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About 15 years ago, when I first heard a North American Haiku Conference was being held in nearby Evanston, I naively pictured something like Comic-Con—you know: people in space helmets, jet packs, antennae—that sort of thing. I went, but mostly as a fascinated spectator: Levi-Strauss among the “natives,” an emissary from the mainland (or perhaps I should say the “mainstream”).
What I found, instead, was an amazingly warm community of writers who cared more about language than most of the English majors I met in college and more than many of the English teachers I taught with.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised, really. Bob Speiss, the editor of Modern Haiku, the journal in which I first published a haiku, had already prepared me for this sort of reverence of language and experience: first in a half dozen rejection letters, and later in a friendly correspondence that helped me to prize experience above all else and to value the simplicity and precision of haiku.
This is not what many people understand haiku to be. For some reason, the dominant understanding is a three line poem with syllable counts of 5-7-5. This has led to a spate of haiku written by people who seem to care about nothing more than than form—like this “prize winner” from the Detroit News:
Golf golf golf golf golf
Hoo boy do we got great golf
Yes Michigan golf
A far cry, I hope you’ll agree, from this famous haiku by a Japanese master, Santoka:
enter my begging bowl
Only two lines, and only nine total syllables, but here a whole scene emerges from two images placed side by side. This is what haiku offers: the world as it is: real, unromanticized, unvarnished, raw.