Patricia Prime

Patricia Prime is co-editor of Kokako, reviews editor of Takahe and Stylus, one of the editors of the Take Five Anthologies 2009 & 2010 and is assistant editor of Haibun Today. She has interviewed various poets and editors and currently has poems appearing in the World Poetry Anthology 2010 (Mongolia).

Home 2003-2012 Summer 2012 Features Awareness in Haiku
Awareness in Haiku PDF Print E-mail

by Patricia Prime


One of the Buddha’s most satisfying teachings is the simplicity of mindfulness. “When walking, walk; when standing, stand; when sitting, sit; when lying down, lie down.” And, if he were teaching today, he might add, “When driving, drive.”  

Being aware means to be in the moment, being mindful of our surroundings, using our five senses to see what is in our immediate environment. Instead of using our imagination or intellect, we have to notice what surrounds us: weather, birds, animals, trees and plants. We have to centre our thoughts by shutting down extraneous ‘noise’ such as the nagging of the inner voice, and focus instead on the outer realities of life. In this way we gain a new appreciation of nature and can use our haiku as an awareness practice for inner and outer peace.

Poignant human emotion balanced against close observations from nature may be said to characterize the most enduring examples of haiku. In a consistently high number of his poems New Zealand poet André Surridge achieves this delicate interplay between alertly perceived input from the senses and the expression of subtle feeling:

tai chi
shapes the wind makes
in the willow  

André Surridge, a fine line, March 2012

The first line reminds me that in the street where I live resides an elderly Chinese man who practices tai chi every morning in the driveway of his house. His movements are slow, composed and deliberate. Although we have been friends for years he doesn’t acknowledge me when I pass but concentrates on his collection of movements or postures called a form – and there are hundreds of forms. Each of the tai chi moves is an exercise in balance, co-ordination, physical control and regulation of breathing. And sometimes it can be helpful to practice an individual move on its own to explore how it feels. This form of exercise is valuable for the elderly and enables them to conserve their strength and energy.

In the next two lines of the haiku the shapes made by the performer are likened to those caused by the wind moving through the fronds of the willow. Willows may be seen in many parts of the world, particularly near water. They have abundant watery bark and sap, which is heavily charged with salicylic acid, soft, usually pliant, tough wood, slender branches, and large fibrous roots. The roots are remarkable for their toughness, size and tenacity to life, and roots readily grow from aerial parts of the plant. The leaves are typically elongated by may also be round to oval, frequently with a serrated margin. In ancient times, the bark was often used for medicinal purposes. So here we can see the linkage between the man practicing tai chi for his health and well-being and the willow with its medicinal properties and its elegant movement as the leaves and stems are stirred by the wind.

Here, the sense of nature, with its suggestion of the wind in the trees, is mixed with the awareness by the poet of a fellow hum enjoying exercise and meditation. Our centre of awareness in the haiku is close to the wind and the scene, but also physically close to the person the poet is observing. The act of moving slowly and silently as one performs an exercise is implicit in the shapes the tree makes as it is bent by the breeze and strikes a visual spark from what precedes it. The willow is a specific tree and the phrase “shapes the wind makes / in the willow” picks up the action of the persona as mush as by the harmonic ‘i’ and ‘w’ sounds and the repeated rhythm of the lines, as by the visual correspondence. Quiet and diligent observation mixed with fully engaged empathy make this a fine haiku.

Steven Carter uses looking through his travel album to explore the theme of his awareness both in his own life and in the lives of people affected by social and historical events such as war and death. It’s a complex theme, and one which he has captured in a few precise words:

travel album
pressed poppies
red to gray to black

Steven Carter, Morning Twilight, 2012

The word ‘poppies’ signifies to many people the glorious beauty of the scarlet flowers seen in a field. But here we are reminded of the significance of the poppies in Flanders Field and the blood that was shed by both servicemen and victims during World War I. Steven Carter sees this haiku as providing a springboard for the contemplation of honesty, adversity, sorrow, acceptance of death, harmony, healing, and much more. Through his haiku, he challenges us to slow down and focus on the present moment of seeing what is right in front of us, to appreciate the poignant transience of life, to switch our attention from the self to the other, to see memory as a saving grace, to honor the emotion ofsadness, to respect the sacredness of nature, to ponder the contraries of holding and letting go, and to acknowledge the dignity and beauty of little things.

In an email to me, John Parsons says he based his haiku from “dream sequence” on a dream. He states that it did “actually come in a dream, a series of images from my stone-cutting days. I simply wrote the images down and the haiku appeared, very mystical! Most of my material is based on the idea of letting the unconscious speak. It did on this occasion, directly.”

awake in a cave
            fruit of dreams
                        imbue meaning

John Parsons, Blithe Spirit, Vol. 22: No. 2

It is a grand undertaking, in which the dream becomes the stitching that has to hold disparate pieces of the together. The stitching of ‘cave’, ‘dreams’ and ‘meaning’ provide a sturdy link. Who has not, at some stage, contemplated the possibility of piecing together a dream, summing it up, despite its twists and turns, its braided course, in order to make sense of it? The awareness of what goes on in our minds during dreams is a fascinating subject.

In the next haiku, John tells me he has had the Buddha for many years, “a constant source of haiku, he sits there through the seasons getting covered in various libations.”

   inner nature
of a small snowman slowly
       becomes Buddha

John Parsons, Blithe Spirit, Vol. 22: No. 2

Parsons’ haiku is rightly prized for his ability to honour certain human qualities and to celebrate the beauty of the natural world. His awareness of the truth has always been central to his haiku.

The following haiku, by Catherine Mair, is a scene many of us have witnessed: through a closed window we see a garden full of flowers and can even scent their perfume.

between me
and the rose’s perfume
a closed window

Catherine Mair, Kokako 16

The simplicity of this haiku delivers a subtle connection between persona, flora and scent. It summons up the awareness of the persona’s sense of sight and smell. The challenge for the reader is that each sense has a different kind of ‘awareness’ to deal with and each deals with it in a different way, so there are always more questions than answers in the haiku.

The final haiku epitomizes a moment that occurs naturally in our lives, but that we often hurry or gloss over.

after her death
finding his old love letters
wrapped in a vest

Kevin Goldstein-Jackson, Kokako 16

The form of three short lines can compass an astonishing amount of emotion. Many of us who have lost a loved one are familiar with the trauma of going through their possessions after death: perhaps keeping an object that is significant to us, or coming across old photographs or letters we didn’t know about. Here the poet finds a bundle of “old love letters / wrapped in a vest.” We don’t know who wrote the letters or to whom they were written, but we are made aware of the poet’s feelings of sadness, his apprehension at what he might find in the letters, and his humour at finding them in something as mundane as a vest.

Haiku awareness is a simple way to slow down and tune in to these fleeting moments, to appreciate what is right in front of us. We pause not only with our body but also with our mind. And sometimes we can be attentive to the simplest things in life. I am grateful to Buddha’s mindfulness, for the opportunity to return to some of the haiku I’ve enjoyed reading, to the plain language these poets use, their uncluttered minds and the chance to be made aware of the simple things of life.