• SHARE

HAIKU ACTIVITIES: Asian Arts and Crafts for Creative Kids, by Patricia Donegan, illustrations by Masturzh Jeffrey. Boston, Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 64 pp., 2003, $9.95 (cloth).

Though intended for young readers, this is a clear explication from which those of any age may learn. Indeed, the mature reader must learn — as Matsuo Basho, the most famous of haiku poets said — to write haiku with the “eyes and heart of a child.”

What Basho meant was not only to be innocent, open and fresh. He also meant being able to see things as they are and not as we think or expect them to be. Childhood is the season during which this is possible. Maturity, when all things must have a use, insists upon a learned version of the world. Yet this is only one version, and there was also an original — this is what haiku can suggest.

In teaching haiku, Patricia Donegan describes childlike directness and suggests ways in which it can be apprehended. The haiku’s form, for example, conventionally three lines long, here depends not upon syllable count but upon its length. It should be “one breath long.”

The three-line poem should contain a concrete image — not just, for example, a “flower” but a flower rendered particular, turned into an image. This image should be properly placed, qualified, and that is the reason for the kigo, the seasonal reference.

If properly placed, this image will express a real moment (which is the reason you cannot “make up” haiku), and it will not explain or tell about feeling but, rather, it will “show the feeling through the image.” A result will be a sudden connection (she describes it as “an ‘ah’ moment”) when we feel or understand something we had not before.

To achieve this, the image must speak for itself. Do not use the word “like” or “as” in a comparison, do not use “sad” or “beautiful” because they only explain, they don’t show. Also, they intrude on the self when the point of a haiku is to “make us less centered on self and more centered on others and on nature.”

Haiku is also “the experience of catching a movement.” In Basho’s famous frog haiku, the last line is “the sound of surprise” breaking the silence, catching the movement of hearing the splash of the frog jumping into the water before it was gone.

Basho himself was surprised. He was, the story goes, sitting with some friends by a pond, quietly observing the silence. Then he heard the splash of a frog leaping into the water. Surprised at this contrast he memorialized it, making permanent the transient, capturing this everyday amazement.

Donegan illustrates what she teaches with haiku from the masters and with haiku from children. She defines how images are detected, how they are put together, how to write haibun (haiku with stories in them), haiga (haiku with pictures) and renga (linked poetry).

She also stresses the principles to be found in haiku. For example, contrast. In Yosa Buson’s famous poem about the butterfly peacefully sleeping on the temple bell, she explicates the implied contrast (of silence and sound) and then indicates the way that the haiku novice can use this discovery.

The student will also find that the only way to achieve such an effect is to believe that “the sky, the sparrow, the grass, the snake and the ant are just as important as a human.”

This she connects with Shinto and Buddhism — but only in passing — since hers is not a history of haiku nor a scholarly assessment. Those interested in these equally important matters have many volumes among which to choose. For its brevity, unbiased elegance and availability, I prefer Shigehisa Kuriyama’s account in the unabridged “Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan.”

Donegan is interested in the effect of haiku and how this may be created. Here she is close in spirit to what seems to me the best book on the form yet written, the late Kenneth Yasuda’s 1957 “The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature.” Like him, Donegan discovers that authenticity lies in seeing what you see and not what you think you see. A child is still capable of this. Hence she is able to write for children, at the same time using them as a metaphor for all of us adults.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW