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Skywriting: Learning Haiku from Annie Dillard -
Michael Dylan Welch

“Literature is not a mere juggling of words; what matters is what is left unsaid, or what may be read between the lines.” —Jorge Luis Borges

The acclaimed author of An American Childhood and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek has also written a short book called The Writing Life (Harper & Row, 1989). Although surely not intentionally written in the manner of the Japanese zuihitsu, or an essay that “follows the brush” wherever it leads, the book has that distinct quality of wandering, echoing, and rounding back on itself as it contemplates what it is to lead a writer’s life—or at least how Annie Dillard does it. Here and there her observations have something to say to haiku poets about leading the haiku writing life.

Dillard begins her book with an epigraph, from Emerson, who said that “No one suspects the days to be gods.” From this we might infer that each ordinary day is in fact extraordinary, the realm of the gods, and ripe for adulation or at least appreciation. This is the attitude of amazement from which haiku often spring—as we know, many haiku begin with a sense of wonder. She then offers her opening sentence: “When you write, you lay out a line of words” (3). It’s that simple. One line after another. If you stop at three lines, you might have a haiku. But you write another line of words, or another three, and keep going. In this way, the days are gods.

The book gives a sense of Dillard’s painstaking revision process, using an entire room to spread out notes and ideas on index cards or scraps of paper, seeking organization, making it clear that real writing is rewriting. She says that “The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point” (4). Isn’t that true for haiku also? Not just to kill your darlings, but sometimes you need to take out the poem’s main focus so that it can be implied. If your poem is about loneliness, don’t refer to the “lone moon.” Let the moon be lonely by itself. Trust the right image to do its rightful work. See what you can take out so the reader can find it on his or her own. No browbeating. Show.

Speaking of darlings, Dillard shares the following anecdote:


Every year the aspiring photographer brought a stack of his best prints to an old, honored photographer, seeking his judgment. Every year the old man studied the prints and painstakingly ordered them into two piles, bad and good. Every year the old man moved a certain landscape print into the bad stack. At length he turned to the young man: “You submit this same landscape every year, and every year I put it on the bad stack. Why do you like it so much?” The young photographer said, “Because I had to climb a mountain to get it.” (6)


What mountains have we had to climb for our haiku? Not our haiku in general, but for each individual poem? Has the height of each mountain distorted our perception of the poem itself? Have we let our process colour the value of the finished product? For example, are we in love with our haiku about Thailand or Peru or Sri Lanka because that’s an exotic locale for us, regardless of how good the poems might actually be? No matter how hard-won any poem might be, we must still face it with a stern editorial eye, with an objectivity and discernment earned by time and experience. Detach. Kill those darlings. As Dillard explains, “Is it pertinent, is it courteous, for us to learn what it cost the writer personally?” (7). Or, as the Chinese Chán Buddhist philosopher Linji put it more than a thousand years ago, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

In discussing the writer’s time, Dillard notes that “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” adding that “There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by” (32). But then she cautions her readers: “A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage is sweet” (32–33). At first we might not think this admonition relevant to the haiku life. Living through the senses is not enough? Aren’t the five senses the foundation of haiku? Isn’t that the doorway to the here and now? But she does not say this is bad. Rather, she says it is not enough. What’s needed is vision, direction, the larger life of the spirit. It’s that spirit that puts the life of sensation in context. Perhaps this risks giving haiku an agenda (personal enlightenment?), but I don’t think that’s what she’s after. Rather, she seems to be saying what Bashō said: “Do not seek after the masters. Rather, seek what they sought.” Life unfolds in the seeking, not the finding.

I have for several years given presentations at my local library on famous poets from around the world. In a presentation on Wallace Stevens, I came to a realization about his work. He was noted for being vice president of an insurance company, making a solid income that he chose not to leave even when Harvard offered him a plum teaching position after he won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. But I don’t think it was the money he didn’t want to leave. How did he balance his demanding work life with poetry? How did he find the time to write, to contemplate, to honour himself with his words? The answer was in his walking. Stevens lived three miles from where he worked, and walked to work every morning, walked home every night. It was then that he found time for himself, and the route he walked is now honoured with a set of thirteen poetry stones along the way, each one presenting part of the poet’s iconic poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” I mention this because Dillard mentions it. “He rose at six,” she says, “read for two hours, and walked another hour—three miles—to work” (33). In this way he found a room of his own. When your plane loses air pressure, you can’t help someone else with his or her oxygen mask unless you put your own mask on first.

