In Essence

Mating dance of bees
Or dance to the death?
Short and sweet.

Years ago, in Manila, I joined a workshop to write poetry. I had read myriad poems, but never turned my hand to writing anything except creating silly rhymes for the kids. I decided it was time to be brave.
At our first gathering, in a classroom devoid of natural light or character, we were asked to get in touch with nature and write a haiku. “A what?” What an ignoramus, with an English degree, no less! I had studied all things English, and occasionally Australian: Chaucer, the Romantic Poets, the War Poets, a smattering of Yeats, Thomas Hardy and T.S. Eliot, Judith Wright and Bruce Dawe. But I had never read – never heard – of a haiku.

A haiku is like a breath. A concise, pared back, three lined poem, as minimalist and slender as those Japanese flower arrangements. Using a simple pattern of syllables, the haiku evokes the essence or impression of a feeling, paints a picture in the mind. It focuses on the senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste. A sparsity of words to capture and communicate a fleeting moment in time. Haiku connect us to the natural world – birds, animals, trees, flowers, rivers, rain, seasons – using carefully selected words to show not tell.

Originating in Japan, haikus have roamed the world, adopting different traditions in different languages. In Japanese, haiku are traditionally printed as a single line, while haiku in English have three lines with 17 syllables following a 5-7-5 structure. Although, once you’ve got the hang of it, only the purists stick to the rules. I’m no purist, and I generally baulk at rules, as you can see from my effort above.

So, what to write? Describe the moment. Then bring in a twist. It doesn’t need to rhyme, but there should be an ‘aha’ moment that resonates with the reader, creates an unexpected image, twists the meaning of the words in a surprising way, to give your reader a new perspective on something familiar. Use simple language and avoid clichés. The present tense will provide that sense of immediacy. Of intimacy.

Once upon a time in Manila, I had to write a haiku in a classroom full of bright unnatural light, trying to imagine myself in a forest, by the sea, over the rainbow. Last week, it was far easier, as I wandered over the hills and far away above Rapid Bay, roaming past gumtrees, wattle and wildflowers, seeking inspiration from the trees and flowers, the shape of the clouds, the distant sea, a glimpse of birds, the traffic noise of bees…

Diuris, commonly known as donkey orchids or bee orchids.

I followed a trail through the trees to a brimming dam. I sat on a log among the donkey orchids in claret and custard, and wattle bushes, brightly covered in pom-poms of yellow. I breathed gently, listening to the birds squawk and twitter, hearing the dull thump of kangaroos bounding through the blue gums, watching the insects crawl over a piece of curled, dry bark, grey and cracked as elephant skin. It was a glorious afternoon, cool but sunny; a blessing after so many wetly dismal days this winter. Writing haikus in a mac or under an umbrella may not have been fun at all, but this was therapeutic. To escape from the library and domesticity and meander at will through the afternoon.

I am far from being an expert, yet it was fascinating to play with words, to condense and purge, to try and pinpoint that essential thought, the essence of the moment…

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