The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan, by Abigail
Friedman, foreword by Michael Dylan Welch (Berkeley, Calif.: Stone
Bridge Press, 2006). 224 pages, 5 ½" x 8", perfectbound. ISBN 1-
Imagine picking up yet another learning-to-write-haiku book and quickly
discovering it is a page-turner. Abigail Friedman’s memoir, The Haiku
Apprentice, deals with her experiences in Japan struggling to learn to write
Japanese haiku while on assignment with the U.S. State Department. She
effectively weds personal narrative and the craft of haiku, leaving one with
the pleasure of a narrative tale.
An important part of Friedman's embassy / diplomatic job was to attend
meetings. During the requisite social period at one such meeting, a bald
man in a polo shirt came to sit next to her. They ritualistically swapped
business cards, and on his she noticed a haiku name, Ryojinboku (literally,
"traveling tree man"), and the fact that he was a member of the Hiroshima
A-bomb Survivors Association. As she later records, it was this man from
Hiroshima with a "Buddha-like smile" who introduced her to haiku in
Japan. (Ironically, Friedman’s father once had worked on the atomic bomb
with the Manhattan Project.)
Eventually Ryojinboku invited her to join his haiku group where she
met her future mentor, haiku master Kuroda Momoko. Michael Dylan
Welch, in his excellent foreword, describes Momoko’s position in the
Japanese haiku world as "one of Japan’s foremost haiku masters and a
leading member of Japan’s Haiku Poets Association." As we read about
Momoko’s work with Friedman we vicariously experience the teaching
style of a haiku master along with Friedman’s efforts to internalize the
teachings and grow in understanding of Japanese language and culture.
Friedman’s entry into the world of Japanese haiku soon convinces her
of the wisdom in the adage "life is what happens while one is planning
something else." What she discovers is an art form as well as the value of
community in learning to write haiku. Along the way, haiku turns out to
be "a path of self-discovery." Previously, haiku only had served as a pleasant
way to practice reading Japanese.
The steps of Friedman’s haiku path remind us of issues we often face in
writing and reading English-language haiku. Among these are the use of
season words, the matter of syllable count, and the role of the personal in
haiku. Like many beginners in haiku Friedman felt a strong need to learn
and follow a set of rules. At one early session with her mentor she expected
to work on them, but Momoko "began to redefine my conception of haiku
… she was intent on teaching me the feel of haiku." Her mentor suggested
that she think of haiku as a vessel into which to pour her feelings, thus
moving beyond the intellectual and logical.
Friedman was soon to discover that this is much easier said than done.
As Ryojinboku said about the personal dimension, one must think of the
most deeply impressive part of a thing or event and write about that. There
is never enough room to write about all one feels in a particular experience.
Friedman keenly felt the contrast between writing haiku and foreignservice
dispatches. In haiku she discovered she had to cultivate an awareness
of meaning beyond the words.
How she learned to deal with the personal dimension in haiku is evident
in the following verse she brought to her mentor.
in the pot
soft long noodles
forgetting the old year
Momoko counseled her to try to capture the mood of her experience of
cooking noodles. Momoko suggested a variant:
bring to a boil
New Year’s noodles
making a home
Since "making a home" is central to the mood Friedman had in mind, the
suggested change makes it explicit.
While Friedman was working with Momoko she also was studying with a
calligraphy master. This added experience helped her appreciate how page
presentation can contribute to a haiku’s meaning. The characters themselves,
she discovered, serve to flesh out meaning hidden in the basic ambiguity
of spoken Japanese.
A few reservations about the book have to do with what follows the
memoir. After some endnotes Friedman suddenly turns pedagogical. Perhaps
she wanted to make the book more "practical," even to be adoptable
as a textbook. She tacks on notes on writing haiku in English, advice on
starting one’s own haiku group, a listing of some further readings, and advice
on questions for reading groups. The further readings section is a very
spare introduction to the literature, directed toward beginners. There is a
hasty quality about this lengthy "googled" list of paper and on-line journals
plus the limited selection of books. An index would have been helpful in
locating forgotten gems.
Friedman’s memoir on writing haiku in Japan will have wide appeal for
not only haiku beginners but advanced writers as well. The latter will appreciate
the Japanese roots of the rapidly evolving English-language haiku.
Moreover, they may be called to think further about what it means to write
haiku. Perhaps some will return to a basic question: what is it that makes
haiku haiku and not just an exotic form of short-verse poetry.