This Field Notes Entry is an excerpt from “Singing for Nothing: Selected Nonfiction as Literary Memoir,” a collection of essays by poet, scholar, nonfiction writer, and translator Wally Swist, forthcoming from the OS this Summer.
Spanning a fascinating breadth of subjects — from Wyslawa Szymborska’s “crystallized images,” to the history of retirement in America , to the implications of big data, to the inner workings of Haiku — Swist’s essays reflect an active yet mindful intelligence, the “opening of vision” from which the best haiku are created. [2018 series editor: Adrian Silbernagel]
Haiku is a poetic genre that can be defined as the juxtaposition of two or more images that provides insight into nature or human nature. It does not, necessarily, need to be written in lines of five, seven, and five syllables, as it often is in Japan, where haiku poetry originated. There is no exact definition of the English “syllable” in Japanese, except for onji, “sound-signs” or “sound-symbols.” Also, “syllables” in Japanese are shorter than they are in English. So, seventeen syllables in English can be tediously lengthy in Japanese. The essence of a successful haiku itself is in the experience of an eternal moment, the numinous found in nature, and in the austerity of the juxtaposition of the images themselves, in that experience, without the use of metaphor.
Haiku for me has been a path, a way of life, a vehicle through which I see the world anew daily and newly many times during the day. For me its practice has encouraged me to learn how to look, and to paraphrase the American lyric poet Mary Oliver: “the more you look, the more you see.” For instance, when I find the first starflower of the season in early May — blooming, as always, beside Canada mayflower — I experience my eyes ranging up the slope in seeing more china-white petals of starflower. And there I see another flower and another. It is in this opening of vision that the best haiku are created.
Haiku is a poetry of consciousness: the tones of Basho’s temple bell dissolving among the peonies in the garden, and the resonance of that tolling emanating in the flowers themselves. Haiku is also a poetic, and spiritual, discipline of discovering the epiphany in the commonplace. Since nature, and often human nature, is found outside the walls of our homes and in the outer world, the poetics of haiku, for me, has always meant walking out into nature and having the natural world move through me.
Walking facilitates a kind of psychic feng-shui. Either in strolling into a sunlit meadow or hiking a trail up a mountain in the rain, in this “activity on non-action” there is a relinquishing of ego. One’s will dissolves into divine will. There is not just the sense, but the experience, of: all is one, as medical intuitive, or psycho-spiritual healer, Caroline Myss often recounts in her
work regarding healing in relationship to the system of the chakras of our bodies.
It is in walking that the best haiku can be created. The eminent haiku poet Basho walked his Narrow Road to the Deep North, and several other poets and writers, practicing in other genres, have too. The Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote about this in his book How Verses Are Made.
When working out the rhythm and music of one of his poems Mayakovsky would recite the lines of his poem in his mind as he walked the streets of Moscow. The pace of his strides over the cobblestones was in concord to the integral harmony of the poem’s evolving of and within itself. The mechanics of the poem would resolve itself through the rhythm of his walking.
In Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “On Walking,” that remains contemporary through his transcendental use of language, he compares the rhythm of his “strolling” to the equanimity of his life and all of what he experiences in the natural world around him.
The poetics of my own poetry originate in this manner. Over many years, it is in the manner of learning the names of the flora and fauna that present themselves in such an array through each of the seasons on my walks. In this knowledge of being able to name what I see in the natural world precipitates the language in the poems that open themselves to me.
The distinguished mythologist and expert in comparative religion, Joseph Campbell, often referred to the Sioux shaman, Black Elk, and his concept of “Sacred Mountain.” Campbell speaks eloquently about that “particular” mountain, and that it need not be the tallest peak in the world, but he refers to it as a “power spot,” somewhere you can look over the plains. It is a place
in nature where you experience oneness with the earth, and refresh yourself with renewed vision.
My “Sacred Mountain,” not to mention other “power spots” in and around Amherst, Massachusetts, is Mount Toby, located in nearby Sunderland. Mount Toby is enveloped in a lushness of hardwoods and ferns, and I have seen deer, bear, and porcupine cross its trails.
From the fire tower at the summit, only 1,240 feet at the peak, look north. On a clear day, at two o’clock, you can see Mount Monadnock’s granite dome in New Hampshire; at eleven o’clock, Mount Snow’s jagged peak is prominent in Vermont; and due west, Mount Greylock’s rounded protrusion expresses itself in the distance in the Berkshires, bordering New York’s easternmost state line.
It is not only in language that we create a poetics, but through our interaction with nature and its beneficence. It is in looking and looking, then seeing, that we experience what is epiphanal in the commonplace.
Whether it is Basho’s travail on his Narrow Road, and through his ardor, his opening to the nature around him, or Mayakovsky’s working out the rhythms and word-choice in his poems. Whether it is Thoreau’s “strolling” to become in touch with himself and in nature itself, or Mary Oliver, like a Johnny Apple-Seed, gifting herself with pencils in the narrows of trees. It is the poetics of walking and seeing that allows us to participate in what can be termed as the ah-ness of the “haiku moment.”
* Preorder Singing for Nothing Here!
Wally Swist’s books include Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love (Southern Illinois University Press, 2012), The Daodejing: A New Interpretation, with David Breeden and Steven Schroeder (Lamar University Literary Press, 2015), Candling the Eggs (Shanti Arts, LLC, 2017), The Map of Eternity (Shanti Arts, LLC, 2018), and Singing for Nothing: Selected Nonfiction as Literary
Memoir (The Operating System, 2018). His poems and prose have appeared in The American Book Review, Anchor: Where Spirituality and Social Justice Meet, Appalachia Journal, Arts: The Arts in Theological and Religious
Studies, Commonweal, North American Review, Rattle, and The Woven Tale Press.