Preserve Your Memories by Writing Haiku

A retiree describes how writing haiku has enabled her to record observations of nature, and how you could use the form to preserve your memories too.
By Clara Cassidy
November/December 1978
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You don't have to use a bamboo pen to, but if you're writing haiku to preserve your memories it might add a touch of authenticity.
ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF


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However delicate, fragile, and fleeting—indeed, the more so the better—you can always preserve your memories in a few short lines on a simple sheet of paper by writing haiku.

Just as a wok banishes a cluttered kitchenful of utensils, so the haiku (a small poem of Japanese origin) does away with expensive cameras, film, lenses, light meters, tape recorders, and bulky souvenirs. Once this simple form of poetry is mastered (and that's quite easy) any moment worth preserving can be captured quickly—anytime, anywhere —with nothing but a pencil and a scrap of paper.

I've kept a "nature diary" this way for over 20 years, preserving not only images made by light and shade, but color, movement, taste, touch, scent, and sound as well. Each such "memory"—with date and place of origin noted—is recorded in a notebook.

Though the birth of haiku (the word is both singular and plural) is lost in the mists of time, this particular form of poetry has so much abiding merit that it still flourishes today (just as it flourished in 760 A.D., when the first known anthology of some 4,500 Japanese poems was completed).

Technically, a haiku consists of 17 syllables. (Poems from the Japanese are frequently shorter or longer because of translation difficulties.) And, in those 17 syllables, the writer must capture an entire thought ... complete ... finished! Furthermore, exactly as in a good snapshot, this "picture" should be in focus, have a center of interest, and not lop off figurative heads at the edge. Yet even with its sharp limitations, one of these specialized verses can transport the reader into another mood. And so, give pleasure.

The haiku demands nothing in the way of rhyme, but the verse should have a rhythmic expression (though not in the set metric measures of English poetry). Each of these poems consists of three lines: The first contains five syllables; the second, seven; and the third, five again.

Thus:



While this verse of mine gives the traditional season indication, that is one of the more technical requirements which may be disregarded. The three dashes at the end of the second line indicate a slight swerving of thought. These may be placed wherever needed in the verse, as here:



Or:



I started my personal haiku jotting habit years ago to preserve hiking memories along the Appalachian Trail. Then, in 1960, I bought "Small Comfort" (four country acres with a seven room farmhouse just outside Harpers Ferry, West Virginia) for my retirement home and, of course, immediately started writing haiku about it. The first recorded memory of my country place runs:



Now, at 76, I live in town. The new owners of "Small Comfort" have cut down the cedar tree. But because of these few words, I still have a lasting joy renewed at will, and can just as easily renew others. For instance: The sky over "Small Comfort" was often marked by jet trails.



As my retirement day approached, the weekend rides between the farm and Washington, D.C. became a time of garden watching:

The brow of a hill---
Wearing a comb of cornrows,
Has a tidy look.

Foreign to nature---
Sharply rectangular bales
Clutter smooth hayfields. 

Although it's not necessary, sometimes you may want to award a title to a haiku in order to give the poem more meaning:

HIT AND RUN



WHODUNIT?



COLD SNAP



Even without a title, however, haiku can catch the seasons in their endless progressions:









A form of poetry slightly longer than a haiku—the tanka, which has 31 syllables—gives still another turn of thought by adding two lines of seven syllables each. Furthermore, if the extra lines are composed by a second party, an element of play is added to your poetry. This poem, for instance, was "capped" by a friend with whom I corresponded weekly for some 17 years. Such cooperative poetic ventures added much interest to the exchange of letters: I wrote:



My friend added:


See: No expensive equipment. No clutter. No deterioration with the passage of time. No depletion of your store regardless of how much you share it. All of life's sensory delights—the taste of nectar, the scent of mingled wild roses and honeysuckle on a sun-warmed hillside, the gossamer touch of autumn's floating spider silk, the soft plop of a falling ripe plum—may be preserved indefinitely by this simple method.

Nothing in nature is too miniscule to give the observant onlooker a joy entirely out of proportion to its size, nor to form the subject of a poem. The haiku is entirely consistent with a lifestyle based on the economy of nature, since even the nonpalpable—the evanescent—may be so delicately crystallized for future enjoyment.


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