September 8 (Evening wind): What is natural?

evening wind
a cicada shell rattles
on our doorstep

Wow … this feels incredibly traditional for me. I mean, I think it’s reasonably successful as a haiku, if a little boring, but it makes me a little nervous because it’s so … haiku-ish. Is that weird?

I don’t think I quite realized until now how much I try to avoid writing what is the “traditional” English-language type of haiku with only nature imagery and nicely balanced lines and seasonal indicators and all that jazz. I tend to like better, and to write, haiku with something a little more … unexpected about them. Or maybe I just mean haiku that are a little more … authentic, or contemporary, than this. I don’t say I necessarily succeed, just that that’s what I’m aiming for. (Insofar as I’m able to articulate what I mean at this time of the morning, in a state of sleep deprivation.)

I think maybe the reason the nature-imagery thing seems so stilted and played out now is that, as a society, we’re pretty far removed from nature; for most of us, a manufactured environment and human technologies are more prominent in our daily lives than the rhythms of seasons and weather and plant and animal life cycles.

So, unless we’re naturalists or dedicated country dwellers who spend most of the day outdoors, it does feel kind of fake to be constantly writing about birdsong and drifting clouds and rustling leaves, at least without some kind of human context to put these things in what is their proper place for most of us — concerns secondary to whether the furnace or air conditioner is doing its job, or how many emails we got this morning, or how the traffic is aiding or impeding us in our daily journeys.

It feels like we know that haiku is supposed to be about nature, so we glanced out the window and saw a pretty bird and said, “Oh — haiku material!”, ignoring the fact that we’re not quite sure what the bird is called or what it eats or how it sings or makes its nest or how far it flies when the seasons change. We’re not bird experts any more (apologies to those of you who are, but I have never been a bird enthusiast); we’re experts on minivans — We’re not experts on wildflowers, we’re experts on wall-to-wall carpeting — We’re not experts on mountain springs, we’re experts on running water from the tap.

Lots of people have the same concerns as I do, of course, and there is lots and lots of great haiku being written now that does feel real and contemporary and still respects the haiku idea of placing the writer (and reader) in a specific time and place and making a very specific observation or two. I must say that I often have the same sense of anxiety about haiku that don’t mention nature at all, maybe because I do respect the power of haiku to force us to regard ourselves as what we properly are, which is part of nature, despite how thoroughly unnatural most of our surroundings are these days.

I really like the tension (not just in haiku but really in all art, literature and painting and photography and even architecture) between the natural and the human-made. I remember seeing a series of photographs at an exhibition several years ago of what were very clearly human artifacts, often in brilliant unnatural colors, placed in more muted natural surroundings — the effect, to me, was to highlight the beauty and interest of both object and setting.

Another time, our local botanical garden hosted an amazing art installation of long chains of large round scavenged things (like bowling balls and weathered plastic Halloween pumpkins and giant ball bearings) hung from very tall trees — like tree jewelry, I suppose. I could have stared at those things all day; they seemed so completely in harmony with their surroundings despite being so very artificial. [New! Pictures!]

And really, that is a very Japanese aesthetic too — the art of mingling the human with the natural in such a way that both are enhanced. Think of a Japanese garden with its neatly raked stone beds and small water bridges and carefully planned views of carefully arranged plantings (and if you’ve never been to a good Japanese garden, you should go to one, preferably today), or a traditional Japanese house with its natural materials and minimal furniture and openness to the elements.Β  [And more pictures!]

I think that that same aesthetic is or properly should be at work in haiku — the tension or perhaps, the reconciling of tension between the works of human beings and their natural environments. When I imagine a classical haiku poet I see him sitting in a house or just outside one, or walking through a village or riding a boat down a river, looking around him with a gimlet eye at everything in his surroundings — the plants and animals and earth and sky and people and buildings and tools and vehicles — and connecting a couple of those elements in his mind, without particular regard to whether they were “natural” or not.

So maybe that should be our ideal, as haiku poets. Really being wherever we are, and seeing whatever we see, and being aware, yes, of the weather and what the sky looks like and whatever is blooming or singing within our purview, but also mindful of the indoor weather, of the smells and textures of the things we have bought and handle every day, of the moods and wardrobe and habits and speech of our fellow human beings. And making of, or seeing, something real in all that stew.

