BY: CHRISTINE MAHONEY
OCT. 9, 2003
Remember haiku? Those little Japanese poems you were assigned to write in fourth grade English class? Those verses of just 17 syllables, usually about nature, are “in vogue” — you might even say trendy — right now.
The Japanese poems that traditionally follow a writing pattern of five syllables in the first line, seven in the second and five in the third, are enjoying a popularity not felt since Jack Kerouac made them hip in the 1960’s.
The haiku revival comes as no surprise to one Boulder-based group. They’ve been writing haiku together for five years. Okay, so five years is a mere blip in time, compared to how long haiku have existed – the writing pattern is said to have originated in 16th century Japan – but for this group, five years is long enough to have forged strong friendships, and watch writing styles evolve, and flourish.
The group’s basic routine is this: poets gather at a designated meeting place, then wander off, becoming inspired to write haiku. After about an hour, the group reunites to read the poems, anonymously copied onto note cards. Then, positive feedback is offered.
Jonathan Machen, a local artist and facilities manager of the Solstice Institute, who also acts as the group’s archivist, says, “We used to vote on what we liked best, but now, after five years of haiku walks, we don’t pass such judgments; if a haiku inspires discussion, that will follow naturally.” Sanjay Rajan, one of the original members of the group, agrees. “Haiku is not about competing, but about participating by looking within.”
The formation of the haiku group was inspired by a weekend workshop, in the summer of 1998, at Boulder’s Naropa University. The class was taught by Clark Strand, author of “Seeds from a Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey.” (Hyperion, 1997) In the book, as in the Naropa class, Strand encouraged his students to get back to nature. He writes, “As haiku poets, we begin simply, by carrying a notebook and walking in nature every day… At the end of each notebook I fill with haiku, I am always struck by how much more of the world I have seen, and how much more in love with life I have become.”
Ideally, the Boulder group meets outdoors, in scenic locales like Marshall Mesa, Chautauqua Park or Flagstaff Mountain. Occasionally, more populated spots like the Pearl Street Mall, the Farmer’s Market or the annual Kinetics Race at the Boulder Reservoir will capture the group’s fancy.
But, being as this is Colorado, where Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate with the “getting back to nature” part of haiku writing, they sometimes have to write their poetry indoors. The group has met at places like the Denver Art Museum, the National Western Stock Show and even Denver International Airport. Not the sort of places you’d expect would inspire meditation and quiet reflection.
But they have. Patrick Lynn, a Boulder software engineer and one of the group’s founders, says D.I.A. was an ideal place to people watch, and write haiku. “You could see everyone was in that travel mindset. They didn’t notice us walking around with our little notebooks, but we noticed them.” So much so, that these haiku were penned there, in the spring of 2000:
Standing in the flow
Of people rushing, I’m a
Rock in the river
Empty with big, comfy chairs
No time for prayers
The very public setting of D.I.A. inspired haiku far different than Matsuo Basho would have written. Long considered the greatest contributor to the haiku movement, Basho’s haiku focus on nature. In contrast, the Boulder haiku group writes about what they see, wherever they may be. Lynn says, “It’s more about having a ‘haiku mind,’ and being present in your surroundings and observing things.”
The group’s safe structure makes it easy for the poets to open their minds, and share their souls. Krista Morien, a local clairvoyant reader and artist, who attended Strand’s Naropa workshop, says, “When we all go off on our own to write our poems, we each go into a very deep space. To me, it’s very sacred to come back together and share the poems we have written. How often do people share such personal things?”
Another original group member, Susan Coppage Peterson, who runs a psychiatric treatment facility for women, appreciates the chance to really notice her surroundings. “The haiku, especially because they are shared anonymously, become uninhibited expressions. We often respond to their reading with ‘ahhh’s,’ and ‘oh, I saw that.’ It’s probably more about learning to ‘see’ than it is about writing.”
In this group, what you see is what you write about. And, you can’t always control what comes into your field of vision. During an interview for this story, an annoying fly that had been buzzing around Machen, Lynn and Power, suddenly met its end, swatted into oblivion. There was momentary silence, followed by a burst of creativity. What follows is what the group calls “collabora-ku” – a kind of collaborative haiku writing effort, with each line coming from a different group member.
