Five, seven, five.
Three lines of writing, with a precise number of syllables in each; this is haiku.
In sixteenth century Japan, the beginnings of Renga poems, which were hundreds of stanzas long, broke off into their own form. A wandering daydreamer named Basho, would go on to make haiku a widely accepted form of artistic expression.
Over the centuries, poets have routinely broken the rules of haiku. The International Convention on World Haiku in 1999 stated that seasonal words are not necessary in “global” haiku, and that the content of the poems would not be independent from the cultural backgrounds of the poets. Simplicity is the one rule of this form that remains strictly adhered to.
If haiku found the ground in which to flourish during a prolonged period of economic growth, social order and peace (Japan’s Edo period, 17th Century), it might be what is needed to help humanity get through a period of chaos, uncertainty, and collapse.
While haiku is no longer directly tied to nature, I believe it asks us to look up, look around, and engage in what is tangible. The goal is connection, and I hereby deem haikus about virtual life, banned.
The screen is glowing,
The Facebook is exploding,
And I am alone.
No, no… that is not what we need right now. We are drowning in data, in pixels, statistics, opinions, disasters, and facts. We’ve forgotten what quiet even sounds like. Haiku asks us to listen for it, to be okay with untouched bits of canvas. Maybe navigating a world of complexity actually requires us to embrace the limits of what we know. Maybe big picture thinking asks us to look carefully at things that are very small.
A world of dew,
And within every dewdrop,
A world of struggle.
(That one’s not quite 17 – in English. But here’s the original: 露の世の露の中にてけんくわ哉)
The author of the above poem, Kobayashi Issa, lived in that lively and flourishing Edo Period. But his was a life of struggle and tragedy. The little things, it seems, got him through. He wrote over 20,000 haikus and included among those are 54 on the snail, 15 on the toad, nearly 200 on frogs, about 230 on the firefly, more than 150 on the mosquito, 90 on flies, over 100 on fleas and nearly 90 on the cicada. I haven’t read the collected works but, digesting 20,000 poems of 17 syllables each is a fairly modest goal, which leads me to my next point.
Our brains (collectively) have been wrecked. Maybe it’s social media, maybe it’s micro-plastics, I don’t know. But I’m not the first to point out that we’ve largely lost our ability to focus, and in a world where everyone is talking all the time, we’ve lost our ability to communicate. Maybe committing to 17 syllables, and 17 syllables only, can help us get clear enough to actually say something worthwhile. Maybe the collective practice could help us evolve enough to revive the much longer Renga poems – which are a dialogue between poets, where the second poet must build on the first poet’s stanza, with repeating patterns.
I propose haiku, not as a solution to the broken-ness of our world, but as a crutch to keep us hobbling along in the hopes that there is an “other side” to all this. The museums of the world are filled with relics that quite simply prove, “things were different then.” The landfills are full, and every being on earth breathes in yesterday’s technology, incinerated. We know, that whatever’s new today will be obsolete tomorrow, so why not turn to things that have already stood the test of time?
Now go outside and walk around a while. Touch a tree. Introduce yourself to an ant. And remember to count the syllables: five, seven, five…