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Lacing Your Shoes: Haiku and the Everyday

Dec 2001, dgrayson

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· Lacing Your Shoes:
Haiku & the Everyday

· Four Haiku
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Watching a commercial for an upcoming TV movie on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, I thought how it’s probably not difficult to make a passable film about the Holocaust. Because of the inherent nature of the subject, even a poorly written and directed film can affect viewers. In other words, the subject itself does a lot of the work for the filmmaker. It is more difficult to make a quality film about an everyday subject. You need well-developed characters, a strong story, and so forth.

The same principle applies to poetry. It is especially challenging to write poetry about everyday objects and events: a doorknob, a paper bag, a man waiting for the bus.

Most poets know haiku as the short, three-line Japanese form with a 5-7-5 syllable count and a Zen twist. But this is only a slice of what haiku is about. Close to the center of the haiku sensibility is the everyday world. In fact, using everyday subjects is one of the genre’s strengths.

Haiku appear plain — in fact, a popular misconception is that they are "about nothing." Of course, this surface obliqueness is a conscious ploy on the part of haiku poets. Harold Henderson wrote that in haiku "the emotion is conveyed not by stating or describing it, but by describing or clearly suggesting the circumstances that aroused it." __1

The town clock’s face
     adds another shade of yellow
          to the afterglow.

They end their flight
     one by one —
          crows at dusk

— Nick Virgilio __2

— Buson __3

Of course, many Western poets have also used this subtle, indirect style — as Walt Whitman does in "A Farm Picture":

Through the ample open door of the peaceful country barn,
A sunlit pasture field with cattle and horses feeding,
And haze and vista, and the far horizon fading away.

In the West, we call this experience an epiphany. The American Heritage dictionary defines an epiphany as "a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something." There can be a religious component to this: an epiphany can be a revelatory manifestation of the divine. In either case, a worldly or spiritual truth is revealed behind a curtain of the everyday. Something vital is unveiled behind a gauze of ordinariness.

Martin Buber relates a quote from a Hasidic thinker — Rabbi Leib — that speaks to this point: "I did not go to the maggid [teacher] in order to hear Torah from him, but to see how he unlaces his felt shoes and laces them up again." __4 Rabbi Leib notes that it is not so difficult to experience the divine while engaged in the grand pursuits: ecstatic prayer, meditation, fasting, and so forth. The challenge is to experience God while lacing and unlacing your shoes.

   1 Harold G. Henderson, Haiku in English (Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1967): pg. 22.
   2 Ibid., pg. 30.
   3 Robert Hass, editor, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa (New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1994): pg. 89.
   4 Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1975): pg. 107.

— David Grayson

David Grayson is an Oakland-based essayist and poet whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Modern Haiku, Cortland Review, Caveat Lector, and several other journals.

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