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Do you think haiku requires its practitioners to be more spiritual?

One of the greatest gifts I was given in 2011 was given to me by Michael Dylan Welch. He didn’t just invite me to Haiku North America, he sent email after email pitching it to me; he worked out logistical details to make getting across the country easier for me — how could I say no?

What I found when I got to Seattle was life changing. I filled one notebook after another taking notes at the presentations.

Three line haiku works, but does it suit the demands of modern life? “Are you getting a better experience?” Jim Kacian asked while Bruce Ross talked about space having a pre-existence before feeling.

I’ve been a poet for I don’t know…25 years…? I’ve been a lit mag editor for seven or so, and I’ve never been happier than I’ve been in the last two years, since I’ve been diving deeper and deeper into haiku.

The more I’ve studied, the more I’ve found to study. Somehow this art manages to reach far back into history while simultaneously offering so much fertile territory.

But the most pleasant surprise — outside of the art itself — has been the people. Haiku poets, for some reason, are nicer, more welcoming and more likely to share and discuss the art openly than the poetry world at large.

Does this have to do with money and institutions? As magazines like Poets and Writers have explored, the po business, with its highly sought after teaching positions creates and supports careers.

The haiku world, at least in this country, is not as established. We’re all doing this whenever we can scrounge up the time or energy, stolen moments that find us hungry and reaching out.

Maybe it’s just what I’ve seen. But I also wonder if the ku world has less of the lit world neuroses because its practitioners are older. From talking to people I also think more artists come to haiku for spiritual reasons.

Does its practice require an erasing of self that’s at odds with the younger hipster mentality found in the creative writing programs at universities?

More than reveling in one’s idiosyncrasies, haiku tends to temper its  flintknappers, grounds them in the lessons of their forebears.

Or am I crazy?

This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. “But the most pleasant surprise — outside of the art itself — has been the people. Haiku poets, for some reason, are nicer, more welcoming and more likely to share and discuss the art openly than the poetry world at large.”

    I have spent long years of my life in both camps and have found no difference between either group of poets in terms of how nice, welcoming or open they are about their poetry.

    I think haiku poets are still too clannish about their art relative to the rest of the poetry world. I find this to be particularly true when it comes to be willing to make or strive for some new synthesis between haiku as an eastern form and the western tradition.

    Pound was reported to have said when he was incarcerated at St. Elizabeth’s that he only had admirers visit him; he saw too little of the opposition against which he could subject his views to critical scrutiny. I can’t think of a better description for most haiku poets I know and maybe that’s still true of me as well.

    Most non-haiku poets and editors I know think of haiku as just another form with perhaps a bit of a quirky history. And by their reading, writing and editorial choices they certainly don’t think very much of it to date. Yes, you can flip open an issue of Rattle or the New York Quarterly and every once in a really long while you come across a haiku or two. Quite often the haiku bear little or no resemblance to what’s typically published in the major ku journals or what’s held up for high praise in haiku circles.

    Go figure.

    Despite what I said above, I have to say for me personally that haiku helped deepen my spiritual life over the decades and definitely helped me become more attuned to the natural world.

    Maybe a better way to frame the question is: How can such a little form give back so much to one person, much less many others?

    Maybe that’s good enough for one life time.


    Bill Cullen

  2. I am discovering that haiku is a journey, a discipline, an art, a practise, a state of mind. I am enjoying the haiku journey as it weaves its threads amongst the spiritual and life paths I walk daily. The practise of this art form aids in philosophical thinking, a little cleverness, helps to keep the mind sharp, and nicely balances other practises and thoughts and ways.

  3. I agree with Tom: haiku — and its siblings, senryu and haiga — are transformative. I appreciate your question, Gene, as to whether haiku requires its writers to be “more spiritual” — but kinda like Miriam’s perspective, I’m reluctant to claim any superiority to practitioners of any other art form. I would say for myself that I am working to cultivate a greater sense of what’s ordinarily overlooked — and I feel that I have been enriched by the level of wakefulness that haiku’s compressed form nurtures.

  4. Wow! 10 comments! Don, I play music too! I’ve even used harmonica playing as a metaphor for haiku. And Tom, WCW is one of my big favorites! More tomorrow… Good night! and yes, Al, those ripples after all this time!I have canes with different translations on them…


  5. Do you think haiku requires its practitioners to be more spiritual?

    This question according to me it putting the cart before the horse.
    I firmly believe that creativity in any form is to a great extent spiritual.

    The phrase “form is emptiness; emptiness is form” is perhaps the most celebrated paradox associated with Buddhist philosophy.

