Illuminating Life with Jeanne Emrich's Haiku:
It’s one thing to simply write thoughts on a piece of paper; it is another thing completely to be a writer, using that piece of paper as a canvas to paint a picture of words for a reader to explore. Haiku poet Jeanne Emrich is a writer of the latter description. Living in Bloomington, Minnesota, Emrich has authored The Haiku Habit and published a collection of haiku in her book Barely Dawn. Besides writing, she also publishes an online magazine, or e-zine, HAIGA Online, and teaches haiku at The Loft in Minneapolis.
Jeanne got started writing haiku 12 years ago when she happen to stumble across a Japanese garden in a community college near her home. “I remembered reading in a book by Alan Watts, the famous interpreter of Zen religion and philosophy for Western readers, a description of what he saw as the difference between an Occidental and an Oriental mind. When passing a rock wall with a tiny violet blooming out of a crevice, a person with an Occidental mind, according to Watts, might very well pluck out the violets, roots and all, separate each part and give them Latin names; a person with an Oriental mind, on the other hand, might write a haiku about it.” Keeping this in mind, she drove to the nearest library to find a book about haiku, and upon doing so realized she had found her place in haiku.
She believes haiku are a “recording of a special moment one experiences in nature.” Haiku in her eyes are a kind of art that appeals to the senses through concrete images. Even though haiku are written by an author with a specific experience in mind, at the same time they possess the possibility of being completed in each individual reader’s imagination. Haiku should illuminate life for the author as well as the readers. I think this goes for any kind of art, actually, whether it be paintings, sculptures, or music. She describes the contents of a haiku as an epiphany that reveals “universal truths.” She shared one of these moments of hers with me: “One warm summer night up at my cabin, I stretched out on a picnic table bench and looked up at the stars. A firefly flew by, to my great delight.” From this experience, she wrote this haiku:
a firefly joins
“I didn’t realize until I wrote this haiku, that the firefly aligned me, it, and the constellation in that one moment. It got me thinking that at any time, we are all aligned with something; we all have a place and a connection in the universe. This showed me the power of haiku and how it can lead to startling revelations!”
I think Jeanne’s point here showing the power of haiku is so amazing, and is unique to the capabilities of haiku rather than just any kind of art.
When it comes to the form and direction of her haiku, she usually uses a kigo, or a season word that adds a certain element to each haiku that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Always keeping that in mind, she goes about writing her haiku by actually trying to become what she’s writing about. “I slow down. I sink into the moment. I touch things, sniff, ask my tongue what it is tasting. I stop every three feet or so and inhabit my immediate surroundings. I know I am absorbing through my senses without even being aware of it. I sense the mood of a place or, rather, the mood it creates in me and I take all this home.” These are the times when she is able to create her very best haiku, she says. She generally doesn’t worry about the number of lines, line length, or syllables in her poetry, though she habitually creates three line haiku.
Talking with Jeanne about her and her poetry, it became clearer to me what it is about haiku that makes people fall in love with the art. When she is out on her nature walks, it is just her with nature, which sounds a lot like Eric Amann’s Zen approach to haiku writing discussed in his The Wordless Poem monograph as “oneness.” To me, some of the most precious moments a person can have are when they are alone and in complete harmony with the environment around them. Your thoughts, and yours alone, are going through your head and there is nothing impure about anything at that moment. Everything is just as it should be. I had been realizing the beauty of this as I continued on with my study of haiku, but Jeanne put it all into perspective for me. This shows in her poetry more than in that of other poets, I think.
let’s dye it
along with the eggs—
I liked this haiku especially since my discovery of it was near the time of Easter. Dyeing eggs is one of my absolute favorite things to do this time of year. I associate it with spending time with families, making memories, and purely happy times. This haiku brings all of those feelings back into my mind. I can picture my brothers and sisters when they were younger pouring the excess egg dye out in the snow and seeing what colors they could turn it. The image I see makes me chuckle and this emotion reminds me of the impact three little lines can have on a person.
her brand new shoes squish
through the mud
This haiku is a good way of depicting new love, both figuratively and literally. I see a young boy and girl, a new couple, walking through a park somewhere holding hands. It’s supposed to be this wonderful, romantic moment when all of the sudden the girl’s brand new shoes make a disgusting squishing noise in messy mud. This could also be thought of figuratively with the haiku depicting all of the unforeseen hardships that come along with new relationships. You want everything to be perfect, but no matter how hard you try, things are bound to go wrong and the fate of the relationship depends on how you handle them.
before all these stars
not one word
This haiku makes me think of a very peaceful night, out in the country. There’s two people, maybe best friends or lovers or close family members, and they’re simply so comfortable with each other that there is no need for words. I think that is one of the most interesting situations two people can be in: being so comfortable in someone’s presence that there isn’t a need for anything else… you just have to be together. The stars in the haiku set the mood as calm and content. This haiku also shows Jeanne’s use of the kigo element she uses in her haiku.
