All posts by Nicole Jankov

Billy Collins and the Pandemic Haiku

By: B.A. France

I was talking with a friend recently, when she told me that she couldn’t. Couldn’t what, I asked? I rolled into searching for the problem and looking for solutions, living my own cliché, when she stopped me. Anything. I can’t do anything right now, she said. The stay-at-home orders, the constant crawl of news and binging notifications on our smartphones, the steady specter of death, the protests, the fires, the storms, all adds up. I just feel like I can’t do anything creative, she said. I think for many of us, more often than not, she’s right. We can’t. Whatever it is. Not right now.

There was something about the way she phrased it that made me think of Billy Collins. I know, that’s quite a leap from pandemic to poet laureate without even a Kevin Bacon in between. But, there’s a discussion with Marie Howe toward the end of his recent MasterClass on reading and writing poetry when he mentions writing haiku. Collins writes the deceptively simple, but mysteriously complex poems most of us learned about in our early school years. He even published a book of them with Modern Haiku Press a few years ago. He tells Marie and his students that he often treats haiku like a musician playing scales. For him there’s something about the simplicity combined with the strictness of form that is appealing. He tells his viewers that “the haiku doesn’t care about your feelings.”  It’s just a moment.

In this time when many of us feel like nothing creative can happen, the simplicity of the haiku and its grounding in the moment might liberate us from the real oppression of COVID19. I’m not talking about political oppression or cultural, but instead the unrelenting and quiet pressure on our souls. Maybe the haiku is exactly the poetry we need right now. Not just some of the poetry we need to be reading, which surely it is, but also the poetry we should be writing.

In addition to Japanese masters like Basho and Issa, Collins is only one of many western poets who have adopted the haiku or its cousin the senryu. Jack Kerouac and the Beats (rather famously, and where Collins first picked up the form), ee cummings, Seamus Heaney, and many others have mixed writing haiku with other forms of poetic expression. You don’t have to consider yourself a haikuist (Or is it haijin? That’s a whole other discussion.) to write haiku.

Collins mentions in his Paris Review interview Art of Poetry No. 83 that one of the key elements of poetry is gratitude.  He singles out haiku in particular, saying: “Almost every haiku says the same thing: it’s amazing to be alive here.” And while in our present, pandemic times we may not quite feel that way, as the blue light of our phones and laptops saps our attention away, gratitude is something we still need. Haiku’s focus on the world around us gives us a chance for that gratitude to return, for us to ignore our feelings about the pandemic and our dread or worry. Because, as Billy said, the haiku doesn’t care how you feel. Focused on a moment, finding a juxtaposition right in front of you, the time composing a haiku brings observation, art, and gratitude all together. Collins reminds us that poetry and poets are supposed to make us better attuned to “feel grateful just for being alive.”

It is this idea of “the moment” that draws me deeper into haiku during this, our shared moment. In his introduction to Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, Collins describes finding a “haiku moment” nearly anywhere or at any time. For him, it was during walks with his dog along the shore of a nearby lake. But what he describes as the “world of sense impressions that envelops our every waking hour” is the kernel of grit that can result in a haiku pearl, if we are able to inhabit that moment. I know that sounds like the “mindfulness” stuff that today’s meditation gurus seem to be hocking endlessly, but I promise I’m not selling anything.  It shouldn’t surprise us, since Basho studied Zen deeply and the haiku springs from the same historical and spiritual roots as “mindfulness.” Collins admits that there are “many people who don’t get haiku,” and that’s ok. There is a lot of poetry that “many people” don’t get, and that doesn’t tend to stop us from writing. He reminds readers that the little poems are “powerful little assertions of the poet’s very existence.” And that sounds like an assertion we should all be making right now.

We all learned the haiku as children and the 5-7-5 structure has undoubtedly stuck with most of us.  And yes, there is plenty of discussion about form among practitioners. Most modern English-language haikuists don’t ascribe to strict syllable count. Some would insist that I point out the differences between haiku (focused on nature) and senryu (focused on human behavior, often sarcastic). Some would want me to discuss the unique poetic turn of juxtaposition, the kireji or “cutting word” and use of punctuation, or the need for a “season word.” All of these are elements that well versed haiku readers appreciate.

In my way of thinking, for the “pandemic haiku” none of this really matters. As often as we find those details of good form in a haiku, we are just as often struck by verses that do not follow the traditions or which play with them a bit. What matters is being in the moment. What matters is stretching our observational muscles. What matters is finding a moment, just a single moment, to be grateful for. What matters is finding our creativity again.  And during this time, working simply with seventeen syllables or less, maybe we will find that we can.

social distancing

     waking quietly alone

wind in treetops

B.A. France is a poet and writer living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed whose poetry has appeared in Akitsu Quarterly and cattails.