Learning haiku in English by way of the heart

Shanshan Chen The International University of Kagoshima Graduate School


Shanshan Chen doesn’t study foreign languages for pragmatic purposes. She no longer devotes herself to achieving high scores on examinations the way she used to do at university in China. She isn’t interested in landing a job as a translator with her fluent English and Japanese language skills. When she is granted a master’s degree from a university in Japan she is not going to search for work in an office in Tokyo that would value her strong interpersonal skills.

Shanshan Chen studies in Japan because she wants to try her hand at creative writing in Japanese, English, and Chinese, her mother tongue. She has an aesthetic view of education. She actively looks for ways to become educated in learning how to feel, and how to know. Maley (2010, p. 5) suggests that creative writing draws “heavily on intuition, close observation, imagination, and personal memories.” Chen has turned to poets for direction. She is inspired by poets like R.S. Thomas (2002) who wrote in 5-8-5 syllable haiku-like form: “Poetry is that / which arrives at the intellect / by way of the heart.” She agrees with the 19th century master poet Kobayashi Issa when he referred to foreigners in distant lands who are seeing the same moon at the same moment: 名月もそなたの空ぞ毛唐人meigetsu mo sonata no sora zo ketôjin (harvest moon / up in that sky for... / Chinese, too!).


Learning haiku in English by way of the heart

When I want to read haiku and learn how to write haiku in English I turn to the page in Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook in which he wrote, “The primary purpose of reading and writing haiku is sharing moments of our lives that have moved us” (1982, p.7). Well-written haiku allow the composer to capture moments in time, experiences, and perceptions that can be offered to readers. At the deepest level, this is one of the great purposes of all art, and especially literature. Haiku is literature, and it is critiqued in literary journals around the world (McCarty, 2008). I keep current on opinions about international haiku by reading the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, newspapers that regularly print articles on haiku.

To learn ways to teach haiku in English I look for ideas in journals such as TESOL Journal, JALT Journal, and TLT (Svendson, 2002; Rodriguez, 2004; Duppenthaler, 2006), and listen to doctoral candidates of literature at conferences (Iida, 2010). Ways to combine haiku with popular learning techniques in the classroom appear on language teaching websites such as IATEFL Online <iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2010/forum/extensive-reading-graded-readers> where teachers share ideas such as asking learners to write a haiku about a story from a graded reader to help them encapsulate the significance of the plot or to resonate with the author.

When I compose haiku in English and want to share them with readers around the world I turn to newspaper websites such as the Asahi Digital <www.asahi.com/english/haiku> and Mainichi Interactive <mainichi.jp/english/english/features/haiku>. I took part in a unique way to write and share haiku by making a quilt for students in Tohoku (Ohama, 2012). Japanese students and exchange students from several countries wrote haiku in English onto cloth patches that were sewed to form a huge mosaic (McMurray, 2012). For example, Megan Hood from Canada painted a flower and wrote about her mother’s gorgeous garden on Prince Edward Island.

Peonies in bloom

summer days in sweet perfume

Mother’s garden grows

By making the quilt I learned that drawing or painting pictures at the same time as writing haiku helps me to share my feelings. Thinking about the people who were hurt by the tsunami and trying to cheer them up by writing poems was a difficult challenge. I shared my feelings in English by writing haiku, stroking with a paintbrush, and methodically sewing patches onto a quilt.

When I participate in haiku workshops with people from around the world I have observed that some of the Japanese participants seem to place great value on writing about what people feel. In traditional Japanese aesthetic, feelings inspired by a picture of a falling flower can be as beautiful as peonies in full bloom. For example, when I attended a workshop organized by Seinan Jo Gakuin University and the Kitakyushu Chapter of the Japan Association for Language Teaching(JALT) on Nov. 3, 2012, Chizuko Miyafuji from Kitakyushu wrote the following haiku to reveal that a less-than-perfectly-round moon in the sixteenth day of its cycle can be as beautiful as the perfect full autumn moon.

Only one

silver sixteenth moon

silent night

Chinese, British, and Japanese students joined instructors from Japan, Canada, the US, and New Zealand at the workshop. I was honored to be given time to conduct a slide presentation during the workshop to explain differences in the way students approach writing about their feelings in haiku.

International haiku contests challenge people to pen well-written poems that have international appeal. I am currently interested in contests held in Kyushu where I attend university. For the first time, the Japan Women’s Haiku Convention invites foreigners to enter in a haiku competition leading up to their National Women’s Haiku Conference in Kitakyushu on March 3 Sun, 2013. The International Kusamakura Haiku Competition has been held for 17 years and attracts participants from around the world. Last year’s winning haiku by George Swede from Canada about the tragedy at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant was selected by the judge (Kumamoto City, 2011, p. 49) not so much because of the “irony in the seemingly impassive twinkle of stars” but because “on the other hand there exists a connection to an ancestral knowing.”

no-go zone

the twinkle of stars

in the Ukedo River

The West Japan Industry and Trade Convention Association has convened 12 haiku events. Seinan Jo Gakuin University in Kitakyushu has hosted 3 contests. This year, 512 haiku penned in English were received from 326 haikuists in 26 countries, including many non-English speaking countries (Seinan Jo Gakuin, 2012). This was a really good opportunity for me to meet haikuists from around the world and read about what they care about. Ramona Linke from Germany personified trees.

Autumn light—

the trees breathing out

their shadows

Mario Massimo Zontini from Italy entered this delicious poem about boy who likely has fat cheeks. Ron C. Moss from Australia won the contest with a haiku about faces.

Full autumn moon

in the child’s dreams

pumpkin cake


Mountain train

faces in a passing window

lit by the moon

Brian Robertson won second prize for a poem about a child wanting to hold the moon. The master poet Issa Kobayashi (1763 –1827) wrote about such childish feelings: Meigetsu wo totte kurero to naku ko kana (The child sobs / “Give it to me now!”/ bright full moon)

The moon out of reach

a child wades in a pond

full of it

Hiroko Takahashi from Tokyo, a previous grand-prize winner also wrote about a child. Experiences with children bring out feelings in veteran writers.

The full moon

has given child to me

I rear her

I entered the following poem in the contest that I wrote one night, when I was on the phone with a friend who lives very far away. We had suddenly stopped talking. There was no need to say more, we were both busy taking photographs of the moon at the same time. My haiku didn’t win, but writing it helped me share a moment in my life that deeply moved us.

On the phone--

“do you see it too?”

maple moon



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