Tag Archives: haiku

A Haiku Workshop with Gabriel Rosenstock

Having read lots of Gabriel’s work, I knew I’d be in for a treat at the two-hour long Haiku workshop – but I wasn’t prepared for how much I would actually learn. And from talking to the other attendees, I wasn’t alone.

Not only did Gabriel open our eyes to the essence of haiku, he also showed us how to spot a non-haiku within the first half hour of the workshop. Starting with an introduction explaining the idea behind haiku, the history of haiku and the fact that is separate to poetry (and not a form of poetry) Gabriel explained that “it doesn’t matter what you like to encounter – it’s what you encounter.”

One of the difficulties that I (and seemingly many others) have with haiku is that it’s a difficult genre to understand. It seems at once beautiful, poetic and deep – but I now know that this is the opposite of what haiku is really about…as Gabriel pointed out “there is no such thing as good or bad haiku, just haiku and non-haiku.”

Haiku should happen when you open your senses to the world around you and should be expressed in simplistic, plain language, displaying a flash in time, a moment. There should be no poetry, no frills and, as Gabriel repeatedly drummed into us, no thinking. The haiku should be as pure as the moment experienced.

By the time it got to work-shopping our own haiku, we could identify what did and did not conform to the rules. Having spent time dabbling in this genre, I thought I had turned a corner, writing some decent haiku. However, it turns out that most of my haiku were actually Senryu (“haiku is too small to have you in it – you and your ego”) and some weren’t anything like haiku at all. For example, I’d mistakenly ended (what I thought was) a haiku with “summer skies”. But as Gabriel pointed out – how can one moment have several skies?

As we went through everyone’s work, it became apparent that we’d all misunderstood the idea behind haiku – we’d been trying to create beautiful and thought-provoking concepts instead of opening ourselves up to the world. But despite the gentle tearing apart of their work, every attendee was put at their ease and felt comfortable with their mistakes thanks to Gabriel’s patient and professional approach. And, importantly, every one of us left smiling, delighted with how much we had improved.

If you really want to understand haiku, Gabriel is the man to talk to. He exudes haiku, wears it like a piece of old clothing and I couldn’t possibly convey the meaning as effectively. And if you really want to get to grip with haiku, read the masters; e.g. Basho, J. W. Hackett, Isa and Santoka, Rosenstock.

But, if you’re interested, it doesn’t hurt to give you a bit of head start. Here are some of the basic rules to get you started…

Haiku should:

  • reflect nature and the seasons, giving a strong feel for time and place
  • be no more than 17 syllables and be written in lower case (except for proper names) without a title
  • encapsulate a moment, with no contradictions
  • be spontaneous, not “thought about” (although haiku can be revisited for improvements)
  • focus on one idea, using plain – not poetic – language


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Four Haiku Questions with Gabriel Rosenstock

1. How does Haiku differ from other types of poetry?

First of all, it is not necessary to consider haiku to be poetry at all, or even to describe it as a ‘type of poetry’. Most Japanese distinguish between poetry and haiku. There are many schools and styles of haiku.In Vol. 1 of Haiku by R.H. Blyth we read the following haiku by Buson and Blyth’s commentary:

lighting one candle
with another candle;
an evening of spring

The haiku seizes a moment of inexplicable depth. It does not look before and after, but confines itself to the timeless, when life suddenly deepens, and all the universe is present at the lighting of a candle….’

That summarises a lot of what I have to say in my two books on haiku, Haiku Enlightenment and Haiku, the Gentle Art of Disappearing. If, by the end of the workshop the participants truly grasp this – and it is my business to make sure that they will – then that may be the begining of the haiku path for them, should they wish to continue on that path. I use the word ‘grasp’ but the Indian sage Papaji says, ‘We do not seize Reality, Reality seizes us.’ So, we cannot really predict the success or failure rate of a haiku workshop. It all depends on how open you are, your ability not so much to learn but to unlearn. This will largely depend not on your literary talent but on your vasanas and on your Heart.

2. You speak a number of languages. Which one is the most suited to poetry?

Irish. Having said that, some people think that my best book was written in English, Uttering Her Name (Salmon Poetry).

3. In his ‘Letters to a young poet’ Rilke says that a good poem comes from describing a feeling within the poet himself rather than an external object. Would you agree to that?

Well, let’s not forget that Rilke was taught by Rodin to focus on the external object, a panther in a cage!

4. Which is the most essential part in the creation of a poem?

There is no such thing as an essential part…. the essence is the whole of the poem, not a part. If the Heart (not the head) is at the centre, that’s a good place to begin, from where to flesh out the poem and to give it the desired shape. It is the Heart that sees. This is the subject of an essay I wrote on the great Japanese haikuist, Issa.

Please note: if you would like a copy of this essay by Gabriel, please comment on the blog and I will email you a copy.

Gabriel Rosenstock will be reading with with Kristiina Ehin & Silke Scheuermann on Thursday February 17th at 9.00pm

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