Haiku Silence

Angelee Deodhar

So much has been written about how to haiku that I wonder if there is anything really left to say. More and more books on the art and craft of haiku are being written, and there are innumerable websites expressing opinions and publishing haiku by the score. Some of these are conflicting in content and leave even experienced poets bewildered.

For some time now, I have been asking myself the questions which every haiku poet asks, where does one begin? What is the quality of a good haiku? Does the fact that a haiku is published mean that it is a good one? What does a haiku really mean? In my studies, over the last fourteen years, I have yet to understand a lot of things about haiku. When I was asked to contribute an essay for Simply Haiku I pondered over what to write. Many people, venerable teachers and editors of prestigious haiku magazines, have written so much already. Is there anything I can add? Having thought about it I felt I could share one insight, which for me, is the single most important affirmation towards a “haiku mind”, if we can call it that.

R.H. Blyth in the History of Haiku Vol. 1 lists thirteen characteristics of the Zen state of mind required for the creation and appreciation of haiku: Selflessness, Loneliness, Grateful Acceptance, Wordlessness, Non-Intellectuality, Contradiction, Humour, Freedom, Non-Morality, Simplicity, Materiality, Love and Courage. Not being a follower of Zen I don’t know if I can add anything to this exhaustive list. Tom Clausen, in his fine essay “A Haiku way of Life”, lists his own additional thirteen characteristics as Faith, Sharing, Discipline, Concision, Solitude, Humility, Awareness, Ritual, Creativity, Centering, Truthfulness, Curiosity and Patience. I am sure most of us have some criteria we can add to these lists. One does not have to be a practitioner of Zen to write haiku. For me these characteristics all begin and end in what I term «Haiku Silence».

The noise of the world drowns out so much. Most of us cannot leave home and set up residence near a pond as Thoreau did, but one can empathize with what he wrote. Most of us have jobs to attend to, classes to teach, bills to pay, meals to cook, meetings to attend, speeches to make. To experience silence and solitude, setting aside the baggage of negative connotations that may be associated with «non-doing», can be very challenging. How then do we, in spite of it all, write haiku? By returning to silence. By going on a journey deep within ourselves, to find a safe quiet place where the winds and gusts of everyday affairs do not trouble us, where, in silence, we can find our own natures in tune with nature around us. Silence is not the absence of sound; by listening with ones’ whole being, one can discover the silence within.

Dr. Eric Amman, in describing haiku, used the term “wordless poem”. If something is wordless how do we communicate it? How do we convey the depth of feeling of that particular moment to someone far away in time and place? How then does a haiku, the wordless poem, work when put into words? Let us examine one of his own poems which leaves so much unsaid . . .

The names of the dead
sinking deeper and deeper
into the red leaves

Eric Amman, The Haiku Anthology

Can haiku silence be expressed? Yes! Whenever I read a haiku which resonates for me, I ask, where did this originate? How has the person who wrote it communicated almost wordlessly that quietude? To illustrate this I will use two examples :

summer stillness
the play of light and shadow
on the wind chimes

Peggy Willis Lyles, The Haiku Anthology

Quiet afternoon:
water shadows
on the pine bark

Anita Virgil, The Haiku Anthology

Let us look at another example:

sand sifts through the roots
of a fallen tree

Con Van Dan Heuvel, The Haiku Anthology

Here one can actually see how these haiku work, there is a silent communion of peace, because of the poets’ stillness we pause, beauty pervades our consciousness, so also the play of light on wind chimes or shadows on the bark of the tree and the sand sifting through the roots of the fallen tree bring to us timeless images.

another year
the tallest trees shade
the oldest headstones

DeVar Dahl, Volume XVII, June 2004, Haiku Canada Newsletter

Stillness is a prerequisite for any creative art but more so for haiku. It is interesting to note that although Basho was a renku master. He frequently went away to find himself. Was his journey to the interior just a travelogue, or was it more? Here are three excellent examples of tranquility and quietude, in the spirit of Basho:

trickles noiselessly down
the moss-covered stone

Christopher Herold, a path in the garden

from winter storage
the prow of a canoe
entering sunlight

Jerry Kilbride, The Haiku Anthology

morning bird song-
my paddle slips
into its reflection

Michael Dylan Welch, The Haiku Anthology

Most of us are too busy churning out haiku trying to get published in one journal or another, sending in entries to contests or posting to various lists. It amazes me to see such frenetic activity. I agree with Zinovy when he writes,

On my palm
a lifeline wrinkled
with future deadlines

Zinovy Vayman,Modern Haiku, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Winter- Spring, 2002

While it is good to learn by exchanging ideas about how to write better haiku and join discussion groups, for me the main aim of writing haiku is to get to the center of my silence. Although that silence may well be interrupted . . .

