This excerpt has been adapted from Tricycle’s upcoming online course, “Learn to Write Haiku: Mastering the Ancient Art of Serious Play” with Clark Strand. Learn more about the course and enroll at learn.tricycle.org.

Aside from coming together regularly to write haiku in monthly groups, there are other uses of haiku as a social art. Take the work of haiku poet Mayuzumi Madoka, for instance. 

On March 11th, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of northeast Japan, causing a massive tsunami. When the waters receded, nearly 20,000 people were reported dead or missing. To add to the misery, the tsunami damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, forcing the immediate and permanent evacuation of 116,000 people. Lives were upended and, in some cases, centuries-long family connections to the land were irrevocably severed. It was the second largest nuclear disaster in history, just after Chernobyl.

Mayuzumi Madoka was serving as a Japanese cultural envoy to France when the tsunami struck. But shortly after the disaster, in response to a heartfelt letter from a student who was among the survivors, she traveled to the region to conduct a series of kukai (an informal haiku contest) sessions there. While many of the participants at these haiku meetings were practicing poets, others joined as a way of processing the trauma that they had endured.

Madoka traveled back to the region six months later to collect the haiku and interview the survivors. The result was a book of 126 haiku, titled So Happy to See Cherry Blossoms: Haiku from the Year of the Great Earthquake and Tsunami, with each writer’s account of the circumstances under which it was composed, followed by Madoka’s notes on the season word for each poem. Parts of the book have been translated into English by Hiroaki and Nancy Sato. 

Historically speaking, haiku have been used for every imaginable purpose. During World War II, haiku were used both to celebrate the war effort and to protest against it. After the war, Suzuki Shizuko pioneered the field of exposé haiku by writing about her experiences as a comfort woman, or sex worker, for American soldiers during the occupation. After the tsunami, Madoka offered haiku to survivors as a means of recovering from trauma. Here is an early entry from her anthology. The entry comes from Sato Kuniko, who was 79 years old at the time of the tsunami and from Minamisoma, Fukushima: 

The waves of springtime,
departing, have completely
swallowed my village. 

—translated by Clark Strand

Sato said about the experience, “Earthquake, tsunami, radiation. All that left both my body and mind worn out. It was when I had evacuated that I saw my hometown on TV. Everything had been taken away by the tsunami, leaving only mountains of wreckage and rubble. Now I have no hometown.” 

Madoka comments on Sato’s use of the season word, “Haru tsunami here does not mean ‘spring tsunami,’ but haru su nami, or ‘waves of spring,’ which are supposed to be calm and mild. Hence the irony here. In Minamisoma, 525 people perished.” I’ve retranslated the poem to highlight the irony that Madoka refers to, which is lacking in the translator’s version. 

Another poem, this one by Hattori Nami, a resident of Shiogama who was 64 at the time of the disaster, reads:

During the blackout,
alone in the kitchen—but
for the blurry moon

—translated by Clark Strand

Hattori said, “On the night of March 11th, my town, assaulted by this tsunami, had lost all lifelines, everything left in mud and darkness. Anxious in the continuing aftershocks, I thought to cook rice on a kerosene stove and went into the kitchen and saw a blurry moon was out. That had a soothing effect on my heart.”

This is what Madoka had to say: “The season word is oborozuki, blurred or blurry moon. Meteorologically, the blurring of the moon and spring is explained as a consequence of the approaching low atmospheric pressure. In Japanese poetry, blurriness has been regarded as one of the attributes of spring, when the world thaws, warms, and grows, suffused with softness. In Shiogama, 26 people perished.”

There are many other fine haiku in this anthology, which I encourage you to read. All observe the 5-7-5 syllable form and the use of season words. Was this simply because the poets were students of Madoka, who is a traditionalist in such matters? I think not. When asked why he felt drawn to a traditional verse form like haiku, the modernist poet Kaneko Tota explained that he was attracted to the fixed verse form because it yielded the beauty of finality in this life where nothing is final. “A set form used by generations of people creates the feeling of familiarity, fulfillment, and ease for a modern man who is alienated, frustrated, and anxiety-ridden,” he explained. According to Tota, “The 5-7-5 syllable pattern provides a poetic framework for a poet in the same way that an established religion provides a moral framework for a man.”

I bristled a little bit at the reference to religion the first time I read these words back in the 1980s. But I think I understand now what Tota was getting at. 

The use of season words offers us a lifeline to nature in times of stress or uncertainty. The 5-7-5 form offers us the beauty of finality in this world where things are constantly changing, nothing is stable, and one thing is always in the process of becoming another.

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