little puffs of laughter
in each white breath
I usually don’t like haiku about winter much because winter isn’t exactly my favorite time of the year. This haiku, though, brings a different kind of warmth to the winter and snow. I like how Jeanne focuses on the breaths of all the people, I’m assuming they are kids, while they’re out in the cold. It’s neat how she makes it seem like you can actually see the laughter in the breaths, instead of it just being puffs of air. This haiku gives me a warm and tingly feeling inside, which is odd since the haiku is set in the winter, again revealing the kigo element.
the ice hockey net half-sunk
into the pond
I love how this haiku gives such a vivid image of what you’re looking at, but still leaves so much interpretation up to the individual reader. I can clearly see a small pond out behind an old house in the country with a hockey net slowly sinking through the melting ice. What else is around the sinking net, though? Are there kids watching in dismay, wishing they could be playing ice hockey or are there kids outside playing in the unusually warm weather, completely ignoring the doomed net? In my mind, I see the kids out enjoying the warm day simply because I love warm weather. The fact that this haiku can go in different directions to different readers, though, is one of the things that makes it and other haiku by Jeanne great.
garbage pickup day—
a discarded Christmas tree
full of birdsong
This haiku points out the cruel part of a very common Christmas tradition. So often we hear of family bonding moments, finding and cutting down the tree they’ll display for the holiday season. They’ll take it home and dress it up with lights and ornaments and put all the presents money can buy underneath. What we seem to forget is that this tree is actually a part of nature, and a place of life for many birds and other animals. As we are reminded by this haiku, once Christmas is over and the tree dries up, it is simply thrown into the back of a garbage truck, never to return to it’s original beauty. The way Jeanne says the tree is “full of birdsong” is definitely a powerful way to get the idea across to her audience.
It is also interesting to see one of Jeanne’s haiku matched up with a similar haiku of a different author and to compare and contrast the styles of the two.
Alan Pizzarelli, The Haiku Anthology, pg. 150
a pause to admire
the mosquito’s long legs—
then I slap!
Jeanne Emrich, The Haiku Habit, (no page numbers)
Both of these haiku contain the subject of bugs being annoying, and killing them. In the first one, Alan Pizzarelli gets his point across with only using two words. I picture the poet as he’s sitting down to write being annoying by the persistent buzzing of a fly or mosquito. He aims and swats, (causing the slap), but unfortunately misses as the buzzing continues. This is emphasized by the capital Z’s and the capital P that he puts on the ends of the words. It creates a nice rhythm and helps appeal to the sense of sound. He definitely portrays the feeling of annoyance very well. The second poem by Jeanne Emrich takes a different approach to the annoying nature of mosquitoes. She actually pauses to “admire” it, risking being bitten, before she goes ahead and attempts to kill it. There is also an element of speed in Jeanne’s haiku that isn’t found in Alan’s. When you begin to read Jeanne’s haiku, you get a long and drawn out feeling, probably because of the use of the word “pause” and “long,” as well as the alliteration of “long legs.” The last line though, should be read much faster, or at least in my head is. I really like the difference in the feelings each haiku makes me feel, even though they are written about the same thing. The first one just flat out portrays an annoying feeling while the second one focuses on the beauty of the annoyance.
A hundred butterflies—
the centre of each one
shining and shining
Goto Masaharu, A Hidden Pond, pg. 61
at the “I do”
Jeanne Emrich, Barely Dawn, no numbers
I picked these two matching haiku because they kind of create one big image in my head. The first one, by Masaharu, makes me picture a ton of gorgeous butterflies all of the sudden flying in a big mass. The way they shine in the sun is mesmerizing, so you never want to look away. When you follow this haiku up with the next one about the wedding, they easily fit together. The bride hesitates before she says “I do” because she is distracted by a garden butterfly. When you put Masaharu’s haiku first, though, I can picture her being distracted by the hundred shining butterflies in the garden. Together, they create a pleasant little story and image.
Jeanne Emrich has made great strides in the world of haiku writing. She says one of her main purposes for writing her poetry is to “illuminate the reader’s world,” which she has most certainly accomplished.
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Emrich, Jeanne (Erickson). Barely Dawn. Minneapolis, MN: Lone Egret Press, 1999.
Emrich, Jeanne. [haiga poemcard]. Midwest Haiku Retreat, June, 1999.
Emrich, Jeanne (Erickson). Haiga Online: A Journal of Painting and Poetry. Minneapolis, MN: Lone Egret Press, 1999.
Emrich, Jeanne (Erickson). The Haiku Habit. Minneapolis, MN: Lone Egret Press, 1996.
Katô, Kôko, Editor. A Hidden Pond: Anthology of Modern Haiku, 2nd edition. Translated by Kôko Katô and David Burleigh. Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten, 2003.
Van den Heuvel, Cor, Editor. The Haiku Anthology. New York, NY: Norton, 1999.