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Writers On Writing: Reviews On Books You Can Use
by CarrieAnn Thunel

Haiku: A Poet's Guide by Lee Gurga     Mr. Gurga presents haiku as a literary genre, rather than as a poetic form or philosophical orientation, though it contains elements of these as well. Gurga states that the formal elements of the haiku poem are its brief form, the use of a seasonal reference, and the technique of “cutting” the haiku into two parts. This parting of the poem allows for the internal comparison of images: the resonance. Another important element is a guiding set of aesthetic principles. Always the goal is to place two or three images adjacently and without interpretive comment. The poet is to be a window, not a translator. At least one image should be from the natural world. The images should vibrate against one another like the juxtaposed dots of color on an impressionistic painting. The space and tension between the two images should be as precise as the gap in a spark plug.

    Mr. Gurga’s own introduction to haiku came from reading the works of the rather cryptic R. H. Blyth. Though an Englishman, Blyth was thoroughly steeped in the Japanese culture, having accepted a teaching post in Korea in 1924 when Korea was under Japanese occupation. Blyth moved from Korea to Japan in 1939 at the onset of World War II, where he remained until his death in 1964. Blyth saw haiku through the lens of Zen Buddhism, the all-pervasive spiritual orientation of the Japanese culture from which haiku sprung.

    Some twenty years after discovering Blyth, Gurga learned of Higginson’s scholarly book on haiku, The Haiku Handbook. This classic in the field of American haiku became his mainstay. Gurga states that his own book is the distillation of over thirty years of haiku study, and fifteen years of practice.

    Gurga’s book traces the roots of Japanese haiku, and discusses the problems associated with its amalgamation by the English-speaking world. The original Japanese culture that gave rise to haiku is radically different than the cultures of the west. Necessarily, much adaptation has occurred and continues to occur as the west endeavors to embrace haiku for itself. The transplanted living genre has become English-language haiku, a hybrid that flourishes in its own rite.

    The bulk of the book is dedicated to the training of the aspiring English-language haiku poet. It is written in an engaging conversational style, but without sacrificing depth and due consideration for the breadth of the topic. One is introduced to many haiku experts in both theory and practice. There is a thorough list of resources given as well for those who wish to become part of the world haiku community.

    Mr. Gurga handles the various topics associated with the appreciation and production of quality haiku with great sensitivity and obvious devotion. He makes an eloquent case for the continued use of the seasonal reference in haiku. Gurga states that, “Season is the soul of haiku.”1 He further elaborates that “the seasonal reference has developed into haiku’s most powerful tool to engage the reader: it enables the poet to invoke the whole of the natural world with a single image.”2 The Japanese have developed a long cornucopia of seasonal words, or “kigo” that is unique to their cultural holidays, geography, and climate. Gurga reminds us that part of the process of making haiku our own will necessarily involve developing our own “kigo”.

    Returning again and again to Japanese aesthetics, he identifies three kinds of exchanges between the images in a haiku poem: echo, contrast, and expansion. Gurga indicates that a good haiku should involve the reader in a cyclical journey in which the end leads back to the beginning, as the essence of the juxtaposed images expands. Mr. Gurga often quotes the late Robert Spiess, (his mentor and predecessor in editing Modern Haiku) who pointed out that haiku that invoke multiple senses are the most effective. The injunction to “show, don’t tell” is the methodology of haiku. The use of unembellished nouns creates a stark, sensual focal point. Terse nouns set in the present tense with an indication as to the season, all combine to create a sense of immediacy.

    Gurga points out that haiku trusts the reader to be co-creator in the poem by sharing in the poet’s initial perceptions, unmitigated by leading phrases. For this reason, haiku demands the full participation of the reader in a way that no other form of poetry can.

    Haiku has a bit of formal housekeeping guidelines that help one to give structure to the finished product, but the larger part of writing haiku is the essence of its content, imagery, and perception. Haiku is an aesthetic and perceptual bias that eschews linguistic embellishments and the use of poetic devices for their own sake.

    The discipline and practice of the haiku art over a lifetime works fundamental changes in the spirit, and perceptual sensibilities of the poet. Mr. Gurga says simply, “the very intention to write haiku can create a special kind of awareness.”3 Over time, this “awareness” that comes from practicing the haiku art begins to change our orientation to life as the haiku poet becomes more fully conscious of the sacrament of each moment, and the vital necessity of maintaining one’s connection to the natural world from which we all sprung and to which we must all ultimately return.

    Gurga’s book helps one to recognize and appreciate authentic haiku as well as giving a firm foundation in all of the elements of the craft. Because haiku is so concise, yet conveys a strong sense of immediacy and sensually intuitive connection to our environment, haiku is far more challenging than it first appears. Each word must be chosen with precision. There is no room for “padding” or embellishment. Gurga shows us how to achieve haiku that are a union of discipline, precision, art, sensual awareness, and perception. Haiku is an art of subtlety and lightness. Gugra states that “novice haiku poets are tempted to invent striking images for effect rather than present a moment of significance with integrity”.4 The task of how to convey a solitary moment in time and its truth for the human psyche without resorting to overstatement or metaphor requires great skill, mindfulness, sincerity, and insight. The resulting haiku have a poignancy that is unparalleled in any other poetic genre.

    Gugra closes his book with this thought: “The task in the twenty-first century for the poets creating the traditions of American haiku will be to adapt the aesthetics of Japanese haiku to our culture…”5

    This book is an excellent introduction to the comprehension, appreciation, and crafting of haiku, but I would not limit it to beginners only. There is plenty of meat in here for haiku poets at every stage of the craft.


1. Gurga, Lee Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, Copyright 2003, Modern Haiku Press page 24
2. op. cit. page 25
3. op. cit. page 35
4. op. cit, page 97
5. op. cit. page 145

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