By Theresa Williams
Seeing Into the Life of Things
It’s still dark out, but the first bird of morning started singing twenty minutes ago. I haven’t slept all night. A friend treated me to a late supper out, and I had espresso. So I’ve been reading the most recent issue of the New Yorker, which includes a brief essay by Ray Bradbury.
“Take Me Home” takes us back to Bradbury’s childhood, when he “was beginning to perceive the endings of things.” He tells us about “the special time, the sad time, the time of beauty” during a Fourth of July celebration:
I’d helped my grandpa carry the box in which lay, like a gossamer spirit, the paper-tissue ghost of a fire balloon waiting to be breathed into, filled and set adrift toward the midnight sky.”
The beauty and simplicity of Bradbury’s words reminded me of haiku, which, as defined by the author Reginald Horace Blyth, is a poem of sudden enlightenment “in which we see into the life of things.” A few years back, I started writing haiku every day, and I acquired a four-volume set of haiku with commentary by Blyth. The original editions are rare and expensive, but I managed to find affordable copies from Hokuseido Press.
Blyth, who died in 1964, was born in England and taught English in Korea and, later, Japan. He became a devotee of Zen and haiku; for him, the two were inextricably intertwined. More than any other writer, Blyth showed me the heart of haiku and how I could benefit from it. He wrote:
Haiku is the creation of things that already exist in their own right, but need the poet so that they may ‘come to the full stature of a man.’”
My first attempts to write haiku were frustrating. Initially, I set a goal of writing a hundred haiku in a year. I’d read about how many short poems the masters like Basho, Buson, and Issa had written during their lifetimes: The numbers were in the thousands. I was enthralled. Haiku, as I saw it, could give me practice in truly seeing the world.
I didn’t adhere to the 5-7-5 syllable count (today, most haiku writers don’t), but I had trouble expressing a complete experience in a few words. The earliest attempts were nothing more than bad sentences. I showed off and overexplained. I didn’t realize that the best haiku are not only simple; they often involve a comparison or contrast of two unlikely things.
I believe my breakthrough happened when I began combining haiku with prose, a practice called haibun. In one of my later attempts, I wrote:
Spring Passage, May…
Traveling south to visit the gravesite of my husband’s father, dead one year today: Now everything reminds us of pilgrimage. The barn with “Jesus” painted on the roof, three crosses strung with white lights near Sandy Creek in West Virginia, even the cottonwood seeds floating around our truck as we wait in a traffic jam.
spring arrived here
some time ago
the dying peonies
The first two lines of the haiku suggest renewal; the last, death. And now at last I understood the importance of tension that comes from contrasts.
My schooling trained me to see symbols and images but not how to feel them, not how they might lead to new understanding. Haiku isn’t about intellectual understanding but about a very deep realization of that which ordinarily goes unnoticed. As Rilke said in a poem from The Book of Hours:
I am much too alone in this world, yet not alone enough
to truly consecrate the hour.
Haiku evokes the special, the sad, the beautiful moments as they exist in everyday life. The poems can have an almost indescribable pathos, as when Basho wrote in seventeenth-century Japan:
Even in Kyoto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyoto
of the peony
Exciting at first,
watching the cormorant-fishing
In the last of the three, Basho alludes to what he saw as an exciting spectacle, the drama of cormorant fishing, but the heart of the poem is his empathy for the birds who must wear special collars to keep them from eating the fish. To capture revealing moments like these, the writer must first learn to recognize them, as Basho dedicated his life to doing—as did Rilke and also Bradbury, apparently, because he captures the poignancy of a single moment in “Take Me Home.”
When the time comes to release the balloon, he hesitates:
But I could not let it go. It was so beautiful, with the light and shadows dancing inside. Only when Grandpa gave me a look, and a gentle nod of his head, did I at last let the balloon drift free, up past the porch, illuminating the faces of my family. It floated up above the apple trees, over the beginning-to-sleep town, and across the night among the stars.”
Bradbury captures a moment of irrevocable loss in the presence of eternity, and the event culminates in a moment of enlightenment. The balloon is an entity, a thing with a soul, but it is also the carrier of all experience: light…shadows…everything between. Excitement and sadness come together, as they do in Basho’s haiku about fishing.
Then off goes the balloon—over apple trees, over the sleeping people, and finally into vast, limitless space.
Perhaps I’m having an experience like Bradbury’s right now, listening to the first bird of morning. Can it be that this very moment illustrates the pathos and mystery of being?
- “Take Me Home” by Ray Bradbury, The New Yorker, June 4 and 11, 2012.
- Haiku: Volume 1, by R. H. Blyth (Hokuseido Press, 1981).
- “I Am Much Too Alone in the World, Yet Not Alone” by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Annemarie S. Kidder.
- The Galaxy to Ourselves by Theresa Williams (Finishing Line Press, 2012).
- The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa, edited by Robert Hass (Ecco Press, 1994).
Theresa Williams is a contributing writer at Talking Writing.
“The stories I wrote about my experience with depression were not just for myself but also for others who might need them. I knew then that this is why we must be fearless about sharing our experiences.” — “Lawrence’s Apples”