Dillard also talks about the writer’s responsibility. “There is something you find interesting,” she explains, “for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment” (67–68). As Mary Oliver once wrote, “Pay attention. / Be astonished. / Tell about it.” If we are not at least somewhat astonished by what we write about in haiku, then why write about it? Wallace Stevens again (not quoted by Dillard):


The people in the world, and the objects in it, and the world as a whole, are not absolute things, but on the contrary, are the phenomena of perception. . . . If we were all alike: if we were millions of people saying do, re, mi, in unison, one poet would be enough. . . . But we are not alone, and everything needs expounding all the time because, as people live and die, each one perceiving life and death for himself, and mostly by and in himself, there develops a curiosity about the perceptions of others. This is what makes it possible to go on saying new things about old things.


Indeed, we are called to write not just about what matters most to us, but to express our individual perceptions of things, without regard to whether those things have been written about before. As Dobby Gibson wrote in his book Polar (Alice James Books, 2005):


                It may be true that everything

                has already been said,

                but it’s just as true that not everyone

                has had a chance to say it.


We have a duty as writers to express our perceptions. But we can go further than that, to what may be a more important duty, to say what needs to be said for others. Naomi Beth Wakan captures this idea in the following poem, from her book Segues (Wolsak and Wynn, 2005):


                One does not write
                because the goldfish play
                at the bottom of the waterfall,
                but because not everyone
                can see them.


To attach impact to this duty, Dillard says to “Write as if you were dying.” Shades of Lorca and duende here, writing with the passion of flamenco—as if each haiku were not just a one-breath poem, but a last-breath poem. “At the same time,” she adds, “assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case” (68). Think, too, of how this next thought might impact your writing of haiku: “What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?” (68).


Haiku poets are typically advised to write from experience. Usually this is interpreted to mean from direct and immediate experience that just happened to you, the esteemed poet. But I see writing from memory as what really goes on with haiku. Whether the memory is a second old, or a half century, what matters (as I’ve written elsewhere) is the moment’s vibrancy, not its recency. Dillard underscores this thought with the following litany of empathetic writing inspired by memory:


Write about winter in the summer. Describe Norway as Ibsen did, from a desk in Italy; describe Dublin as James Joyce did, from a desk in Paris. Willa Cather wrote her prairie novels in New York City; Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in Hartford, Connecticut. Recently, scholars learned that Walt Whitman rarely left his room. (68)


If poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” that “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility,” as Wordsworth has it, then we have nothing to fear from memory. Haiku is, ultimately, a poetry of empathy, not merely experience. It may even be written effectively from the imagination, not just from memory. Likewise, the reader reads best with empathy for every poem and every point of view. Indeed, how does the poem change if we as readers make the effort to go where the poet is, rather than assuming (as we too blindly do) that the poem should come to us?

Any kind of writing is challenging. “It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in Moby Dick,” Dillard tells us. “So you might as well write Moby Dick” (71). This would seem to suggest, for haiku poets, that we are wasting our time with poems as short as ours, and that we would be advised to have a larger vision—as if that larger vision were better, to write something with greater girth. But what I think she’s getting at is simply vision—or a kind of vision. Do we have a “large vision” in our haiku? Are we aiming high, no matter the length of our writing? Having a large vision or aiming high might be best determined by each individual poet (in other words, no one should tell you what your vision should be), but it’s something to think about if we are to advance in our art — personally and collectively. Are we just amusing ourselves, or others, or are we taking our writing more seriously than that?