time to quit
I hear the bell
before the bell

LeRoy Gorman, Modern Haiku, Vol.33.2, Summer 2002

silent prayer –
the quiet humming
of the ceiling fan

Lee Gurga, The Haiku Anthology

Does it mean that we should become hermits? No, not necessarily, but what will help is to develop a special quality of silent communion with oneself. Before one starts to put pen to paper, one must get quiet. It does not matter if we are commuting on a train, waiting in a doctor’s office, or at the airport. To write well we must bring our conscious selves into a state of silent graceful acceptance of everything around us. Here is a haiku which qualifies what I mean.

desert spring –
nothing, nothing in the world
but this full moon

William J. Higginson, Modern Haiku, Vol.33.2, Summer 2002

The late Robert Spiess, a long time editor of Modern Haiku, in his “Speculations” has said, “Another reason for the brevity of haiku is that the more words the more distance, the more silence the more proximity.” With just a few words Harter, Clausen and Swede have skillfully captured that noiselessness in their haiku,

meteor shower –
the glimmer
of the surf

Penny Harter, Modern Haiku, Vol.33.2, Summer 2002

everyone is gone . . .
the clock

Tom Clausen, Albatross, Vol. V, No. 1, 1996

alone at last
i wonder where
everyone is

George Swede, The Haiku Anthology

Spiess also cautions us, “ Chuang Tzu said, ‘If you have insight, you use your inner eye, your inner ear, to pierce to the heart of things, and have no need of intellective knowledge.’ This is how haiku poets should proceed in their endeavours. “

abandoned garden-
following the scent
of the hidden jasmine

Ion Codrescu, Mountain Voices

the long night . . .
a light rain
beats time on the cook pots

Jim Kacian, Albatross, Vol. VII, No. 2, 1998

quiet evening,
a spider moves its shadow
across the wall

Tom Clausen, Albatross, Vol. VII, No. 2, 1998

Sri Ramana Maharshi said: ”Silence is never-ending speech. Vocal speech obstructs the other speech of silence. In silence one is in intimate contact with the surroundings. Language is only a medium for communicating one’s thoughts to another. Silence is ever speaking.” How well this is illustrated in this haiku:

temple yard
the sound
of stone buddhas

Stanford M. Forrester, still, Vol.5, No.2, Spring 2001

Here the poet is at peace with himself, with his surroundings, with the world at large and in that silence he too becomes a buddha. And so also in the next haiku, we experience tranquility,

the snow-covered rock
under winter stars

Bruce Ross, The Haiku Anthology

Let us go deep into our own space to discover what it is that we belong to.

the space
where the lily was

Pamela Miller Ness, from the leaflet where the lily was

One must embrace silence and solitude to realize its full potential. In the next two haiku one sinks into deep tranquility,

deep in this world
of Monet water lilies . . .
no sound

Elizabeth Searle Lamb, Across the Windharp, Collected and New haiku

marble koi . . .
the silence
of lotus blossoms

Pamela A. Babusci, Evergreen, Vol. X111, No. 5, May 2003

How can we fully feel a moment’s essence if the mind is jumping from one thought to another? In a state of alertness, true awareness cannot occur unless we are in a mode of stillness. John Stevenson’s haiku puts it so succinctly,

a useless novelty -
each of us already has
a chattering skull

John Stevenson, Modern Haiku, Vol. XXXII, No. 1 Winter-Spring 2001

Recently, on one of the kukai lists of which I am a member, I wrote to the webmaster that this time none of the haiku impressed me or brought an `aha’ moment, and he very gently reminded me that our response depends upon what we bring to a haiku. What a revelation it was! I had used my chattering skull instead of my silent self and missed appreciating the haiku. Therefore the reading of haiku and their appreciation also requires an alert passivity.

I end this simple essay with a haiku which I keep on my table to remind me to write in such a manner that I (the host) can, through haiku, share with you (my guest) as pure a silence as that of the white chrysanthemum . . .

Silent communion
Between the guest,
The host, and the white chrysanthemum

Oshima Ryota

I have specially used non-Japanese, contemporary English language haiku to emphasize the point I am making about Haiku Silence. There are so many other haiku which I could have quoted to illustrate Haiku Silence, but since space is limited, I invite each one of you who visit Simply Haiku to share your haiku silence with me.

I thank all those who so generously gave me their permission to use their haiku and am grateful to the Editors of Simply Haiku for giving me the opportunity to share my views. Thank you.

Works cited: 1. The Haiku Anthology, Cor van den Heuvel, ed. 3rd ed., W.W.Norton, 1999. 2. Classic Haiku, A Master’s Selection, selected and translated by Yuzuru Miura. Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., 1999. 3. Mountain Voices, Ion Codrescu. AMI-NET International Press, 2000. 4. Across the Windharp, Elizabeth Searle Lamb. La Alameda Press, 1999 5. A Year’s Speculations on Haiku, Robert Spiess, Modern Haiku, 1995. 6. Internet Sources: a. Elizabeth St. Jacques website In the Light, for Tom Clausen’s essay, «A Haiku way of Life» b. Sri Ramana Maharshi


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