Volume 40.3
Autumn 2009


book review:

Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness & Open Your Heart
by Patricia Donegan

Reviewed by Mark Brooks

Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness & Open Your Heart, by Patricia Donegan (Boston and London: Shambhala, 2008). 231 pages; 5 x 8. Hardcover; semigloss four-color wrappers. ISBN 978-1-5 90305-79-9. Price: $18.00 from booksellers.

I own multiple copies of books I love, that way I am unencumbered enough to gift a copy whenever one matches a friend. I like to think of these books as ambassadors. Oh, you haven’t read Italo Calvino? Here’s a copy of Cosmicomics. Now, when it comes to haiku, these friends break into two camps … the poets-to-be who need a good overview and the readers-to-be who need a good overview. Some haiku books attempt to do both, but for some readers both is not best. And most reader-level introductions to haiku suffer painful faults from poor translations to a complete misunderstanding of either the essence or the mechanics of haiku. Enter Haiku Mind, where familiar author Patricia Donegan provides “spiritual reflections on 108 haiku.” Through the linking of several “wisdom traditions” and haiku, this book can easily open haiku to a wide variety of spiritual people otherwise unclear on what haiku can provide attentive readers. Haiku Mind, despite a few quibbles, succeeds as a book I can share with my in-laws or the guy at the coffee shop.

Throughout the book Donegan reveals her own history, from the Peace Corps to teaching East-West poetry at Naropa, from studying with Allen Ginsberg to Seishi Yamaguchi. Along the way her attitude towards haiku and “haiku mind” develops through three personal awakenings, including her revelation “that to search for the so-called Zen mystery in every haiku is a mistake and to do so takes away the depth of their personal flavor and ordinary mind context.” Instead, “haiku mind” involves “being mindful of the ordinary moments of our lives.” She writes that for the Japanese poets with whom she studied, “haiku was about ordinary life: just that, nothing special, that there is absolutely no separation between the mundane and the sacred, things as they are.”

The haiku selections for the most part reflect this quest for ordinary mind. Donegan’s selected poets include everyone from Bashô to Shiki, from the Beats to Borges. Highlights for me include:

(41) Vulnerability

moonlight —
through thin clothes
to naked skin

Hisajo Sugita

(72) True to Oneself

how easily it glows
how easily it dims
the firefly …


(78) Old Age

autumn wind —
a hair has grown
on my mole

Ryunosuke Akutagawa

(88) Ethics and Morality

winter gusts —
abortion herb has boiled
and yet …

Sojo Hino

While Donegan cautions that her discussions are “meditations rather than literary analysis,” she offers up choice tidbits throughout her discussion of each haiku. For example, the haiku from Hisajo Sugita “has a mythological reference, taken from the ancient Japanese text of the Nihonshoki, of the Soto Ori Hime Princess who was known for her beautiful skin which was said to shine through her clothes.” In fact, Donegan’s entire discussion of this haiku, ranging from the moon to the Japanese-English hybrid term “skin-ship” (think kinship with nudity, “be it family, friends, or lovers”), from the classical allusion to the poet’s life story, deepens any appreciation one might have had for this haiku beforehand. Every haiku includes the English text, an informed discussion, and a paragraph of biographical data. Donegan even includes the headnotes for the Japanese haiku when they exist. Reliably, case by case, Donegan the teacher enriches the material for every level of reader.

The book does not quite reach perfection and, given the author, one has to wonder if these were editor’s choices. As an armchair translator, I strongly prefer books that include the kanji and the rômaji. There are enough haiku here that I know and have slight disagreements on that I wish I had easy access to the original text of the others. In all too many cases, as Hiroaki Sato showed in One Hundred Frogs decades ago, the final result in Japanese-to-English translation has more to do with the translator than the poet.

The most startling aspect of the book, however, is the lack of case-by-case discussion of kigo. Donegan studied with Seishi Yamaguchi, one of the four S’s, the great disciples of Kyoshi, and seems to share his views on the importance of kigo. Yet, kigo are seldom discussed in much detail, even when they seem important to any valid interpretation of the haiku. A firm believer in real world testing, I lent the book to my father-in-law who has read haiku before but is not an expert. He stopped within the first entry to ask me the meaning of the kigo as it was not listed. Why “white chrysanthemums”? Without kigo discussions the reader will end up missing some of the depth of each haiku, and they will know something is lacking simply because Donegan touts the importance of kigo.

Then there is the definition of kigo given as a “season word from nature” or elsewhere as a “Nature reference.” Unless anything seasonal is natural, unless this is a tautology, I am not sure it holds. For example, take

(91) Home and Family

beautiful lines
of green run through
the summer dishes

Tatsuko Hoshino

where the kigo “summer dishes” has seasonality but not any reference to Nature other than that human-given seasonality. In the discussion Donegan explains how male poets would use the term “kitchen haiku” to denigrate the work of female poets as being strictly about household events, things in the kitchen. This reminded me of one of my favorite non-Nature haiku examples, also a “kitchen haiku” if you ask me,

housecleaning day —
hanging a shelf at his own home
a carpenter

Bashô (trans. Makoto Ueda,
Bashô and His Interpreters)

and I still do not see any Nature there other than seasonality given by humanity in “housecleaning day.”

Donegan shines when discussing haiku classics, including some of the more challenging examples of haiku poetics. Take for example:

(68) Fearlessness

the piercing cold —
in our bedroom stepping
on my dead wife’s comb


Donegan starts off noting that this haiku “has been criticized for being too subjective and emotional, but that is why people like it.” Fair enough, and she goes on to acknowledge that Buson “supposedly wrote it years before his wife died.” This fact and the poignant punch this haiku brings despite being fictional do more to damage the idea of objectivism in haiku then even Shûôshi’s anti-Hototogisu essay “Truth in Nature, Truth in Literature.” There is little doubt, as she notes, that Buson stepped on his wife’s comb one cold morning and, as a result, imagined his wife dead. She stops on the edge of the objectivism issue though without plainly stating that Buson wrote the haiku not as if it were objective fact, because haiku are not fact, but rather as if it were true to his experience, which of course makes this haiku ring.

Yet Donegan shares with the reader how it rings for her. Even in a haiku that is thoroughly dissected in the literature, one that is sucked almost dry critically, Donegan is able to bring new light and connect it with the reader through her own breadth of experience and knowledge. The focus is not on the poetics, which are just mentioned as facts of composition, but rather to show that these haiku connect with the reader directly independent of whatever formal constraints one wishes to place on haiku. On the Buson haiku, she writes in part “[a]nd we pray for the courage to face [fear]: not to hide from it or grit our teeth, but rather, as is taught in Tantric Buddhism, ‘to lean into the painful points’ as a way to acknowledge and transmute it.” There is more to this section, but truthfully it is one of many that manage to connect the haiku, the author, and the current reader through meditative appreciation independent of haiku formalities.

So, quibbles aside, I think that Haiku Mind is exactly the sort of book haiku poets should look to share with people new to reading haiku. Donegan has a confident grasp of the subject and her poem selections are strong. As her meditations often include discussions of biography and allusion, even old hands will find new aspects of familiar poems. Overall the treatments are broad and ably written. I have even tried some entries with my children so I am pretty confident that even younger readers can take something away from these discussions.



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