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with Kevin McLaughlin

Kevin MacLaughlin, poetry magazine, haiku

Master Shogen, the Abbot of Zuigan Temple, loved teaching haiku to his monks.  “Haiku,” he lectured, “is the ideal poetry form.  It captures the thing-in-itself, and nothing more.  There is nothing extraneous.  Haiku measures both the amount of Zen in the writer and in the reader.”


Shogen, a lifelong haiku devotee, read one haiku per day and seldom wrote more than five in a year.  “Why is it that you only read one haiku per day, Master?” asked Daitsu, one of his most promising students.

“Because reading one haiku is sublime,” replied the old Zen Master, “reading two is tedious.”

-Kevin McLaughlin

The above micro-fiction illustrates several conditions peculiar to haiku.  Each haiku is a separate “Jewel in the Heart of the Lotus” (Om Mani Padme Hum).  One good haiku should occupy the reader’s mind uncluttered, by itself, not one of twenty read in less than two minutes.  Reading haiku is an art form, just like writing the verse.  A distracted mind will miss the essence of the poet’s insight.  The haiku reader has only seventeen syllables with which to work.  He must be able to make associations, have the ability to see, hear, and smell images quite vividly.  In some cases, given five syllables in a line, the reader may even have to “fill in the blanks,” know how to comprehend using only a fragment of an image.  One is expected to complete in many poems what the artist has just begun.

Some poems must require repeated readings before the Royal Jelly is extracted from the honey comb.  This leads to another attribute of transmitting haiku.  It is best read from the written page (or computer screen), not read aloud.  The seventeen syllables pass by before the audience has a chance to understand the poem.  As a veteran of many open mic poetry readings, I can attest to how difficult it is to sit in a theatre and focus on a chain of haiku read into a microphone to an audience that quickly loses its focus.  Haiku are seldom written just for the entertainment value, and if entertainment is provided, it washes out to sea faster than sand caught in a rip tide.

poetry magazine, kelly writers house

Alan Watts has astutely written, “The haiku poet must, at great pains, acquire a certain primitivity and unfinishedness of expression which comes off only in a social context when the reader is also in the know.  It is a poetry where the reader is almost as important as the poet, where deep calls unto deep, and the poem is successful to the degree that the reader shares the same poetic experience which, seldom however, is explicitly stated.  This is not though the usage of literary allusion accessible only to an exclusive coterie of scholars.  What the reader has to be in the know about is not literature, but rather life, places, the changing of the seasons and, above all, the utterly indescribable insight of Zen Buddhism.”


After the blooms shed,

The orchid’s true glory:

Path of solitude.


A common white moth

Flutters by us unnoticed:

The dead bamboo branch.

(Note the use of unnoticed a a kireji, or cutting word)


The gopher tortoise

Rests by its burrow’s entrance,

Remote from the trail.

-Kevin McLaughlin


Black birds in the sun

Circle to become eagles:

Vultures and fish hawks.


Mr. Watkins’ Black bears haiku is a perfect example of the synergy that benefits both poet and reader.  This poem is packed with visual images, and could easily have been the subject of an Impressionist painting.  But the imagery doesn’t stop with the visual.  Give this verse a few minutes.  Watkins is suggesting the smell and the sounds of the creek bank to any reader who takes the time to give the haiku his full attention.  The creek bank will fill the mind, and point to a greater reality that lies behind the conventional reality.


Black bears catching bass

From a shade darkened creek bank

While flies hover near.

Note also that creek bank serves as a fine cutting word setting up the third line.

-Anthony Watkins


Ms. Ignatowitsch’s Ghost among the leaves poem is the second example of why haiku is meant to be read one poem per reading.  This is three lines so rich in sadness and haunting memories that it is worthy of a Hamlet soliloquy.  Don’t hurry by this poem.  There is much to be felt in its seventeen syllables, a purity of emotion worth considering and imagining in your own soul.  Reading another haiku immediately after staying with this piece detracts from the poetic experience.  Master Shogen from the opening micro-fiction would not have read a second haiku that day.


Ghosts among the leaves

Rustle sad old melodies

Falling in one soul.


The contrast of the heat and the dazzling shade qualify this haiku as a legitimate response to a koan, a subject we’ll address in an upcoming issue.


Rose petals unfold

Radiating velvet heat

Into dazzling shade.

-Vera Ignatowitsch

Thankfully, we still have more delightful haiku from Joan McNerney.  This form should be enjoyable, should embrace, at least occasionally, pure delight and fun.  I believe McNerney has  a joyous sense of wonder about the world around her.  I also admire her use of the ellipsis, a device I’ve not before seen in haiku.  Yet, its usage is perfectly in line with this poetry’s strict format.  Oh, and I love that fish leaping to take a bite out of heaven.



The gingersnap cat stares as

I get undressed.



A fish leaps to capture

Bite of heaven.


Today’s work is done.

The sun fell from the sky

For a bowl of stars.

-Joan McNerney 

Mr. Godfrey’s first poem, as well as mentioning BTS, uses a technique known as layering. The second line builds on the first, and third line shifts the reader’s focus to the comfort, mystery, and uneasiness associated with a fog.  His second poem illustrates the need for the reader to be knowledgeable, as Watts put it “in the know.”  The first two lines are 5-7 syllables that fully create  an emotion without having to directly mention the emotion: the third line fully depends on the reader’s knowledge of Jekyll (daylight) and Hyde (night) to fulfill the haiku’s effect.


Better than Starbucks

A metronome of haiku

Resting on a fog.

The night an old cloak

Charcoal scribble on the sky

Jekyll is no more.

-James Godfrey


Ausgezeichnet!  The German word for outstanding crossed my mind when I read A.M. Pattison’s haiku this morning.  His work strides across every day imagery to the mystic world that lies behind what we perceive with our fives senses.  Mindfulness nurtured throughout the day results in insightful haiku. Pattison’s verse result from deep awareness.  We will have two more haiku from this poet next month.  There is also a faint feel of the koan in this work.

Voice wavers clipdress

On the patio monsters

Under my nightstand.


Look upon the blue

Striped watch slung upon her wrist

Ticks incessantly.


Drought upon my pond

You are the mud crack

That I am forced to form.


We will close out this month’s column with two more haiku by American author Richard Wright, who was beset by anger much of his life, but eventually found peace in the other world that is haiku.  These verse are from his published collection.


A lance of spring sun

Falls upon the moldy oats

In a musty barn.


I cannot find it,

That very first violet

Seen from the window.

Try not to read too many haiku at one sitting, and try not to read them too rapidly.


Yet once more I encourage all haiku writers to share their work, their insights into the nature of all things, with fellow poets and BTS readers.  For those interested in haiku, I recommend you cast back into the BTS archives and reference the September haiku column.  It provides a pretty thorough explanation of the basic format.

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