Learn from the Pine

by | Feb 5, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

I’m not really a writer of haiku, nor can I claim to be a teacher of haiku. But I am a student of haiku.

And that means, or it’s supposed to mean, according to great haiku master Bashō, that I learn from the pine. Today, I invite you to be a student of the pine, too.

Many of you probably first encountered haiku in school, as I did. Which means, I’m betting, that the primary thing you learned, besides that the form originates in Japan, is 5-7-5. The syllable count per line. It might’ve even been part of a lesson on counting syllables. 

The first thing I learned when I became a student of haiku as a writer was that the syllables aren’t important, or at least 5-7-5 is pretty arbitrary since the Japanese language doesn’t conceptualize syllables the way English does. In translation, at least in a good translation, it would be a wild coincidence for a haiku to follow 5-7-5. It’s just also not really the point, not what haiku is really about. 

Again, I’m not a teacher of haiku, though I’ve certainly invited plenty of my students to learn from the pine. So I’d rather let Bashō describe what that means. Here’s the beginning:

Learn about the pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo.

Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old poets, seek what they sought.

The basis of art is change in the universe. What’s still has changeless form. Moving things change, and because we cannot put a stop to time, it continues unarrested. To stop a thing would be to halve a sight or sound in our heart. Cherry blossoms whirl, leaves fall, and the wind flits them both along the ground. We cannot arrest with our eyes or ears what lies in such things. Were we to gain mastery over them, we would find that the life of each thing had vanished without a trace.

Make the universe your companion, always bearing in mind the true nature of things—mountains and rivers, trees and grasses, and humanity—and enjoy the falling blossoms and the scattering leaves.

The way I understand it is, if you are going to write a poem about a pine tree, don’t read other poems about pine trees to find out how to do it. Find out from the pine itself. Observe, smell, listen. Find the movement of things, the change. The falling, the scattering. The haiku isn’t a snapshot of a moment arrested in time; it is a trembling record of its continual change. Less like a photo, more like a gif (sorry). 

Bashō continues, 

One must first of all concentrate one’s thoughts on an object. Once the mind achieves a state of concentration and the space between oneself and the object had disappeared, the essential nature of the object can be perceived. Then express it immediately. If one ponders it, it will vanish from the mind.

…When you are composing a verse, let there not be a hair’s breadth separating your mind from what you write. Quickly say what is in your mind; never hesitate a moment.

This seems hard, but beautiful. Meditative, in the period of concentration, but then instantaneous.  

Here’s a handful of haiku from Bashō that I particularly love:

Mosquito at my ear–
does it think
I’m deaf?

+

New Year’s morning–
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

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Even with insects–
some can sing,
some can’t.

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For you fleas too
the nights must be long,
they must be lonely.

Surprising, right? There’s some irreverence and some empathy, and a clear subjectivity. We see, here, how the “space between oneself and the object” has disappeared, but not in the way we might think in the abstract, or in our probably-Western way of thinking about being “one with nature,” which really means letting the self dissolve rather than closing the distance between the self and the object. Bashō doesn’t dissolve to become one with the mosquito–he is quite clearly a separate entity–but he’s able to imagine, with humor, what might cause the mosquito to buzz at his ear. He’s certainly not one with the blossoms of the New Year–he’s specifically not blooming, but the way I think of it, his concentration on the blossoms brings his own averageness, in that moment, sharply to awareness through contrast. He’s right there, too, with the insects and the fleas.

There’s a lot more to say about haiku than this, and I might return to some of it in another prompt later this year. But for now, I also want to draw your attention to the fact that there are no symbols or metaphors in these haiku by Bashō. The mosquito is a mosquito. A buzz, a pest. And while there’s clear subjectivity and sense of emotion–Bashō is just as much the subject of the poem as the object–there isn’t much abstraction, no wrestling with big ideas. It’s an encounter. A movement. 

 

Prompt

 Learn from the pine. Forget 5-7-5, and forget, if you like, the three-line structure itself. As I mentioned, I don’t really write haiku, but I find incredible wisdom in “Learn from the Pine” in writing poetry, or writing anything. So you don’t have to limit yourself to poetry, either, for this prompt.

You might choose to go outside to do this prompt, but I would encourage you to write where are already sitting or lounging or standing. Look around you. Find an object, natural or not, and concentrate on it. Think about it not as a static thing but as something in flux. So your concentration will have to move with it. 

When your concentration finds the essence of the object, write. Immediately. Remember that the essence will still be of something changing in the universe. Remember, too, not to let the object subsume you and your subjectivity. You, and your feeling in that moment of concentration and change, are the subject, too. 

In this particular exercise, avoid metaphor, avoid symbolism. The object is what it is, and you are who you are, without needing to represent something else or stand in for a larger, abstract idea, or raise some question of great complexity. If you try to do that, your concentration has drifted away from this deep encounter. That’s why you have to write immediately, as soon as you discover the essence, before you think about what the essence means

This prompt might result in a poem or short piece of prose, or it might be more of a warm-up to writing for the day. Or perhaps this way of concentrating could be a new practice in how you write about the world and yourself. Begin with a small, quiet observation, and acknowledge that’s nothing is every truly at rest. 

Don’t forget to register now for Joseph Young’s Writing With Art workshop, which begins February 21. Write Away subscribers get $50 off the course fee. The discount is applied automatically using this link to the registration page.