The Prompter Room

For Friday, January 25, 2019:


Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement, [to] get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.  Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually.  To be spiritual is to be amazed.

(Rabbi) Abraham Joshua Heschel (h/t LA)


The Prompter Room

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.

The Prompter Room

For Thursday, October 22, 2015:

“I say one must be a seer, make oneself a seer.  The poet makes himself a seer by an immense,

long, deliberate derangement of all the senses.”

Arthur Rimbaud  

When my poetry and I were young, my family claimed they always knew when I had an important (my mother’s word at the time) poem coming because I would get ‘very bitchy.’  When the poem that was germinating was finally ready, I would take my pen and notebook into the bathroom in the middle of the night, sit on the floor with my back against the bathtub, and write until I was satisfied with the first draft.  After the poem was thus birthed, according to my family, I was back to my usually sweet self.

Looking back, my family was right: the poems that were birthed in the midnight light of the bathroom were always better than those I had to write for assignments or that just came into my head for some reason.  I didn’t feel deranged necessarily, and it certainly wasn’t deliberate, but I do remember going through sometimes intense inner turmoil and conflict as ‘important’ poems built up inside me.  The late night writing sessions served as a release valve — a relief valve — as the creative process worked its way through me, sometimes with tears.  It wasn’t until years later that I realized those ‘important’ poems were, without fail, spiritual or theological in nature.

Until I learned about haiku in my 10th grade creative writing class, this was my process and habit when it came to writing many of my early poems.  While I wrote a fair number of poems before this discovery — notebooks’ worth, in fact — I went a little wild with haiku and its related forms of tanka, senryu and haibun. 

These tightly structured forms appealed to my creative mind, but even more to my heart and soul.  Sometimes I would write several a day. Eventually I found that sometimes I could condense a poem that was a potential candidate for a late night marathon into 17 syllables, and I could do so without the inner conflict or outer derangement.  And sometimes the haiku was creatively better, more satisfying, more effective than a longer version.

It makes sense, if you think about it.  A properly crafted haiku is much more than the nature observations that are the usually-perceived purpose.  Haiku are profound and spiritual creations.  My early haiku weren’t usually profound, but they were definitely spiritual.  As Nietzsche wrote, “You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star.”

If you are struggling with your poetry or writing, or anything in the creative process, I suggest you explore haiku as a vehicle in that journey.  And remember, it’s the journey, not the destination, that’s important — so don’t worry if it’s profound or not.  I think you’ll surprise yourself at the dancing stars you’ll find along the way.