pub: Shanti Arts (PB)
ISBN: 978-1-947067-28-8 (print)
ISBN: 978-1-947067-29-5 (digital)
Cdn $19.95 US $18.95
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Poetry That Heals
Very importantly, however, Wakan shows by example that the “rules” are not to be taken as impediments, but rather as guideposts on the journey to discover and explore oneself. Looking back, Wakan realizes that her practice of poetry writing has enabled her to develop awareness, dispassionate interest, personal healing, and compassion.
In her own words: “I have come to see that in creating poetry, I am creating myself.”
I learned much from this book, both about the principles guiding these art forms and the discipline derived from writing them. I recommend this book to all with an interest in the therapeutic power of poetry.
In Poetry That Heals, Wakan seamlessly weaves her 30-year journey as a haijin into a narrative of personal growth that she attributes to the ‘power of both reading and writing haiku, the opening to oneself that tanka offers, and the opening to others that response tanka allows.’ At first glance, this book appears as a haiku primer but, don’t be fooled, it offers far more for seasoned poets.
In this memoir, Wakan shows how she found poetry writing enabled her to develop awareness, dispassionate interest, personal healing and compassion. Furthermore, she indirectly encourages all haijin to hone their skills of observation and to read haiku to become better writers. The writing of other Japanese genres is also recommended, because Wakan found each genre revealed ‘new ways of living that fed my innermost yearnings.’
Not-to-be-missed are the book’s last five pages (end of haibun section) in which Wakan summarizes the wisdom acquired during her healing haiku/tanka/renku journey. Although not identified as such, this summary serves the purpose of an afterword.
Naomi Wakan’s poetry journey Poetry That Heals begins in her “middle years” with a two year stay in Japan. As she began to translate a Japanese friend’s book of haiku into English (with the help of another Japanese friend who was teaching English to children) her appreciation for the literary form took root. She writes, “from that period on, I was hooked on haiku.”
That hooking has lasted to this day, over thirty years of reading and writing haiku – being involved with Haiku Canada as a Western Canada regional co-ordinator, and later, as a facilitator for bringing haiku poets together on “her” island – Gabriola.
There is no mention of “life force,” or “spiritual,” “inner voice,” or “sacred space” in Poetry That Heals. These words are not part of Wakan’s vocabulary; instead, she explains her “middle way” – her favourite position “on the fence of maybes.” Wakan is not aiming for perfection, or enlightenment, or “any other of those terms of extreme that are far too nebulous and exhausting. Idealism has a high failure rate. I am about empowerment, not defeat.“
Gary Synder writes, “Poetry has an interesting function. It helps people “be” where they are.“ Wakan’s chapter Being Here Now begins to distill the essence of haiku. What it is. What it isn’t. Drawing on her contact with Buddhism (“in a superficial way,” she writes) Wakan gives her readers a compassionate view of her relationship with the “imperfect,” the “incomplete.” By giving examples of haiku from some of the best practitioners in English speaking North America: Ruth Yarrow, Alice Frampton, Winona Baker, Michael Dylan Welch, Carole MacRury among others, Wakan is “teaching by example.” Poems are followed detailed explanations concerning juxtaposition of images, line breaks, pauses, silences.
And Wakan spends more time with the classics in her chapter by on Wabi-Sabi.
While modern Japan is as vulgar as North America, and even traditional Japan had its areas of grossness, two complex terms personify the best in Japanese aesthetics and Japanese poetry for me. ….Wabi is concerned with the simple, the things of quiet refinement, the internal life. Sabi tends to be more concerned with outward esthetic values such as elegant simplicity, the patina of aging, the irregularity of handcrafted things, the unpretentious, and the ambiguous. Both are concerned with imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness.
Wakan is not afraid to make herself vulnerable. And we as readers, are also grateful for Wakan’s perseverance, her undeniable ferocity in “getting things done.”
Writing haiku showed me the way, for it confined me to the parameters of purely speaking of the nouns of images. This discipline allowed me to be more focused and not so scattered.
Poetry That Heals is a testimony to Wakan’s own life and to the possibility for others.
From allowing us to set emotions aside through being- in –the- moment haiku, to its open expression in tanka, to the sharing with another individual in response tanka, and with the community in renku, we are taken on a movingly illustrated journey of the healing powers of poetry.
The beautiful photographs by Eli Wakan that accompany the text capture ordinary moments that are suddenly timeless and take your breath, like visual haiku.
How can poetry heal? Naomi Beth Wakan shows us through a tour of the different forms of Japanese poetry and ultimately answers the question.
Each chapter pairs the poetic form with the way healing intersects with reading and writing. But first the author asks “Who has not at times of distress sighed, groaned, cried and let out an anguished “Why?””
Chapter headings read like a self help guide: Being Here Now, Reading Haiku, How to Write a Haiku, The Haiku Walk, Healing the Earth, Loosening with Laughter, Freeing the Artist, Letting it all out, The Journey.