The swat of a fly
Interrupting our interview
Guts splattered on jeans
Lovely autumn light
Illuminates the squashed fly
On Jonathan’s leg
You’ll notice the first “collabora-ku” doesn’t follow the five, seven, five-syllable pattern of traditional haiku. Robert Power, a Boulder healer and artisan, and member of the group, says, “It’s not rigid and it’s not about the product. It’s about the creating, and the relating. There’s a real sharing that takes place. And, to me, that’s been a really vital part of the process.” Machen adds, “Our group has its own rhythm, like nature. You don’t really have to be strict about the form, to get to the heart of what it is you write about.”
That kind of flexibility is part of the appeal of haiku, for this group. Another attraction to modern haiku? They’re short! And, let’s face it; Americans love quick, easily digested “sound bites” of anything, especially art and entertainment. Aaron Naparstek, author of “Honku – the Zen Antidote to Road Rage” (Random House, 2003) calls haiku the “snack food of poetry.” Naparstek started writing haiku from his Brooklyn apartment, when the noise of traffic and honking on the street outside threatened to “put him over the edge.” Instead of resorting to road rage, he channeled all that negative energy into something positive: 17 syllables of “honku,” which he posted on lampposts around his neighborhood.
“This form of poetry has a real and tangible effect on the mind. When the honking started getting me crazy, I’d sit down and begin writing haiku… forcing myself to fit these huge, unwieldy, and in my case, angry observations into this very restrictive form of poetry. It had a real calming and focusing effect on my mind,” says Naparstek.
It must have had the same effect on others, too. Before long, neighbors were adding their own “honku” to the lampposts, and the collection wound up becoming a book. Naparstek also runs his own website, HYPERLINK “http://www.honku.org” www.honku.org, where fellow “honku” enthusiasts can read more about the phenomenon, and link to other haiku sites.
While traditional haiku die-hards may see poems about honking as an insult to the writing form, the Boulder group welcomes the bold creativity. Harold “Hal” Gimpelson, a retired dentist from Colorado Springs who joined the group after the Naropa workshop, says this free form of writing, relatively unencumbered by rules, is attractive. He discovered haiku in the 1970’s, and still relishes the chance haiku gives him to live in the moment. Gimpelson says, “The charm of haiku is different, in that it attempts to capture the moment as it is. The reader gets to experience the writer’s awareness…”
That’s certainly true in reading these, and feeling like you’re standing beside the author:
Side by side, but making
Their own rings
(Walden Ponds, March, 2001)
Two coffee cups
Inhaling the day
Deep in the canyon, the wind
Is breathing back
Just reading that last haiku, you can almost feel yourself sigh.
And that’s the point, for many group members. Writing haiku gives Sara Benson a chance to slow down. An elementary school teacher at the Boulder Community School of Integrated Studies, Benson wanted to teach her students to write haiku, so she joined the group. In doing so, she became captivated with the art. “Haiku pinpoints and values the little moments in life that most of us, in our busy minds, might miss, or dismiss as unimportant,” she says. Benson makes a habit of posting a “haiku of the week” outside her classroom door.
Machen and the other group members say the group haiku experience has enriched their lives. “It’s like a reminder to people that we’re here now. And it doesn’t matter where we are – on the trail or at the airport – but it’s the awareness that’s so important.”
Even when you’re tromping up the stairs at an art museum.
On the gray cement steps
En route to the fifth floor
(Denver Art Museum, February 1999)
Or, at a livestock show.
Stare at nothing
With watery eyes
(National Western Stock Show, January 2003)
The haiku themselves may be almost “accidental by-products” of what Machen calls the “group mind” process, but they are beautiful to read. He has compiled volumes of the group’s haiku on his website, HYPERLINK “http://www.haikutimes.com” www.haikutimes.com. There, you can also find links to other haiku-related websites, and perhaps become inspired to start your own haiku group.