    This is exactly what happens in any art form. As a Hindustani classical vocalist, nothing can exemplify this statement more than the sound of a singer’s voice as it fades into the void, and her continuing phrase in the raga expansion arising from the void again, for Indian music is not notated. It is sung and played extempore.

    deep in raga —
    a sudden applause
    startles the singer

    So when we say all creativity comes from a void or shoonyata as the Buddha referred to it, then where is the question of a haiku poet being spiritual? This question to me seems redundant, if I may say so. . . for, I repeat: creativity in any form is to a great extent spiritual.


  6. If you wonder why haiku isn’t taken seriously, read Do you think haiku

    requires its practitioners to be more spiritual & the fog should lift.

  7. Tell me the difference between love and spirit? In the writing and sharing of haiku we become more fully human through other people. One may call it spiritual and another may call it love. Personally, I don’t know the difference.

  8. Really enjoyed your post and the question. But my answer is a resounding no. I’ve been a zen student at various times in my life, and also practice Judaism. I think it is dangerous to consider one form of art more spiritual than another. I feel all art has some spiritual element, as do most things, but poetry–yes, eve haiku,–is more about poetry than anything else. I know this goes against the stream of haiku poets. But is your average haiku poet more spiritual than say, John Donne?

  9. I’ve been a poet–on & off–since the mid 1970s and have only recently embraced haiku (since august 2010) as a medium to express myself. Paradoxically, altho haiku is the shortest form of poetry I’ve worked in, it turns out to be the most difficult to write effectively. Every word must count (but I count the words!). And the effectively-written haiku continues to resonate and ripple–long after the poet has written it and even continues its efficacy long after the poet has passed into another dimension–like Basho’s frog continues to produce ripples in that famous pond even today

    For a poem to have such power–it is obvious to me that the poet who wrote it had to acquire spiritual truths along his journey and apply them to his craft–in this case haiku. The natural progression is older to wiser and I believe that haiku practioners (as a natural progression) are spiritual–not only in the poems they create but in their attitude towards others–whom they encounter along the road–virtual or otherwise. Yes,I find haiku poets to be nicer, more welcoming, more open-minded and open-hearted and–most important to me–willing to share their years of knowledge with me (a relative rank beginner) on the THF critical forum–without which I would not have been able to hone my creations into publishable shape.


  10. Haiku is, with a delicious irony (and not unlike blues music), large enough to encompass the world, whether we call it transformative, spiritual, or a simple poetic form.

    It is how it is used, its correct execution that matters. If you are with Blyth, it is ‘spiritual’. There are very solid reasons to believe that spirituality is an integral part of the form.

    Whether this is true or not, and it will be different for each practitioner, what is important is this:

    Like a hammer, haiku is a tool. It depends on how you use it.

    One thing I know for sure: if all you have is a hammer and your pipes are leaking, call a plumber.


    PS Gene you are delightfully sane, nice post …

  11. It is difficult
    to get the news from poems
    yet men die miserably every day
    for lack
    of what is found there. William Carlos Wiiliams

    More spiritual… no, not necessarily. Haiku poetry encourages awareness of the environment and oneself… Awareness leads one to seeing the connections, which in turn encourages empathy. It is empathy that is transformative.

  12. I run a variety of courses, some are residential, and I would say that a haiku workshop leader is indeed far more different, and special, because the focus isn’t on publication credits. Those will come, but a workshop or course will cover personal development, as well as writing and reading skills.

    I love this quote from one of my students:

    “As you probably know by now, I use every corner of my life as a way of reflection of my psychological personal development – haiku in itself is great for this, but working with you has just elevated the experience a 100 fold. I can not put into words how much this has meant to me, so as I tried to say on the phone the haiku is almost secondary, but of course both mean a lot to me. Your support over the last couple of years or so have just been such an amazing gift to me – bless you.”

    I cannot say how rewarding this is to me, that I can become a conduit and a facilitator, to someone enjoying their life even more.

    I’d also say that no workshop leader should run a workshop unless they have an open mind, and a hope that they will learn something along the way.

    Whether I teach adults or children, I always learn something, and let my students know this. We are a team where no one is superior or more learned, we’re all part of a potentially life long process.

    Alan, With Words

    p.s. Gene, you are not crazy! 😉

  13. I teach haiku to private students, many new to poetry. I can say without a doubt haiku is transformative. Beginning with a text like Essential Haiku, with its rich array of texts, the ongoing study takes one deeply into a perennial culture that encourages a spiritual discipline parallel to ancient philosophy. Studying key notions such as wabi by going back to Basho’s bible the Zhuangzu stretches the mind and spirit. Reading contemporary haiku with this background is both encouraging and challenging. Such a regime deserves the epithet transformative in a culture that so often promises something for nothing.

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