place that is less bound, and I believe, we return to it for the freedom we seek in poetry. It changes the mind in a way that opens. So that’s where I go over a ham sandwich. Make sense? Your thoughts? Thanks for the blog, people.

  9. I read haiku for multiple reasons. One is because a good haiku, for me, is an approach to infinity. Somehow, it collapses time in its focus on the instant. That instant becomes eternal and makes the universe — in both time and space — feel as one. The whole universe feels like it snaps into place. Thus a good haiku is both comforting and transcendent, even if the subject matter might be dark.

    Another reason is much more practical. Anyone who has been involved with the haiku community for any length of time soon makes friends, and virtual friends, with many other haiku poets writing this poetry. So reading haiku is a simple way to “catch up” with one’s friends! When I receive a haiku journal, I scan the index and turn to poems by particular people. Of course, you have no way of knowing if the poem is recent or several years old (even if just published), nor should we assume that all haiku are strictly autobiographical, but even if we are not catching up with each friend’s personal life, we can read haiku to catch up with the art of each friend’s haiku life, and that too is a valuable blessing. It’s enjoyable and stimulating to see if favourite writers are branching out to new ways of writing, or if something we know has been going on in their life has inspired a particularly strong or moving haiku that we haven’t yet read. The name of each poet is a sort of “brand” and I always enjoy seeing what various poets are doing — and in reading poets who are new to me.

    Another reason to read haiku, of course, is for the variety of voices. Sometimes we write haiku in a narrow comfort zone, and it’s good to understand where those boundaries exist. Reading sufficient amounts of haiku (or any poetry) will help us better understand our poetic limitations and perhaps suggest avenues for new exploration. I’ve long thought that we shouldn’t read haiku (or other kinds of poetry) just for the sake of understanding ourselves, but also to understand others. Sure, the poet should have some degree of respect for his or her audience to make the poem reasonably clear. But sometimes the reader also needs to move — to understand where the POET is coming from. Thus the “strangeness” that exists in some haiku may be the fault of the reader just as often as the writer. In The Art of Reading Poetry, Harold Bloom says that “poetry at its greatest . . . has one broad and essential difficulty: it is the true mode for expanding consciousness.” This difficulty, he says, he has “learned to call strangeness.” As I have written elsewhere, we should apprehend haiku not just from where we are, but from where the poet is. This is why it is important to read haiku regularly. For some of us, haiku is as essential as breathing.

    Indeed, as any writing teacher will tell you, the best way to learn poetry is to read as much of it as you can. The same is true of haiku — which, I believe, requires trained readers just as much as trained writers (I believe Seamus Heaney has pointed this out before). Anyone who is new to haiku should read plenty of haiku simply to learn haiku — to see what works and doesn’t work, and figure out why. Anyone who is more seasoned haiku can still continue to read haiku for these reasons. Fortunately, whatever the reasons might be for someone to read haiku, the poems themselves remain their own best reward, and I’m grateful to countless haiku writers who have enriched my life, and also my own poetry, by the examples of their haiku.

    Michael Dylan Welch

  10. My First experience with haiku came from reading a book by Jane Reichold. I have no idea why I read it. Just purchased it on Amazon. Then on line had the good fortune to meet Anya,Kirsty Karkow and others who have guided me. We belong to a community willing to help novices learn the craft. In part due to the communities openness and that of the art form itself I read it and write something most days.

  11. I think haiku addresses a key aspect of experience and one which troubles the mind: the yes-no of ultimate meanings in experience. The gap between the parts as I understand it and try to practice it allows a flash of otherwise non-cognitive awareness to happen; I used to call that “the hinge of heaven” but “heaven” doesn’t say these days what I mean. Haiku addresses the existential problem indexed by thinkers as the ontological difference. Haiku among poetic forms is wonderfully suited to this job of work.

  12. I read haiku to be inspired and to discover what inspires others. I read it to discover the small and large events that make up a life, and how these events in the lives of others often are similar to the events in my own life. I read it to discover how other poets capture these events so perfectly in such a short poem and hope to gain some insight into how to write my own.

  13. I’m glad Billie brought up the truth that haiku has “more than one meaning” if haiku has “meaning” at all? I’ve often enjoyed coming back to haiku and seeing a whole new revelation or experience or haiku moment. As my own situations grows and changes it give a perpetually new perspective. It’s one of the pleasures I find in haiku.

