Tuesday, July 28, 2009

When Empathy Leads to Haiku

The following article appeared in the Juxtapositions section of Modern Haiku - Volume 40.2 (Summer 2009):

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.

autumn rain
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?

Curtis Dunlap
Mayodan, N.C.
January 12, 2009

[A special thanks to Charlie Trumbull for publishing this mini essay.]


nora said...

I love it, Curtis!

Area 17 said...

A very interesting and challenging, as well as thought-provoking article.

I like it when I'm made to think.

It has certainly given me food for thought, and I thank you for that.

I'll be reading this again!

all my very best,



Alan's BBC interview re 'important words'

Roberta Beary said...

I enjoyed your piece about "empathy haiku" in MH and am glad you decided to speak about it here on tobaccoroadpoet.

A few readers of 'The Unworn Necklace' (Snapshot Press, 2007) have asked me if this haiku is about my mom:

mother's day
a nurse unties
the restraints

It is actually based on a series of images I took away from a visit to my mother-in-law's nursing home. After reading your piece I realize that my haiku also includes memories of visits to my grandmother's nursing home twenty years earlier.

Thanks, Curtis, for giving me food for thought.

Best always,

Michael Dylan Welch said...

I agree with you, Curtis, that "empathy haiku" are a worthwhile addition to one's haiku practice. While it's common for readers to believe that each haiku they read is autobiographical, no one should ever rigidly assume so, in my opinion. Years ago, I published the following senryu:

after divorce
the plant she left
grows on me

A few people consoled me on my "divorce," but at the time I had never even been married. But because of the idiom of the last line, this poem has to be in first-person, so the facts are changed for the sake of the poetry. Similarly, poems of empathy take a first-person viewpoint even though not the poet's experience, and this is as it should be. Poetry comes first. Fine if some people wish to take a strict approach and use haiku only as an autobiographical record of their lives, but it would seem misguided of those poets to assume that everything they read is always autobiographical.

Of course, one danger to writing poems empathetically, or even out of one's imagination, is making sure that the poem still comes across to readers as believable. One can never really know for certain that any haiku "actually happened" (me feeling is that this is a false virtue for haiku), so the only test of authenticity lies in the effect of the poem itself. It's also possible for so-called "yes, it really happened" haiku to fail the authenticity test if not written well. If carefully crafted, I believe it's possible for any haiku to pass the authenticity test no matter whether it was written from direct personal experience, empathetically, or even from one's imagination. Think of Buson's famous poem about the chill of stepping on his dead wife's comb in their bedroom. Buson's wife was apparently very much alive at the time.