For Saturday, December 12, 2015:
“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
William Butler Yeats
One of the best ways I know of to hone one’s senses is to read and, especially, to write haiku. If you’re not familiar with haiku, I suggest you start with Basho, the undisputed master of this ancient form of Japanese poetry. His later years were spent in pilgrimage around Japan in search of what I call ‘haiku moments,’ and sometimes he would distill a whole day’s travel into seventeen syllables or less.
Once we start training ourselves to look for the moments of magic, or something that makes us stop and wonder or appreciate or question, we start to see the whole in the smallest things. Raking leaves we unearth a tiny orange newt that glistens in the shadows. We bend down and watch as she navigates the enormous tree roots before her. Driving around a mountain curve at sunset, a distant red barn merges with the multi-colored hues of a sugar maple tree. A cricket symphony ushers in a thunderstorm. Three sun-gilded slugs sleep atop a tawny mushroom. Frozen trees crack like gunfire in midnight woods.
Most people think of haiku as nature poems, and to some extent that’s right. But they’re more than ‘just’ nature poems. They’re poems about how we humans interact with nature and vice-versa, how we grow within the nature around us, the spiritual moments that bring us up short and take notice. (The related form called senryu is more human-focused: how we and other human beings live and interact with each other. It has the same 17-syllable format.)
Classic haiku is different from today’s modern form. The ancient practice calls for no punctuation – the poems were, and some still are, written in vertical lines on a rice paper scroll, and the Japanese have particular words that serve as punctuation instead of our periods, commas, dashes, etc.
Another part of the classic form is to write of the seasons without using seasonal words such as snow or summer, and the like. (Can you tell what seasons I wrote about two paragraphs above? A couple are pretty obvious, which is not a good thing in a haiku, but they give you a general idea.)
So if you have a few minutes every day, take some time to unplug and sit or walk outside, if you can. Pay attention to the small things. What do you hear or see? Is there something out of place – a rusty, dented beer can in a glade of violets, for instance? I’m trying to craft something about the dearth of the little grey juncos this time of year. They’re almost two months late coming down from the hills. I’ve never known them to be this late, but it is unusually warm in the Northeast for this time of year …
There is a lot of magic out there waiting for us to find it or to consider. Sometimes all it takes is seventeen or fewer syllables.