  14. Allan Burns pretty much answered this for me, but that won’t stop me from adding a few more words.

    I read haiku as a morning meditation for an hour each day. It centers me, inspires me, and opens my world to let in the world as seen through each poet’s eyes.

    I also read haiku to learn how to read haiku. Many an essayist has noted–and I’ve learned for myself–that properly reading haiku is possibly as important a skill as writing it.

    In my early days after discovering the worldwide haiku community, I didn’t bother to read the journals to which I submitted my first poems. When my mailbox filled with rejections slips, I determined to learn why all these fine poems didn’t make the cut. So I actually subscribed to some of the journals and began my studies.

    Early on, I rejected most of what I read because I was reading too shallowly. I knew nothing about juxtaposition, resonance, kigo, or anything else. I’d simply written a bunch of three-line poems that seemed to be haiku, and the stuff that was being published didn’t bear any resemblance to my work at all. I struggled to find the differences. This led to ordering the first books of what was to become a haiku library so extensive, my husband is certain the ceiling above his favorite chair is going to come down upon him.

    Last August, I sat in Carolyn Hall’s garden discussing haiku with John Stevenson. He was telling me about being present when Nick Virgilio’s famous “lily” haiku was read by one person and interpreted in sign language by another. He mentioned how enlightening this was, and I foolishly asked, “Well, isn’t there only one meaning?” Oh my, oh my, how much I still have to learn!

    So I continue to read haiku with an ever-growing appreciation of how much more there might be to discover in each one.

    1. This exchange kinda got lost over in the Intro to Sails posting:
      July 9, 2009

      Claire Richardot: I too read haiku, much more than my poor writing. All I can say now is sometimes I see one that gives me a good swift kick in the senses. You know the old film “Un Chien Andalou” of Bunuel? You know the famous eye scene? I’m thinking about that.

      Scott Metz: This?:

      CR: Yes. Ouch.

  15. How ’bout some bear haiku?

    den of the bear
    beyond the great rocks
    storm clouds
    (John Wills)

    looking at the air
    where the bear passed
    last night
    (Paul O. Williams)

    a black bear
    noses muscadines
    slow summer stream
    (Peggy Willis Lyles)

    traffic wind
    in the black-eyed Susans
    a dead bear
    (Paul MacNeil)

    snow patches
    the bones of bears
    in this dirt
    (paul m.)

    after the bear–
    the silence of
    broken spider webs
    (Jack Barry)

    blackberry brier
    an old boundary post
    clawed by bears
    (Allan Burns)

    One thing striking about this group is the indirection. The bears are never confronted directly. In all but one the bear isn’t even present, only inferred from a sign or remembered or found dead. And in the one exception there’s a strong pastoral feeling, no sense of threat. I think this speaks to the indirect method typical of haiku. Something as large and menacing as a bear isn’t easy, somehow, to squeeze into such a little poem; it’s in the suggestion of a bear’s presence–a bear that has passed by or left its mark, and thus may still be lurking nearby–that a haiku seems more likely to be found.

    I realize this has gone tangential! But please feel free to add any other bear haiku to this little collection. Would be interesting to see whether they conform to these sketchy ideas or not.

    1. “Our first tangible evidence of mythological thinking are from the period of Neanderthal Man (ca. 250,000 – ca. 50, 000 BC); and these comprise, first, burials with food supplies, grave gear, tools, sacrificed animals, and the like; and second, a number of chapels in high-mountain caves, where cave-bear skulls, ceremonially disposed in symbolic settings, have been preserved. . . . . Particularly instructive . . . is the instance of bear cult of the Ainu of Japan (Hokkaido) . . . [who] have the sensible idea that this world is more attractive than the next, and that godly beings residing in that other, consequently, are inclined to come pay us visits. They arrive n the shapes of animals [bear]. . . . But in any case, we can surely say . . . that the bear is . . . a venerated beast, that his powers survive death and are effective in the preserved skull, that rituals serve to link those powers to the aims of the human community, and that the power of fire is in some manner associated with the rites” (Joseph Campbell, Myths To Live By, 31-35).

      1. some more bear ku:

        How soft is the nap
        of a female bear’s skin
        when a male’s is near.

