HCSHR 5:08 – Randy Brooks, The Art of Reading and Writing Haiku: A Reader Response Approach


HCSHR 5:08Randy Brooks, The Art of Reading and Writing Haiku: A Reader Response Approach. Taylorville IL: Brooks Books, 2019. 78-1-929820-17-7. 224 pages. $30US

Review by Pearl Pirie

The book on the art of reading haiku includes many examples and imparts the results of classes at Millikin University in Illinois. For years Randy Brooks has been teaching appreciation for short forms and immersion in haiku culture, using an approach to learning by performance. After a decade of the class, the students' best work were anthologized (Millikin University Haiku Anthology). Then as a further putting of poetry into the world, the follow-up is this book which responds to much of English and in-English translation of haiku.

At 225 pages, it takes a while to work through but its worth the time. There are a lot of gems whether you are new to haiku or an experienced poet. 

There is some active journaling and journeying through the writing of Peggy Lyles, Wally Swist, Aubrie Cox, George Swede, Masajo Suzuki, Matsuo Basho, as well as through contemporary magazines and anthologies. Also explored are the results of collaborative poems and the response poems made and responded to. People are asked to pair two of their favourite haiku together and explain what connects the two. Its all good thinking practice. If youve never made a kasen, there are instructions on form and how to lay it out on a trifold, as well as examples. There is also a section on Japanese aesthetics featuring the students’ responses to David Lanoue’s novel Haiku Guy.

Part of this active listening practice that the book enacts is the respectful and appreciative art of kukai. Brooks explains the practice, and the crux of the book, on page 13 as follows:

Kukai is not an editing session, so edit suggestions or comments about why someone does not like a haiku are not allowed. The point of kukai is to find haiku that are loved just the way they are. We say that when the haiku finds a reading who loves it, that is the moment it is born.

How do you enter a haiku? You bring yourself and your vulnerabilities and openness to a poem that you can feel. You meet someone between yourself and the poem. Or as Rumi put it, Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. Ill meet you there.”

Its a layered book and worth reading both for the framework of being freed to pay attention to what you resonate with, and also to see examples of people articulating the how and why of their own reactions, unpacking themselves as they unpack the poems.

As an example of the technique, see this from p. 35, chapter 2.

deleting Facebook friends
draining the water
from the macaroni

Alex Campbell, Fall 2014

I like this haiku because at first glance it seems like it is about two very different topics, but after a closer look these topics are connected. Deleting Facebook friends is getting rid of something that is no longer needed, just like draining water from macaroni to leave only the desired pasta. Also, these events form a visual of a person so casually doing both of these tasks as just going through the motions, unaware of the irony of these events going together. Trista Smith, Fall 2014

I absolutely loved this haiku ever since I first read it. I just went through deleting over forty of my Facebook friends. Sometimes you just need to take control of your life and filter what you see on this social media site. Certain people can be so negative and do not have a place in your life. I love that he connected this action to macaroni because I adore food. Rebecca Coutcher, Fall 2014

To add in kind, this poem works so well because its plain, clear and with an unexpected juxtaposition that made me laugh—but theres depth of insight too. Theres a domestic bridge between the two parts, a being at home and the simultaneity of two activities. Theres the sense of both actions being normal and safe to do, and yet both can leave you burned and with splash-back if youre not careful. As Trista says, you get rid of what you no longer need, and in the case of the macaroni, you know it has to be done or else everything gets mushy in a bad sense. Theres a parallel construction of deleting and draining that suggests deleting is draining, and even an assonance of the Ds and Fs that cinches it together. It looks simple but its pleasing.

It was a pleasure to meet new poets and see poems Ive read return in this new context, such as haijin George Swedes

the beetle I righted
flies straight into
a cobweb
                                (from Almost Unseen, p. 24)

As Captain Picard put it, you can do everything right, and still lose.

Who hasnt tried to right the path of another, human or otherwise, just to see them head straight back into trouble. Its helplessness and foiled good. Its letting the other choose their ultimate path. The economic way Swede put it makes me smile and relate. Each poem is a small narrative with line-break cliffhangers for the character of the beetle. It has something at stake for beetle and man, with a cost for the journey and a resolution. Thats a lot of dramatic structure and suspense to fit into 13 syllables yet it flows gracefully.

It was fascinating for participants to see that the room the poem made for one reader could be a different room for different students. And for us as readers of readers. It is a kind of deprogramming to read how to enter poems rather than how to red-line correct poems. What works for you? Forget the rest. Theres not time.

I find a sign of a good poetry collection is that it impels me to write as well, and The Art of Reading and Writing Haiku by Randy Brooks did that. Many new poems were spurred into existence by reflecting on the poems and the reflections. What more can you ask.

Pearl Pirie
June 2022


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