Haiku as Ecopoem: Bridging the Gap

Words are able to unite but also divide, connect but also separate. They can be used to relate with others, to share our ideas, thoughts, emotions, and sensations, to understand others, and be understood. But how can words help us bridge the gap between the human and non-human world so that we may better understand our place in, and responsibility to, the natural world — particularly one undergoing such environmental upheavals?

In his book, Animals Erased: Discourse, Ecology, and Reconnection with the Natural World, ecological linguist Arran Stibbe asks, ‘How can writers write language back into the land in ways that contribute to more harmonious relationships between humans and other animals, plants, and soil that make up that land?’[1] I would suggest that poetry —particularly haiku poetry — is one of the best literary vehicles for the task.

Ecopoetry is nature poetry that imagines changing the way we think, feel about, live and act in the world. Although the term ‘ecopoetics’ appeared in scholarship before the year 2000, it wasn’t until the early 21st century that it began to appear with some frequency:  ‘…ecopoetics acknowledges disconnection — how we are both connected to and disconnected from the environment..’ says Jonathan Skinner, founder and editor of ecopoetics, a journal which features creative-critical intersections between writing and ecology.[2] Haiku is ecopoetry (what I refer to as ‘eco-ku’), in that it relinquishes idealised notions of nature, unlike some of the more romantic, pastoral poetry. Utilising brevity, and simple, concrete language, haiku dispenses with flowery embellishments and also avoids the scientific, technical language used in other forms of environmental discourse.

Sonomama is the Japanese word meaning a minimalization of distortion. Tathātā, a Zen term, translates as ‘suchness’, to experience a thing as it is in its natural environment. A haiku poet practices both sonomama and tathātā, giving precise regard to the ‘ordinary’ things in life. Issa put himself on the same level as an insect or a rodent:

chô tonde waga mi mo chiri no tagui kana

butterfly flitting
I too am made
of dust [3]

ando shite nezumi mo neru yo haru no ame

taking it easy
the mouse sleeps too…
spring rain [4]

The Japanese particle ‘mo’, translated as ‘too’, is frequently used in Issa’s haiku to identify with non-human forms of life. On the other hand, Western mainstream thought tends to emphasise man’s separateness from the environment, an ‘otherness’. This leads to a sense of anthropocentrism, hierarchy and dominion.

Early environmental ethicist Aldo Leopold says, ‘We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.’ [5] The haiku poet strives to bring readers back to that sense of community, simply, observationally, noting human/non-human connections and disconnections, with empathy and compassion. However, as haiku poets, I question, ‘do we have a greater responsibility?’

Our first task, I would propose, is to write about these environmental changes, with clarity and insight, but without moralization. Haiku poet and editor Charles Trumbull, founder of the Haiku Database, was kind enough to do a search for me which resulted in thousands of haiku written on topics like global warming, wildfires, glacial melt, animal endangerment and extinction, deforestation and soil erosion, and more. These haiku are being published in mainstream journals as well as journals and anthologies dedicated specifically to these sorts of topics. Haiku scholar David McMurray argues, ‘Climate change is altering the weather, the seasons and landscapes, and therefore the way haiku is composed.’ [6]

As haiku are changing, so too are the seasonal words we use in their construction:

climate change
i turn another page
of the saijiki [7]

The journalist Sayumi Take reports that ‘Without sufficient efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, northern hemisphere summers may come to account for half the year by 2100, winter could last less than two months, and spring and autumn could both shrink, according to a 2021 study in China.’ [8] Such changes could cause not only a shrinking saijiki — the Japanese dictionary of seasonal words — but one in which the kigo used for one season cross over into another, or cease to exist at all, potentially causing haiku to lose some of its diversity. And yet, right now, I feel haiku can still be used as a tool to educate the public about the gravity of our global crisis and perhaps encourage greater stewardship toward the non-human world, even beyond our own circle of haiku writers and enthusiasts. In 2013, the oceanographer Gregory Johnson, broke down a 2,000 page IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change) report into 19 illustrated haiku. While they were not written in current day English language haiku form, he nonetheless used clear, concise language with powerful images, stripped of jargon and numbers, to emphasise the perilous situations our choices have put us in.

Fast, strong action will
reduce future warming, but …
rising seas certain. [9]

Like Dr. Johnson, let us use ‘eco-ku’ to educate, and to connect — not just with our fellow humans, but with all of the natural world — to take ourselves and our readers beyond the page and into the world to work for a better tomorrow:

added to the endangered list
mountain gorillas
and empathy [10]

the oil-slicked wings
of gulls [11]

eroded dunes …
the boy draws a fish
in the sand [12]

climate change
framing the answer
in the form of a question [13]

Earth Day
nowhere left
to bury our heads [14]

Terri L. French

Presence 76, July 2023

[1]Stibbe, Arran, Animals Erased: Discourse, Ecology, and Reconnection with the Natural World, e-book ed., (ch. 8), Wesleyan University Press, 2012.

[2]Hume, Angela, et al. ‘Imagining Ecopoetics: An Interview with Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Evelyn Reilly, and Jonathan Skinner’, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 19, no. 4, 2012, pp. 754-755. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44087167.

[3] translation by David G. Lanoue, http://haikuguy.com/issa/.

[4] Ibid.

[5]Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press, 2020.

[6] McMurray, David. ‘Climate Change is Changing Haiku’, The IUK Graduate School Journal, vol. 7, 2015, p. 23. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/235935183.pdf.

[7] Tauchner, Dieter. Notes from the Gean, 2:1(June, 2010), p. 14.

[8] Take, Sayumi. ‘Is climate change killing the haiku?: Loss of distinct seasons threatens traditional Japanese culture’, Nikkei Asia, March 1, 2023. https://asia.nikkei.com/Editor-s-Picks/Tea-Leaves/Is-climate-change-killing-the-haiku.

[9]Johnson, Gregory C. ‘Climate Change Science 2013: Haiku’. http://www.sightline.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/FULL_IPCC_HAIKU_SLIDES_OPT.pdf.

[10] French, Terri L., Robert Epstein and Miriam Wald, eds., Every Chicken, Cow, Fish and Frog: Animal Rights Haiku (2016), 49.

[11]Kolodji, Deborah, Oil Spill (broadsheet, December 21, 2021).

[12]Gillis, Ferris, Gilli, Shaped by the Wind (2006), 74.

[13]Warther, June (Julie Schwerin), Prune Juice 21 (March, 2017).

[14]Buckingham, Helen, Presence 64, (July, 2019).