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Like most poetry readers of my generation, I discovered haiku through a process of regression, backtracking from Jack Kerouac and Michael McClureís experiments with the Japanese form in the 1950ís to the poems of the great masters themselves, Basho, Buson, and Issa. Nowadays, American kids write haiku in elementary school, where they are taught that haiku are nature poems composed of three lines and seventeen syllables. Five in the first and third lines and seven in the middle. As is the case in most western interpretations of an Eastern idea, the truth is simultaneously more complicated and much simpler than all that. Most modern poets have abandoned the classical form altogether, choosing instead to serve natural aesthetics and spiritual intent over mechanics and producing poems of as many as five lines and as few as one line. Translating haiku from Japanese into an unwieldy, phonetically inconsistent language such as English is just as problematic. Reducing any art form to mere arithmetic has always made me more than a little nervous, so I find it somewhat ironic when I finally decided to try my hand at haiku that I not only elected to adhere to the five-seven-five format (in deference to my belief that flight begins with two feet firmly planted on solid ground), but I resolved to write a poem a day, every day for a year.

I began on February 22 of 2000, writing in pen or pencil in a small notebook that I bought specifically for my haiku, beginning each entry with the date and my location on the planet that day.

I wrote the first poem as I sat aboard an L.A-bound 777 awaiting takeoff from Chicago OíHare:

Frozen winter sky
The airplane poised and ready
To rise above it

It was a beginning, if less than auspicious.

That year I travelled from one end of this country to the other and across the Atlantic three times, and keeping up with my notebook and adhering to the commitment I had made to myself became somewhat of an obsession. I wrote on airplanes, on buses and ferries, in hotels, night clubs, concert halls, and televisions studios. I even wrote one on the sidewalk in front of the United State Supreme Court while fasting to protest the death penalty. It was there that my friend and fellow activist Abe Bonowitz, after asking what I was writing in my little book, mentioned a website called The Haiku Year. The siteís homepage told me that in 1996 seven friends had made a pact to write a haiku a day for a year and invited everyone and anyone to write their own poems and post them on the Web. A-ha! Maybe I wasnít crazy, after all. There were others out there who had discovered that to content oneself with merely reading haiku was to miss the point entirely and that the only way to truly appreciate haiku was to write haiku. I have come to believe with all my heart that even the poems of the masters, as beautifully as they fall on paper, were, first and foremost, a spiritual endeavor on the part of the authors themselves and that the world might just be a better place to live if EVERYONE wrote haiku.

A few months later, on a tour stop in Boston I even met Rick Roth, one of the seven friends who made and kept the promise that would eventually grow up to be the book that you hold in your hands. As the year wound on, I visited a handful of places that Iíd never been before and I saw all of the old places with a new clarity, focusing my attention outward ( but not too far outward) at least once a day just long enough to get in my seventeen syllables. Some days it was effortless. Others it was a chore, an exercise of pure will, like going to the gym or taking out the garbage:

Thatís seventeen syllables
Right there-Hah!

Some of my favorites were written closest to home in the familiar places that I had taken for granted:

Lazy little cloud
Rest on another mountain
Iíve fishing to do

I wrote the 366th and final poem (2000 being a leap year) on another mountain top, in West Virginia early on the morning of Feb 29th, 2001:

Some city slicker
Left this mountain naked and

And it was done. I had seen it through. I stashed my little book away in my sock drawer and forgot about it. After all, I had a play and a novel to finish, songs to write, deadlines to meet, and bills to pay. No time for fooling around with pint-sized Japanese-beatnik-nature poems.

Then, a year later, Rick e-mailed me and asked if Iíd like to write an introduction for this edition of the haiku year. I got my little notebook out, opened it up began to read.

Some of the haiku I had written made me very proud. Some of them werenít so hot. All brought back memories more vivid than any snapshot or home video. Every mile I travelled, every place I visited, every single day of an entire year of my life rendered in macroscopic detail and preserved forever, frozen in time and space. Scenes that, before my haiku awakening, would have slipped by my window unnoticed as I rushed headlong through the world on my way to wherever the hell it is that Iím going. But not that year. Not February 2000 through February 2001. Itís all there in my little notebook. There are no gaps. There are no omissions. For that was my haiku year. The best year of my life.

--Steve Earle
Durham, North Carolina
November 2003

Haiku Year

© 2003-2005   Clint Harris  (clint@steveearle.net) – All Rights Reserved
© 1995-2003Lisa Kemper  – All Rights Reserved

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