Posts Tagged ‘the art of writing haiku’

Naked at Birth, Aunt Olivia’s poppy in Taos before blooming,
photos of flowers © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

Early in his book Seeds from a Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey, Clark Strand laments that we Americans have lost the vital connection to nature that haiku requires. This essential something is “the sketch from life.” Just as the landscape painter draws what he sees outdoors, the sketch from life is a way for writers to see nature as if for the first time.

In America, as we come to the end of the 20th century, it is questionable whether we ever really see nature at all. Most of us live our lives behind walls. We drive nearly everywhere we go. We work in temperature-controlled environments. When snow falls, we salt our driveways to melt it right away. Few if any of us know the names of more than twenty birds or flowers.

Did you catch the last sentence? Few if any of us know the names of more than twenty birds or flowers.

Because we have lost our connection to nature, Strand goes on to say, modern people carry a feeling of loss. We carry a unique sadness, which may account for why many of us feel that our lives have lost meaning.

                 poppy                                columbine


Morning glory!
Another thing
I will never know


              wild rose                                geranium



Few if any of us know the names of more than twenty birds or flowers.

It’s a simple thing, being able to name flowers. Yet, it’s true — many of us don’t know the names of even the flowers that grow in our own yards, much less the bigger world around us.

Let me show you. Here are the flower names I know:

rose, hollyhock, lilac, delphinium, larkspur, columbine, iris, lily, geranium, pansy, petunia, zinnia, marigold, cosmos, dahlia, snapdragon, sweet william, sweet pea, morning glory, bird of paradise, daisy, sunflower, lavendar, flax, poppy, porchulaca, gladiolus, tulip, daffodil, cornflower, mum, mexican primrose, datura, statice, bachelor button, black-eyed susan, carnation, hyacinth, yarrow, lambs ear, aster, poinsettia…

Ah, that wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Still, do you have any idea how many flower names I don’t know? Hundreds? No, thousands. Botanists estimate there are more than 240,000 flowering plants in the world!


Natalie Goldberg, in her book Old Friend from Far Away, offers these suggestions, among many, for writing memoir:

  • Use your senses.
  • Get concrete.
  • Stay detailed.

These recommendations are related to being connected to nature, to knowing the names of flowers and birds. Open your eyes. Carry with you on nature walks a book of flowers that grow in your part of the world, and when you come upon a blossom you don’t know, look up its name.

Summer is one of the best times to learn the names of flowers. Just the basics. Great if you can distinguish between a California poppy and an Oriental one, but isn’t it enough to know a poppy from a primrose? And how much more rich my writing if I can paint a picture of the decades-old potted geraniums, ancient and spidery, versus just talking about the potted plants my mother-in-law tends.

So do this: walk around your yard or down the road, to a place where flowers are in bloom. Which ones do you know? Look at the ones you don’t know. Consult your book to see what they’re called.

Come back and write about flowers. Use their names. Or, if you prefer, pick a flower you knew by name and write only about that one.

Walk, observe, write. For fifteen minutes. Prose or haiku.

When you’re done with this Writing Practice, keep on learning the names of those flowers. Your writing will blossom.

Cornflower Blue, wild cornflower blooming on Morada Lane,
photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

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A few nights ago, I stayed up past midnight writing a piece. PBS was on in the background. I wasn’t paying much attention until pre-film credits started to roll and I glanced up to see opening scenes of Native Son.

Not the 1951 version where Richard Wright played Bigger Thomas. It was the 1986 version with Victor Love, Matt Dillon, and Geraldine Page.

I had never seen Native Son. Or read the book. I first started researching Richard Wright last summer when I did a presentation on James Baldwin. We read “Giovanni’s Room” and “Another Country” for the writing Intensive in Taos last year. I fell in love with James Baldwin. One of Baldwin’s mentors was Richard Wright.

After we got back from Taos, a writer friend of mine went to a Twin Cities used bookstore and bought up all the Baldwin books. Some were original paperbacks; they smelled like the 60’s. She gave them to me as a gift.

One was Baldwin’s collection of essays, “Notes of a Native Son.” When she paid the clerk, the woman said, “Oh, there’s been a resurgence of the Harlem Renaissance writers lately.”

I’m not surprised.

I found the 1986 film version of Native Son to be heavy-handed and over dramatic. But I stayed up and watched anyway. Out of curiosity, I decided to research Wright a little more and stumbled on a Washington Post article on poetry.

While taking refuge in France from the fallout of his books, “Native Son” and “Black Boy,” Richard Wright wrote and studied haiku. There are 810 in his collection, “Haiku: This Other World,” published by Arcade in New York.

Not only that, according to the Robert Hass article, 5 Haikus By Richard Wright, Wright’s agent said he wrote 4000 poems during the last 18 months of his life, from the summer of 1959 until his death in 1960.

It makes sense to me that Wright would turn to haiku. Simple. Bare. And elegant. A good place to stop and rest. Shelter from the storm.

I am nobody:
A red sinking autumn sun
Took my name away.

A sleepless spring night:
Yearning for what I never had
And for what never was.

-Richard Wright, from “Haiku: This Other World,” by Richard Wright
(Arcade, 1998)

Saturday, April 21st, 2007

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