Cicada shells do rattle, on doorsteps and sidewalks and driveways, in the autumn — much more resonantly on those artificially hard surfaces, I imagine, than they would rattle in a loamy forest or on a mountain path — and the sound is both chilling, like the autumn wind, and oddly comforting, especially to those of us who live in houses and can shelter there from the elements, unlike the poor departed cicadas …

9 thoughts on “September 8 (Evening wind): What is natural?

  1. Heh, yeah, most of the nature I observe (and that ends up in my haiku) is right in my backyard – literally in my backyard. I sometimes feel sheepish about it. I’ve practically got an entire backyard anthology.

    But, I agree, a haiku without some element of nature (even if only being set outdoors) doesn’t seem always quite right. Sometimes the human element, alone, suffices. I cant quite quantify it. It’s one of those deals where I know it when I feel it.

    Anyhow, you’ve written a very interesting commentary. I wish I had something insightful to add. I *feel* like I have something to add, lurking in the back of my mind, but it eludes me.

    I’ll wait until another reader voices it and then I’ll chime in with a “Yes! That’s it!”


    • Thanks Steve, glad it worked for you — I really started out just wanting to write a sentence or two about how unusual this ku was for me and before I knew it I’d written a whole treatise. But it helped me work some stuff out in my mind that I’d been musing on for a while.

  2. First, the haiku is lovely. As nature is always reminding us, it is still out there–in our backyard or in a crack in the sidewalk or on the weather channel. We can’t really leave it, partly because it’s in us.

    But I’m with you. I couldn’t write traditional haiku every single day. What those shells rattle on is too interesting, and you’re right, maybe art–even art as defined by form as haiku–means mixing our minds with what’s outside us, anything outside us. Some haiku feel synthetic and some feel natural to me, and that sense has less to do with plants and animals and earth and sky than sincere observation. Picking what to see seems somehow false. Just let the world strike you… it’s worked so far.

    And sometimes its fun the other way too, seeing the world in the mind’s terms, mis-perceiving the natural world as reflective of internal states. Then you are observing from a deeper hole, that’s all.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed this post–your thoughtfulness is inspiring…

    • Thanks, David.
      I really like this from your comment — “What those shells rattle on is too interesting.” Something to write down for further pondering …
      I also wish I could write the kind of amazing surrealist haiku that you do (I assume that’s what you’re talking about when you talk about “seeing the world in the mind’s terms”?). I need more imagination, or something. I think it probably helps to be a painter. πŸ™‚ One more way of seeing …

  3. I like the ku a lot, Mel. And the commentary more! I think that’s probably what’s so great about Issa – he seems to be a master of combining the tensions or at least overlaps between human and nature.

    I know what you mean too about the high potential for artifice in some of the stuff i write – especially as I type 99% of my ku in my study on a computer etc, writing haiku for me, seems quite a retrospective act, though I guess the Romantic ideal of composing out in nature is hard to support if you have a job etc πŸ˜‰

    • Thanks, Ash. And yeah, Issa, Issa, Issa — he’s really the one I’m thinking about when I see that Japanese poet wandering around eyeing everything in his path for possible material. Just can’t get enough of him …

      I don’t know, I tend to think that the ku I write when I’m trying to be all authentic and nature-loving are WAY faker than the stuff I write when I’m hunkered down over the computer getting all intellectual about it and experimenting and revising. The whole aha-moment thing doesn’t seem to work for me. I don’t really have them. Things percolate around in my brain for a while and then I start to write stuff and eventually something comes out that seems real, but only rarely does it actually correspond with something that *is* real, if you know what I mean.

      Jane calls them desk ku which was apparently a term of disapprobation in the seventies or something, but she doesn’t disapprove of them (although I sometimes get the feeling she wishes she could dispense with them.) It’s pretty much the only way I can write though so I’m stuck with them. πŸ™‚

    • Oh don’t get me started Ashley. πŸ™‚ The whole haiku/senryu distinction drives me completely bats. It’s another one of those haiku issues on which the spectrum of opinion covers every possible option and about which people tend to get all snippy. My brain shuts down when I try to think about it.

    • Oh also — you’re not hogging the comment space, that’s what it’s *for*, silly. The more comments the better as far as I’m concerned. πŸ™‚

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