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Searching for the perfect personal haiku pen-name

by David Burleigh

The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan, by Abigail Friedman. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2006, 235 pp., $14,95 (paper)

The story in this book begins with a chance encounter. As the author later explains, she was living with her family in Japan, and serving as a diplomat (for the United States). One day, at a gathering she attended in Tokyo, a man gives her a name-card on which he identifies himself as a haiku poet. This sparks a conversation, which leads to a connection.

It was not that the author had never read any haiku before. “I liked reading haiku at night before going to bed,” she explains. “They were short and quick to read.” They helped her to relax, she tells us, “while at the same time improving my Japanese language skills.” Her new acquaintance, whose haiku name is “Traveling Man Tree,” invites her to attend his haiku group and meet his teacher. So the adventure begins.

The book, divided into three sections (“The Extraordinary,” “Fellowship” and “Harmony”), describes the writer’s education in the haiku world, through direct contact with a group of practicing poets and their leader. She is the first foreigner to join the group, and bravely tries to compose her poems in Japanese. Though a complete beginner, she is warmly welcomed and encouraged in her efforts.

It is apparent that Abigail Friedman began her exploration of the traditional arts with practice in calligraphy. As with so much in Japan, learning comes through doing, through repeated practice and correction. The same kind of tutoring continues in her experience of haiku, and in the process a few of her illusions about the process of haiku composition fall away. Friedman has made a lively narrative out of the things she learned, and shares them in detail with the reader. It is an enjoyable story.

One of things that Friedman soon discovers to be false is that everyone involved in haiku is searching for some form of Zen enlightenment. This notion permeates the famous books by R.H. Blyth that she has already read, but is not invariably true. At the same time, quite a lot of the haiku presented for appraisal at a haiku gathering have not been spontaneously composed on that occasion. Many of them are prepared beforehand.

The reasons for participation vary widely. “I had never thought of haiku, or any kind of poetry for that matter, as a social activity. I assumed people wrote haiku to connect with themselves,” Friedman frankly tells us. In a good deal of directly quoted, very sensible advice, however, things like composing beforehand and forgetting Zen are what the haiku teacher urges the novice poet actually to do.

The teacher, Kuroda Momoko (born 1938), is a well-known and reputable poet whose advice is worth attending to. Friedman has supplied, then, in her engaging tale, a series of orchestrated lessons that more or less reflect her teacher’s views. Both classic and modern haiku, and both professional and amateur new compositions, are introduced throughout, making the book a useful tool for learning.

Friedman admits in the preface that she has concentrated the events of the story to make a better narrative. She constructs a plotline that follows the search for a personal haiku pen-name, which is finally awarded at the end. Several of her friends have these (though not her teacher), and she translates them literally into English. It becomes clear that her first acquaintance is named after what is generally called the “Traveler’s Palm.”

“There is no term in Japanese for the ‘way’ of haiku, as there is for the ‘way’ of calligraphy, the ‘way’ of martial arts, or the ‘way’ of dance,” observes Friedman. “Perhaps this is one reason why so many people in Japan enjoy writing haiku.” Her own account of the experience is notable for its frankness and enthusiasm. It concludes with a section of practical advice for “Starting Your Own Haiku Group.”