But it’s not shallow advice, not a quick-fix-buy-this kind of magical thinking.
Writers throughout the ages took to writing stuff down as a powerful antidote to despair even in the most sad and tragic times. Even sadness expressed at a particular event can fight against depression. Poems that witness minutes, seconds, days or years, without rushing toward a solution, are revealing an element about life which the ego matures and understands – we are not in control.
Having experienced that catatonic flood. That rock in the stomach that prevents a move forward, that inner system bunged up with too much information for the mind and heart to process, I have turned to something unrelated to gain balance, and it has often given me new insights.
Being Here Now (the first chapter) shuts the door to all the weather swirling around and points to a particular moment: the heron / looks at its image / shallow waters. Nature offers a return to the universe. Ah yes, right. Got it! Vanity is a lonely pursuit.
Reading Haiku and How to Write Haiku makes it clear this book is not a guide on how to become a post-modern Basho. “Haiku don’t tell you what to think or what insights they might offer.” writes Wakan. “Haiku present images for readers to consider and then experience the resonances within themselves that the strong images of the haiku produce.”
The Haiku Walk is about reconnecting with nature, the eyes, the ears and the mind, using our own feet.
Healing the Earth when there is so much abuse of this planet and its beings, “you will find no despairing comments … No “it’s so bad!” or “it’s so terrible! Nor will you find overt comments on the awesome wonder of it all. What you will find is just what someone has sensed intensely at one moment in time.”
This is easier to contemplate than lists of what we can do and what we can’t control, or endless arguments about politics … the promise of a better world and better leaders, and the inevitable hangover after the “drug” wears off.
Anything we cherish needs more care than clever speeches from politicians. It needs a level gaze. It needs to be nurtured. The difference between sadness and despair is that sadness can evoke our care, whereas despair can lock the heart and mind in a vault.
The poet will share an opinion with humility through careful observation with her senses and her humanity. “Yes, at such bitter and such sweet times poetry has its uses, I find.” writes Wakan.
This books taps into human nature – the apps that we are born with, that have served us throughout the centuries: the power of humour, freeing the artist, letting it all out, and the journey.
This book is light in weight and size yet large in its capacity to bring us back to our humanity.
With Poetry That Heals, Wakan provides an engaging personal focus on over 30 years of writing haiku and related Japanese short poetic forms (senryu, tanka, renku and haibun). In 12 short sections averaging 8 pages each, she describes her learning process and the benefits of writing haiku and related short poems in the Japanese haikai tradition.
The book reminded me of a family visitor ages ago who with eighth-decade grey hair sat at the dining room table and engaged us with tales, to the point that I forget my young age and began to ask questions, to enjoy my participation. For some time after the visitor left, I ran the conversation over and over in my mind and slowly absorbed the understated wisdom.
Naomi starts with a simple introduction to haiku basics and neatly enumerates the distinctive characteristics and techniques that make a haiku, well, a haiku. These are demonstrated with ample examples drawn from other poets. I particularly liked her emphasis on ma and pointing out that “truth is in the gaps”. She also notes how haiku helped her become non-judgmental, to look for meaning beyond words, and to live in the moment without clinging to the past or becoming anxious about the future. Naomi’s approach is to note the haiku as they come, without editing them any further; tossing them aside if they do now work. However, Naomi acknowledges without decrying, that other poets do edit their poems.
Naomi points out that haiku was, and continues to be poetry of the common man in contrast to tanka of the courts. It logically follows, she argues, that haiku is marked by simplicity and starkness. She notes that everything is ephemeral, and that wear and tear has its own beauty. For Naomi, haiku write us rather than the other way round. She feels that writing haiku helps us connect with nature, keep our body centred in the senses and grounded in the earth, and thus help heal the earth. She quotes Patricia Donegan, that haiku is “a deep way to practice deep ecology”.
I was struck by Naomi calling tanka as “poetry of verbs”, in contrast to the “poetry of nouns” (haiku). However, she astutely observes that tanka help express unspoken shadow feelings. She acknowledges that tanka made her more tolerant and realise that her sufferings and pleasures were no different from anyone else’s. Counter to the historic chronology, which Naomi is very much aware of, she started with haiku and then moved to tanka. She notes that “the grounding and centering of haiku-writing stilled my emotions and allowed my true feelings to emerge when I came to writing tanka”. Writing on haiga, Naomi notes that the painting and the poem are from the same brush and hence both, marked by simplicity. She celebrates the power of loosening with laughter through senryu. As for haibun, she readily observes that the form and content show considerable variety accommodating different tastes and approaches.
When quoting sample poems that she uses for illustration, I wish Naomi had cast her net wider rather than just stick to the same few personal favourites. Also, the images could have been bigger with more dedicated space for them. As they are, they appear squeezed into the text as an afterthought. Naomi unobtrusively packs a lot of detail and information into this slim volume. Much like a haiku, there are layers to be unravelled in the book. It is up to the reader to decide how deep to delve. No pontification. And no tall claims. A lovely book!