The Horsensei newsletter consists of equine-related haiku followed by links to our programs and services. Horses are wondrous teachers of the ideals conveyed in haiku—connection with nature, living in the moment, delighting in the senses, and the transcendental quality of simple things. Horsensei programs and private sessions help you live the Way of Haiku in peace and harmony at work, with friends and family, and in nature.
The newsletter is in the form of haibun, a haiku poem accompanied by prose, or haiga, haiku illustrated with a drawing or painting. The information below will help you appreciate haiku form and tradition.
We welcome your submissions of haiku, haibun, and haiga for use in our newsletter. They should relate to horses, or other equines, and their environments—pastures, trails, forests, deserts, mountains, barns, arenas, corrals. Please send your contributions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name as you wish to have it displayed and a link to your website, if any.
Haiku is a traditional Japanese poetry form characterized by brevity of wording, simplicity of language, and depth of emotion. The purpose of writing and reading haiku is to share common scenes that move us in uncommon ways, expressing "the unsayable dimensions of the mundane." (Hamill)
With roots in the 8th century CE, the first Japanese haiku poets were influenced by Zen Buddhism and its emphasis on the oneness of all things, the transience of every thing, the reality and unreality of the physical universe, and the eternal nature of each moment. This world view continues in modern times with practices such as mindfulness meditation, belief in the Power of Now, and the North American haiku revival by the beat poets of the mid 20th century, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder.
In keeping with Zen and Daoist movement meditations such as tai ji and qigong ("chi goong"), which emphasize the coordination of breathing and movement of qi (chi, the life force), it is said that each haiku should be readable with a single breath.
The following characteristics, when taken together, distinguish haiku from other forms of poetry.
The Haiku Moment—In images and juxtapositions drawn from everyday life, each poem embodies "the moment seized on and rendered purely." (Hass) The poet shares the awesome phenomenality of the Now. Haiku moments contain contrasts and co-existences, often as synchronicities, that fill us with their poignancy—a snowflake melting in a cup of tea, an autumn leaf falling next to an old cat, a fly escaping the twitch of a horse's ear. The microcosm within the distilled moment expands into the macrocosm of collective experience. Something catches our attention and, looking to see what it is, we see something more. In a few carefully chosen words, haiku express a universe of images and feelings. And yet the essence of haiku is the pathos of being alone with that which cannot be completely expressed or shared. (See sabi below.)
Haiku moments happen when we get in touch with the images and ironies of the everyday world around us and our emotional responses to them. The haiku form encourages us to create these Moment Museums by looking at an object or event more clearly and appreciatively than we have done before. The austerity of the haiku verse invites a deep intimacy in the sharing of the haiku moment.
Recognizing that horses provide some of our best haiku moments, Horsensei programs and sessions continue the Zen tradition of living fully, mindfully, and peaceably in the present.
Seasonal words—The kigo is a seasonal reference that is typical of, some say required in, classical haiku. It reflects the Japanese way of thinking about time, place, and change, and gives readers a way of "locating themselves in the haiku." (Hass) Some kigo, such as cherry blossoms and snow, are obvious allusions to a time of year. Many haiku contain kigo known only within the geographical culture of the poet: uguisu, the bush warbler, as the harbinger of spring; spiders and crickets in mid-summer. In the white horse haiku below, tarweed is a kigo for the late summer season in Northern California.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass theorizes that kigo were shamanic and ritualistic in origin. Their intent was to call forth the living spirits dwelling within the natural phenomena evoked by the haiku.
Aloneness and All-one-ness—Sabi has been translated as beauty with a sense of loneliness. Sabi holds a touch of melancholy that is more complex and impersonal than mere sadness. Although haiku could be humorous even in Bashō's time (1644-1694), a recurring feeling tone in many verses is the isolation the poet feels in experiencing the haiku moment in solitude.
Sabi reflects an existential angst given to each poetic subject in its singular, lone existence when observed from a state of Zen detachment. In a sense, sabi is the unbearable lightness of being combined with the unimaginable darkness of non-being. H. F. Noyes points out, "When we immerse ourselves in nature, an isolated particularity becomes to us, for the moment, all things. Sabi loneliness is a state in which, having nothing, we have all." Here is my favorite haiku, by Yosa Buson (1716-1784):
Do you feel the sabi in the image and in your psyche projected onto the horse left standing alone at the hitching rack while his rider is drinking warm sake beside the fire inside the inn, oblivious to the snow storm that has moved in around his faithful steed?
A Nonjudgmental, Selfless Attitude—A haiku is an observation without interpretation. The poet has no opinion to promote. Pronouns, especially "I," are rarely used. "The focus is not on the inside world but on the outside world. [The poet lets go of] wanting to tell others what she thinks, feels, believes, or wishes to have thought of as reality." (Reichhold)
Pivot Words—Kake-kotoba are words that create an expectation of one meaning, only to pivot sharply to deliver a different meaning. Robert Hass calls kake-kotoba a grammatical double exposure. I think of them as the Venn intersection of two or more meanings. In the following haiku, smells is a pivot word.
The first line suggests that the horse's nose as a sensory organ smells something. The second line does an about face and tells us that it’s the poet who is smelling the horse's muzzle, redolent of tarweed's minty resin that blackens the hair of white horses.
Haiku has been mistakenly defined as any poem of three lines of 5-7-5 syllables. This rhythm derives from traditional Japanese poems that consisted of lines in 5-7-5, 5-7-5-7-7, and other formal constructions. However, the Japanese language uses sound units called on, rather than what English calls syllables. For instance, the name of the famous 17th century haiku poet Bashō has two English syllables, but three on, as indicated by the macron above the "o," which prolongs the vowel sound. The problem with the 5-7-5 format in English is two-fold: for one thing, haiku translated from Japanese, and haiku newly composed in English, lose their beauty when forced into 5-7-5. Additionally, poems without haiku elements pose as haiku just because they adhere to that metering. Much of the best ancient and modern haiku are written in free verse, sometimes on a single line.
Argisle, Bethany. Founder and Curator, The Moment Museum.
Bashō, Matsuo. Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings. 1689. Sam Hamill, translator. 2000. Bashō (1644-1694) is first of the Four Great Haiku Poets that include Yosa Buson (1716-1784), Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), and Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)
Donegan, Patricia. Haiku Mind. 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness and Open Your Heart. An anthology of haiku by various authors, rendered into haibun by Donegan. 2008
Hass, Robert. The Essential Haiku. Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa. 1994
Henderson, Harold G. An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Basho to Shiki. 1958
Higginson, William J. and Penny Harper. The Haiku Handbook. How to Write, Teach, and Appreciate Haiku. 1985
Issa, Kobayashi. The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku. 1819. Sam Hamill, translator. 1997. The most famous work by one the Four Great Japanese Haiku Poets that include Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), Yosa Buson (1716-1784), and Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)
Reichhold, Jane. Writing and Enjoying Haiku—A Hands-on Guide. 2002
Suzuki, Mitzu. The White Tea Bowl. A lovely collection of haiku by the widow of Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki, published in celebration of her 100th birthday, for which she was alive, on April 13, 2014
Tolle, Eckhart. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. 1997