Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Dark Wings of Night: Elizabeth Searle Lamb's View of Haiku and Her Haiku


Haiku is to capture the moment: light on a bricked-up window in Greenwich Village, faint crowing of a rooster early in the morning after a death has come, colored sails in an Amazon harbor after rain. It is to track down the elusive dream: a white raven in the desert, an abandoned water tower, the real wetness of incomprehensible tears. It is to resurrect a tiny prism of memory into a moment that lives with color, scent , sound. These are, for me, the functions of haiku, senryu, and the short lyric. Captured in the amber of words, the moment endures.

 -- excerpted from The Unswept Path: Contemporary American Haiku edited by John Brandi and Dennis Maloney, p. 137

Elizabeth died on February 16, 2005. One of the ways she worked with haiku was to write variants, not drafts exactly but rather more than one way of looking at a subject. Among her papers were the following:

will I be able,
when that time comes,
to write my own death haiku


when that day comes
will there be one moment
for my own death haiku?

In her long practice of writing haiku, senryu, tanka, haibun, and renku, she remained focused on capturing the moment, on the interplay between inner and outer worlds.

-- excerpted from "Honorary Curator Elizabeth Searle Lamb: Biography" by Miriam Sagan

Below are some of her well-known poems that keenly capture the haiku moments:

New Year’s Day
a tiny glass angel
catches a sunbeam

in the winter moonlight
an owl in the old pine
echoes flute notes

a plastic rose
rides the old car’s antenna --
spring morning

from the patio
a scatter of golden leaves
and one cricket

wind in the sagebrush --
the same dusty color
the smell of it

Note: Below is a relevant excerpt from Haruo Shirane's essay, titled "Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths"  (Modern Haiku, 31:1, Winter/Spring 2000)

Basho traveled to explore the present, the contemporary world, to meet new poets, and to compose linked verse together. Equally important, travel was a means of entering into the past, of meeting the spirits of the dead, of experiencing what his poetic and spiritual predecessors had experienced. In other words, there were two key axes: one horizontal, the present, the contemporary world; and the other vertical, leading back into the past, to history, to other poems. As I have shown in my book Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Basho believed that the poet had to work along both axes. To work only in the present would result in poetry that was fleeting. To work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haikai, which was rooted in the everyday world. Haikai was, by definition, anti- traditional, anti-classical, anti-establishment, but that did not mean that it rejected the past. Rather, it depended upon the past and on earlier texts and associations for its richness.

If Basho and Buson were to look at North American haiku today, they would see the horizontal axis, the focus on the present, on the contemporary world, but they would probably feel that the vertical axis, the movement across time, was largely missing. There is no problem with the English language haiku handbooks that stress personal experience. They should. This is a good way to practice, and it is an effective and simple way of getting many people involved in haiku. I believe, as Basho did, that direct experience and direct observation is absolutely critical; it is the base from which we must work and which allows us to mature into interesting poets. However, as the examples of Basho and Buson suggest, it should not dictate either the direction or value of haiku. It is the beginning, not the end. Those haiku that are fictional or imaginary are just as valid as those that are based on personal experience. I would in fact urge the composition of what might be called historical haiku or science fiction haiku.


  1. Elizabeth Searle Lamb's view of haiku follows the spirit of an old HSA haiku definition: 'an unrhymed Japanese poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which nature is linked to human nature.'

    2003 Definition: A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.

    These two definitions say nothing about the two-axis aspect of Japanese haiku.

  2. Excerpted from my AHG essay, "Read It Slowly, Repeatedly, and Communally:"

    Unlike modern English-language haiku, "which [are] often monologic, a single voice describing or responding to a scene or experience," 27 the haiku Shuuson wrote was mainly situated in a communal setting and dialogic responses to earlier poems by other poets. "The brevity of the [haiku] is in fact possible because each poem is implicitly part of a massive, communally shared poem." 28