The Secret of Haiku

I found this oriental woman and asked her, “what is the secret of haiku?”
It had been a three day trek through the foothills. I had rested when I was tired, sometimes day, sometimes night, and I had walked all the rest of the time. For sustenance I had chewed leaves and grass, usually spitting away the pithy contents once worked dry of any botanic fluidity. I couldn’t have even guaranteed meeting anyone to answer the question behind my quest. Perhaps I expected the birds or the streams to give me my answer.

In youth I had been introduced to haiku at the age of, perhaps nine or ten years, by my elder brother’s ‘Whizzkid’s Handbook’, a paperback volume well inside the tradition of self-help sections of an eagle or a girl annual of the forties or fifties. He had probably acquired the volume through the ‘bookworm club’ children’s book catalogue distributed at our primary school. This same bookworm club had been my source of Tintin oriental epic ‘the blue lotus’, set in the criminal underworld of the opium houses of the internationally controlled zone of Shanghai in the nineteen twenties or perhaps thirties. The cover features the dragon itself: a huge blue beast which sold the book to me in an instant when seen in the catalogue. It was in fact just a huge mural on the wall of an opium den, but a real enough beast indeed.

In the Whizzkid’s Handbook, haiku was introduced as poetry made easy; the profoundness lying in the number of syllables per line alone. Perhaps that is at least partly true. Perhaps my problem of near-impotence in haiku writing is thus that I have simply lost the formula. A parable comes to me here that shouts of being relevant: I recall that in the film ‘One of our Dinosaurs is Missing’, featuring strange strange scenes of Manchu-style curly-bearded oriental men chasing a huge brontosaurus skeleton in a lorry under low railway bridges around rural England (if I remember correctly), the film culminates in the Gilliam-worthy anti-climax of said chinaman revealing that the huge prehistoric quarry was only being chased because it contained, hidden in it almost like DNA, a ‘secret formula’: a secret formula I think for tomato soup. Make of this parable what you will.

It is certainly true that the pure formula of haiku had been lost to me since discovering it in that paperback many years ago. As a result my recent efforts have been aimed at the wider leftfield of haiku – its outer limits – 4, 4, 2; and 5, 3, 2, for example. I think the problem is also one of trying too hard. That is not the way of the tao. Haikus should be plucked from the air like falling leaves, perhaps. There is no try. Do or do not. One doesn’t achieve profundity by trying.

My loss of the sacred haiku formula is in part Leonard Cohen’s fault. One of the few haikus to hand in my last fifteen odd years has been his ‘Silence, and a greater silence / Where the crickets / Hesitate.’ That is 8, 4, 3. Strong at the back. Fielding a squad of fifteen. The layers of the mountain get smaller and smaller as one goes along, like building a pyramid.

I found recently the part-revelation of the secret haiku formula, in Salinger’s ‘Seymour an Introduction’, a work so cruel to the reader it equals Yoda’s Artoo-beating in terms of laying the correct jungle before the aspiring initiate. Once finally amongst the wonderful analysis of this Seymour’s haikus – once deep in the foothills before Shangri-La or Xanadu, so to speak, it is suddenly revealed that the few hundred poetic gems that Sal sits upon as custodian, which he has lead us all this way for, heralding as among the world’s literary greats, are the property of Seymour’s widow, who has forbidden any reproduction of them whatsoever. This is the story followed exactly by the ‘I’ in Dr. Seuss’s ‘I had trouble in getting to Solla Sollew’. After great pilgrim hardships the protagonist finally makes it to the banks of the beautiful river Wah-Woo. He crosses the bridge and is met at the gates of the wondrous, virtually trouble-free city of Solla Sollew, by its gatekeeper, who informs the weary traveller that the only door into the city has a key-slapping slippard occupying its keyhole. There is no way into the city! In absence of a single word of the great poetry collection, JD does reveal in passing the magic number of haiku. The official sacred squad number, I worked out, is seventeen. (Perhaps the sacred formation is 5, 7, 5? Or 7, 5, 5?) This Seventeen is in the text divulged as being half the number of his brother’s westernised ‘double’ haikus of six lines, thirty-four syllables. Enough to fill the whole pitch with both teams. Both sides of the story. And not a word divulged of any of them.

On my journey through the hills and folds of rough and splendid landscape, I imagined the journey, or perhaps I just recalled the account of it given to me years earlier, of Jigaro Kano, the sole founder and grand master of the sacred and noble art of judo. The story had been told to me, as one of twenty or more boy and girl apprentices (a classroom quantity – perhaps seventeen of us?). Much in the mould of the young jedis of Star Wars episodes 2 and 3. Our teacher – one of the great teachers of my life in this body, was a northern-tongued, small, humble yogi of a soul. He taught that the judo practitioner’s body is a FIGHTING MACHINE! His recounting of the great creator – discoverer – of the art of judo (which could equally be called jedi, only with less obvious telekinesis), was the tale of a man journeying across feudal China, wishing to defend himself perfectly, without harming a single assailant. I picture him through days of attacks and ambushes humbly learning and discovering and refining and evolving organically the ways of the gentle stone, reflecting and repelling all advances like a mirroring forcefield. “Try to hurt me and you shall only be hurting yourself.”

This was my first introduction to the Way, if you will. It was supplanted years later by reading a section on transcendental meditation in an all-encompassing encyclopedia as a teenager. Around the same time and in a nearby corner of the same encyclopedia, I was put well on the path to my exciting discoveries in the field of the science of the soul (a phrase borrowed from a ufo contactee, purported to be told him by the occupants as being a branch of their field of wisdom) – the encyclopedia having the correct triggers of suggestion under philosophy of mind, I think – Rene Descartes being the main man mentioned, but the thought experiment (of a brain cut in half and each half placed in a separate body) going well beyond anything Descartes ventured as far as, and having more in common with Einstein.

By the time I came round the bend and over the knoll, my ears were ringing from the silence. There she was. Wind was buffeting around her, her hair aflame like a wild lady of the mountains. Did I really say it? Did I really say “tell me about haiku”?! No. I think I spoke of the weather.