Dillard also notes that “every original work requires a unique form” (71). She was speaking of the form created by long books of fiction or nonfiction, but the thought applies to any kind of writing. In haiku we are constricted in various chosen ways—and hopefully one chooses these ways rather than blindly accepting what might be foisted upon us. Does haiku need to be 5-7-5 syllables in English? Well, that question has been soundly answered and the notion routinely rejected, despite what all the textbooks continue to say. But is even that rejection foisted on us? Reassess it for yourself and make your own choice. Does haiku need to be three lines, or one line, or any other particular number of lines? Think for yourself. Reinvent each poem to fit its own organic needs for freshness, clarity, and originality. Balance your creativity with tradition and respect. Does haiku have to have a two-part structure to mirror the most common use of kireji or cutting words in Japanese? Does it need to dwell only in objective sensory images, centered on a kigo or season word? Think about these matters rather than just receiving the precooked wisdom of others, no matter how wise it might be. Seek what the masters sought. Make your own recipe.

And Dillard says not to hold back: “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better” (78–79). What more can the haiku poet use for inspiration in writing poems that are not just one-breath poems, but last-breath poems? Give your all.

Annie Dillard concludes her book with a rhapsodic description of the airplane acrobatics of stunt pilot Dave Rahm, from her time living near Bellingham, Washington—flying, as he did, through what she calls “the mistiness of the Pacific Northwest and its fabulous, busy skies” (84). It was poetic beauty for her to see him climb and spin, rejoicing in an impermanent and ephemeral art. She says she watched him perform as the finale for the 1975 Bellingham Air Show and it is worth hearing her description at length:


The air show announcer hushed. He had been squawking all day, and now he quit. The crowd stilled. Even the children watched dumbstruck as the slow, black biplane buzzed its way around the air. Rahm made beauty with his whole body; it was pure pattern, and you could watch it happen. The plane moved every way a line can move, and it controlled three dimensions, so the line carved massive and subtle slits in the air like sculptures. The plane looped the loop, seeming to arch its back like a gymnast; it stalled, dropped, and spun out of it climbing; it spiraled and knifed west on one side’s wings and back east on another; it turned cartwheels, which must be physically impossible; it played with its own line like a cat with yarn. How did the pilot know where in the air he was? If he got lost, the ground would swat him.

Rahm did everything his plane could do: tailspins, four-point rolls, flat spins, figure 8’s, snap rolls, and hammerheads. He did pirouettes on the plane’s tail. The other pilots could do these stunts, too, skillfully, one at a time. But Rahm used the plane inexhaustibly, like a brush marking thin air.

His was pure energy and naked spirit. I have thought about it for years. Rahm’s line unrolled in time. Like music, it split the bulging rim of the future along its seam. It pried out the present. We watchers waited for the split-second curve of beauty in the present to reveal itself. The human pilot, Dave Rahm, worked in the cockpit right at the plane’s nose; his very body tore into the future for us and reeled it down upon us like a curling peel.

Like any fine artist, he controlled the tension of the audience’s longing. You desired, unwittingly, a certain kind of roll or climb, or a return to a certain portion of the air, and he fulfilled your hope slantingly, like a poet, or evaded it until you thought you would burst, and then fulfilled it surprisingly, so you gasped and cried out.

The oddest, most exhilarating and exhausting thing was this: he never quit. The music had no periods, no rests or endings; the poetry’s beautiful sentence never ended; the line had no finish; the sculptured forms piled overhead, one into another without surcease. Who could breathe, in a world where rhythm itself had no periods? (95–97)


So when Dillard begins her book by saying, “When you write, you lay out a line of words,” this is what she means—a line in the air like Dave Rahm’s, giving it all and giving it now. Haiku is a world of wonder and amazement, a world that deserves our unwavering attention. Call it skywriting.

The unexpected beauty Dillard encountered is also relevant. “I had thought I knew my way around beauty a little bit,” she says. “Now I had stood among dandelions between two asphalt runways in Bellingham, Washington, and began learning about beauty. Even the Boston Museum of Fine Arts was never more inspiring than this small northwestern airport on this time-killing Sunday afternoon in June” (98). She says that Dave Rahm died a little more than a year later, during another performance: “The plane spun down and never came out of it; it nosedived into the ground and exploded” (106). His wife was looking on. The last paragraph of Dillard’s book says this: “It is hard to imagine a deeper penetration into the universe than Rahm’s last dive in his plane, or than his inexpressible wordless selfless line’s inscribing the air and dissolving” (111). This, I believe, is how to lead the haiku writer’s life.

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