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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

My Year of Haiku

Jul 01, 2024 06:00AM ● By Tommy Housworth
In December 2022, I stumbled across a tiny book small enough to fit into my back pocket, yet it opened my eyes to something bigger than I’d imagined. Little did I know that a collection of three-line poems would help me appreciate so many layers of my life. 

Wedged between larger anthologies on the bottom row of a used bookstore’s lone poetry shelf, it was easy to overlook. But fortunately, my eye was drawn to a slim volume of verse titled The Haiku Year. While not a novel, it was certainly a novel idea. 

In the 1990s, seven friends from the Athens area—musicians, filmmakers, writers and an actor—decided to use haikus to stay in touch. Each day, for a full year, they mailed a haiku via postcard to one another. Though publishing a book was the last notion in their minds, the experiment eventually found its way to a local Georgia press, and The Haiku Year was released a few years later. 

The book went largely unnoticed, though other artistic contributions of some of those ramshackle poets—REM’s Michael Stipe, Grant Lee Buffalo’s Grant Lee Phillips, Girls Town’s Tom Gilroy, and Anna Grace—made ripples and waves in the cultural tides of the era. I imagined the poems were their morse code to one another, helping them stay grounded as their stars began their ascent. 

Honestly, the book had me at “Michael Stipe,” though I likely would’ve bought it even if I hadn’t heard of any of the authors. The concept was just too appealing, the spirit of creation for the sake of connection too irresistible. I devoured the book in one sitting the next day. 

Well, almost.

Two-thirds of the way through the book, I realized my hurried consumption of those pint-sized poems flew in the face of the form’s intention. A haiku is a non-rhyming poem consisting of 17 syllables—give or take—arranged in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively. Good haiku packs a mighty punch in its syllables. Traditional wisdom invites the reader to sit with the poems, to ponder, to wonder. Haiku might be a distant cousin to the Zen koan, a sort of unsolvable riddle designed to disrupt linear thought. So, I went back, and I let the poems simmer and steep.

While nothing these Athens-based artists wrote reached the heights of the ancient haiku masters, I found myself inspired to play with the form myself, mostly to rejuvenate some weary creative muscles. I reached out to a good friend who shared many of my artistic interests and asked if he’d be game to take part in our own “haiku year” and text original poems to each other first thing each morning. He said, “Sure.” So, on January 1, 2023, we began our syllabic sojourn. Both of us strove to make our daily creations as organic and spontaneous as possible, crafting poems that were responses to things we saw, heard, tasted or felt—not preplanned ideations. 

A few weeks in, I noticed something I hadn’t expected. Namely, I was noticing more. My world—which I’d spent buried in screens, thanks to my work and my reaction to an anxiety-fueled need for distraction—was gently unfolding. Quarreling birds and shapeshifting clouds began competing with podcasts and doomscrolling for my attention. My earbuds, those constant companions for morning walks, started winding up in my pocket and, eventually, were left home altogether. 

While I’ve been a meditator for more than 25 years, I continue to struggle to stay on the cushion and bring my attention back to the ever-present Now. My haiku challenge took my restless practice off the cushion and into the world. My efforts to awaken my inner poet nudged me to set aside pop culture and politics for at least a few minutes each morning and pay attention to something outside my own overthinking head. 

My daily haiku, though unremarkable, came easily as the year went on. Some days, I wrote four or five short verses. Creatively, I felt renewed, but more importantly, I felt a bit more mindful. And given how often I struggle to maintain present-moment awareness as an adult, “a bit more mindful” is true poetic progress. ❧
A simple haiku
like birdsong above the trees
invites me back home
Tommy Housworth is a professional writer and creative director for corporate projects. He’s a certified mindfulness instructor, the author of two collections of short stories, and he has a column on Substack.
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