Well-versed

Crafting the ancient practice of haiku at the Vineyard Haven library.

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The winter solstice is the theme for a haiku workshop by Caroline Joy Adams. — Kelly Sikkema

If you’re a budding poet, a newbie, or an old pro, Caroline Joy Adam’s M.V. Haiku Club, run seasonally on Zoom out of the Vineyard Haven library, is an inviting way to experiment with this ancient form of poetry.

Haiku is a Japanese tradition, which in the U.S. has become popular as a three-line form of poetry that has, though not always, a syllable count of five, seven, five. An example of Adams’ is:

Mystical WINTER

Sunrise over the mountains

wondrous DAY awaits …

However, Adams, who has been a college professor of writing and humanities for many years, and has taught hundreds of creative writing workshops, says, “Most people are relieved that it’s not crucial to adhere to that count in a strict way. It is not the only way to do it, but one way to think of it.” For instance, here her haiku breaks that formula:

What if … each WORD was

a FLOWER … planted to ignite

KINDNESS and LOVE …

She prefers to describe Haiku as a very short, encapsulated bit of poetry that often refers to a season, and has nature-like images in it. However, the poem can be something that is very serious or mystical or humorous, for instance referring to human nature. “The best thing about haiku is that with just a little bit of guidance, anyone can do it in a very short amount of time, and create something that feels complete and is also a lot of fun,” Adams says. “It’s confidence-boosting as a form of writing, because it is wonderful that you can put together three lines that have meaning. It’s a delightful way to get started, for those who haven’t had a lot of experience.”

Haiku has a fascinating and long history. It’s been around for 600 to 700 years in some form. Most people like to refer to the 1600s in Japan as being the true beginning of the five, seven, five syllable count. Adams notes, “It was actually done as a group activity, which is one reason why I absolutely love doing it in a group. In our society we have this image of a lone writer off alone in her or his room, in isolation.”

In fact, even in these groups, people were working together on a single, long poem. It was called “linked verse,” and each person would come up with a couple of lines, aiming at 100 lines of poetry. Another very popular form that Adams often teaches is called tanka, which is a five-line haiku, with the extra two lines having an average of seven syllables.

There is another intriguing variation that Adams tends to include in her workshops. She explains that Japan’s most famous poet is Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), who wrote hundreds of poems, but around 1682, began a months-long journey on foot that became the material for a new, hybrid form he called haibun. Adams explains that at the end of the day, Basho would write memoir-type pieces about his travels and then intersperse them with haiku. The haikus, whether in the beginning, middle, or end, express the theme. He too wasn’t strict about using the five, seven, five syllable format — they were four or five lines long, or even 10.

Adams likes to say that one way to think about haiku is that it’s somewhere between 12 to 15 words. She points out too that we have to remember that Japanese writing was not traditionally written in lines across but straight down, and that they often included an illustration. Adams encourages folks to try their hand at including some artwork or taking a photo on your smartphone if you’re out in nature, and then writing a haiku to accompany it.

Adams runs her sessions by having people introduce themselves to make everyone feel welcome. Then there is a theme, and since the next workshop is on Dec. 21, this time it will be the winter solstice. There will be time for working on haikus and the hybrid haibun. People can share their writing with the group if they’re comfortable. She says, “It’s always delightful to see the variety people come up with in a short period of time — a beautiful little bit of haiku poetry in just an hour. Everyone will leave with something they feel good about, whether it’s two or three different haiku or a combination haibun with the haiku. Everyone comes up with something fun, delightful, powerful, and meaningful.”

Adams also encourages people to write a haiku tribute to someone and give it to them as a holiday gift, whether you put it in a card, on stationary, or bordered paper. She says, “It’s very nice to use the words as a gift. It can be very sweet and wonderful this time of year.”

To register for the Dec. 21 class at 6 pm, visit bit.ly/haikulib.