“A book on haiku? You bought a book on haiku?” I asked AS, my colleague.
AS, who had just ripped open the packaging and was drooling over the book in question, looked up and answered, “Yes. Why? You don’t like haiku or what?”
“No. I don’t like haiku,” I said. And added for good measure, ” At all.”
“Why?” AS queried.”Haiku is so brilliant.”
“Maybe. It’s also too abstract for me,” I said.
“Abstract? Of course it is. It is minimally abstract and therein lies its beauty,” AS retorted.
“I don’t have a problem with minimal. Or abstract, ” I replied a tad defensively. “It’s just that the whole haiku thing is so vague.”
“I just think you’ve read the wrong type of haiku, Sudha. Here, read this. Then tell me you don’t like haiku.” Saying this, AS passed the haiku book to me.
And that’s how, dear readers, I ended up with Haiku: Poetry Ancient and Modern, an anthology edited and compiled by Jackie Hardy (2008, MQ Publications, 256 pages, Rs.325/-). Ended up holding it, opening it, flipping through it and finally reading it.
I randomly opened a page and the first haiku I read was:
listening to the silence
of things we can’t see (Larry Gross, pg. 88)
These 11 simple, but powerfully evocative, words just blew away my protests of haiku being vague. I was hooked and immediately began my exploration of the book.
The Haiku book is very attractively produced and packaged. Hardbound and a 6″X6″ sized square book, it is very ideal to hold or carry around. A lot of thought has gone into the design and layout of the book—many pages have just one haiku on it, some have two and few have none. The supporting illustrations are stunning and are a mix of delicate Japanese watercolours, embroidery, applique work, and textile prints and textures. There is hardly a page without any illustration.
The book begins with an introduction by the editor, in which she traces the history of haiku through the ages, its arrival in the West in the 20th century, and the various forms it exists in today. Haiku originated in 17th century Japan as an offshoot of the renga (which flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries), “a form of collaborative poem where three four or more enthusiasts would get together to compose elegant verses” (pg.7). The opening verse of the renga was called the hokku. Over the centuries, the hokku started getting popular and many people started composing. It took a couple of centuries for the stand alone hokku to get ‘independence’ from the renga and became the haiku that we know of today.
For the writer, haiku not only express a moment of insight, but a reconnection with that time when words were a talisman. In their own unique, small way haiku show what it is to be human. (pg. 7)
The author has used the themes of the five elements of “Taoist cosmology—wood, fire, earth, metal and water” (pg.16) to select a mixture of classical and modern haiku. As I flipped through the pages of this book and read the various haiku in no particular order, it was clear that a lot of love, care and thought had gone in their selection for inclusion in this anthology. I present a selection of some of my favourite haiku from the book, one from each theme.
This long recession:
at the end of my tee-square
……..a spider starts work (by Brian Cater, pg.22)
the lantern blown out—
the sound of wind
through the leaves (Shiki, pg.98)
……..the neglected yard
……..now perfect (Elizabeth St Jacques, pg. 130)
the blind musician
extending an old tin cup
collects a snowflake (Nicholas Virgilio, pg.165)
discovers the world—
puddle after puddle (Bertus De Jonge, pg.220)
Each time I sat down with the book, it was difficult for me to put it down. Some haiku would lead me to introspect, some would have me trying to find other haiku by the same poet in this book, and some others had me calling up friends and excitedly sharing it with them immediately. Of course, there were also a few that I could not comprehend at all—ones that I would call vague and abstract.
Over the week that I read the Haiku book, the appeal of its simplicity, minimalism, abstract form, and sometimes even its vagueness grew on me. It was difficult not to like or appreciate this zen-like aspect of this literary form. AS was right. All these years, I had indeed read the wrong type of haiku.
And now there was only one thing left for me to do: order my copy of the book.