        -Yamaguchi Seishi (Essence of Modern Haiku, 15)

        Nurtured in a cage,
        a bear cub licking away
        at his iron chain.

        -Yamaguchi Seishi (E of MH, 231)

        mountains and rivers …
        the gaping mouth
        of a just-born bear

        -Sabine Miller (Roadrunner VII:4, Nov. ’07)

        Come and drink of this clear water,
        And bears.

        -Masaoka Shiki (Blyth, Haiku 3, 93)

        bear needs no second look at me

        -Jim Kacian (Path Made by Bears, Towpath Anthology 2005)

        green bear
        in the junky vacant lot
        cast iron stomach

        -Kaneko Tôta (Higginson, Haiku Handbook [1985], 41)

        green bear
        the chapel’s morning
        pounding pounding

        -Kaneko Tôta (Higginson, Haiku Handbook [1985], 41)

  16. Dan, can you say a little more about how haiku “changes your mind… opens [you] to where intuition goes”? What you say is perfectly clear, I just think it deserves more space if you care to jump further in.

  17. Haiku changes my mind. It removes me from an outcome and production world, and opens me to where intuition goes. Good ones leave a grin. Great ones make me get out the pencil. I read them at day’s end to process the blur.

    Thanks for this effort, all of you who made this site possible.

    1. wow:

      “The secret life of belly and bone,” . . .

      this really touches upon why i read haiku, why i read in general.

  18. “the heavy bear who goes with me”

    Good to know Delmore Schwartz is not forgotten.

  19. As an artist I read haiku (poetry) to help me verbalize the images,as a pretty isolated disabled person, I read haiku for an intimate exchange with other people whose lives enrich mine by sharing their haiku experiences.

    There’s an old figure that goes something like this: “Frog at the bottom of the well thinks the sky is the size of the pot’s lid” . . . and so for me to see the sky in its full dimension I come to haiku. In a haiku, especially when I have some idea who wrote it and where they are in the world, I have a fuller and richer understanding of the human state. Now as I age and find my eye sight is not as sharpas it used to be and my disability keeps me from doing some of the paintings I used to do, I find myself engaging in haiku more and more. I must confess I do read haiku more than I write it since I find language really a second and alternative thought process.
    Now where else would we have the privaledge of being introduced to
    Roberta Beary’s “bear”? I owe her a deep debt of gratitude for teaching me how to dance with my own!

  20. I think of four interrelated reasons, some touched on already:

    1) For aesthetic pleasure. There’s a special jolt an effective haiku delivers, unlike any other use of language. Call it what you will, suggestiveness, implicitness, disjunction, resonance, multivalence. Any haiku worthy of the name requires “entering” and cannot be read at a glance. It’s that pleasure of engaging so few words so carefully selected. Loving what genuine haiku do is the first and most important reason for me.

    2) To share in the experiences of others. Real, synthesized, imagined: It doesn’t matter. It’s the words someone put on a page that I never would have myself. A window into something beyond the self that expands & enriches our sense of the world.

    3) To learn the craft. If you’re writing haiku, reading them keeps you sharp. So much to be assimilated from reading the work of any quality haiku poet–the way words are placed on a page & the silences between them. Handbooks have their place, but there’s no substitute for reading good haiku.

    4) To know what’s out there. Every journal issue delivered to the mailbox is a snapshot of living haiku history & practice. Many individual poets’ works interest me–far too many to be listed here & more all the time. Reading widely in haiku gives you a sense of what has been done, what is being done, what’s maybe left to do. Each haiku reader maps the territory, creates his or her “star charts” as another poster neatly put it.

    your cold hands
    those first stars
    were already there
    –Jack Barry, All Nite Rain (2009)

  21. Dear haikunauts, please note that a number of responses to this “Sail” have been posted under the *Sails* introduction. Like Gabi’s post, they are good reading.
    And Gabi, please say how hajimemashite translates.
    Bon Voyage?


  22. Why do you read haiku?

    I read haiku (Japanese haiku in Japanese) to improve my knowledge of the Japanese culture, mostly via the many kigo that carry so much cultural reference.

    My haiku boat and my sail is firmly rooted in the Japanese culture (although I am German by passport … ).

    Thanks for starting this forum, Peter,
    and hajimemashite from Japan!


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