When Empathy Leads to Haiku
The majority of haiku I write are taken from moments in my life. This is the way I learned to write these concise poems. Reading another person’s haiku, we might have a sense of the poet saying, this happened to me, or, this is what I witnessed; what do you make of my experience? The poem resonates within us, which ultimately leads to our interpretation of it. Haiku, perhaps more than any other art form, are about sharing a small part of ourselves.
But what about haiku that are not based on events in the poet’s life? Can the poet walk in another person’s shoes and write haiku from events in someone else’s life? By their very nature are poets not more sensitive and perceptive of their surroundings than the average person? Do we not feel the joy and—yes—pain of a family member, friend, or colleague more intensely?
This haiku of mine was written from another person’s perspective.
peppers the sand. . .
a missing toe’s phantom itch
Frogpond 27:3 (for Melvin Powers)
A few people have approached me to inquire as to which of my toes is missing; in fact, all my toes are intact. My father-in-law suffered a massive heart attack some years ago and, to complicate matters, also had diabetes. He eventually recovered, living an additional twelve years, but not without the loss of his right leg and a couple of toes on his left foot. In my mind’s eye I saw him walking a beach in the autumn rain, complaining about the phantom itch that he often felt years after the loss of his leg and toes. With the images of rain and sand and the sensation of a “phantom itch” in the season of autumn, the nucleus of a poem about a dear relative of mine presented itself to me. Here’s another:
empty house —
a whisper of mother’s voice
in the autumn wind
Frogpond 31:1 (for Hilda Ratliff)
People are usually surprised when I tell them that this haiku is not about my mother. It was written after a colleague spoke of having to go to the empty house of her mother, who was in the hospital, to retrieve a few items. We were sitting under a pine tree at the time. The wind began to blow gently, causing the pine to “whisper.” I imagined the wind to be her mother’s voice.
I like to call haiku that are written from another person’s perspective “empathy haiku.” Haiku should not only be about sharing a part of ourselves with the reader, but it should also be a means to share in the joys, triumphs, and sufferings of others. What better way to show someone that we truly care than to write a haiku about their experience from their perspective?
January 12, 2009
[A special thanks to Charlie Trumbull for publishing this mini essay.]