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Volume 41.3
Fall 2010

 

book review:

Haiku—The Sacred Art: A Spiritual Practice in Three Lines
by Margaret D. McGee

Reviewed by Randy Brooks

Haiku—The Sacred Art: A Spiritual Practice in Three Lines, by Margaret D. McGee (Woodstock, Vt.: SkyLight Paths, 2010). 160 pages; 5.5 x8. Glossy color card covers; perfectbound. ISBN 978-1-594732-69-0. Price: $16.99 from the publisher at <http://www. skylightpaths.com> and from booksellers.

Margaret McGee has written an interesting introduction to haiku, not as an expert on haiku as a literary tradition, but as a writer committed to exploring the possibilities of haiku as a personal and social means of spiritual development. This book belongs in the group of notable books exploring the connections between haiku and meditation such as Seeds From a Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey by Clark Strand and Zen Art for Meditation by Stewart Holmes and Chimyo Horioka. However, unlike these books coming out of Zen-related traditions, Haiku—The Sacred Art comes from a Christian tradition of meditation and creativity. McGee is deliberate about her own religious tradition but is interested in an ecumenical spiritual approach: "While I am a Christian, and my own practice is grounded in the Episcopal Church, I have seen that writing haiku touches a human longing that lies deep within all great faith traditions: the need to find our place in the world, to feel in our hearts our relationship to each other and to all of creation."
McGee views the "haiku moment" as a spiritual experience when "the mind stops and the heart moves" in response to God's creation. In the introduction she writes, "Capturing moments of deep feeling that make you feel alive and whole—moments that make you aware of holiness—is a way to relate to the Creative Spirit through the ‘now’ of this moment, just as it is." The book includes translations of haiku by Japanese masters, many haiku from a few well-known English-language haiku writers such as Patricia Donegan, Lorraine Ellis Harr, and Karma Tenzing Wangchuk. However, the majority of haiku are by McGee and her haiku writing group.

McGee shares the story of her own development as a haiku writer, acknowledging her first teacher, Carol Light, and the Port Townsend Haiku Club. The book reads as her own journal of discovery of haiku—as a sacred moment, as a means of prayer, as a means of thanksgiving, as a means of celebrating sacred places, as a means of sharing with others. It is interesting that the haiku examples are not overtly religious or spiritual in content or language. For example, here is one of her haiku from the chapter on haiku as a simple prayer:

breaker curls . . .
the woman touches the hair
of her redheaded child

As the leader of a haiku group in her church, McGee told her writers about utamakura, "the Japanese tradition of recognizing sacred places in poetry." She says that she "began to wonder which spots in my hometown or country might make good 'poetic pillows'—places that evoke feelings common to the community or larger culture" and shares the results based on three categories of sacred places including: "a sense of belonging, or home; a sense of awe, or wonder; and a sense of wholeness, or healing from divisions."

Gettysburg . . .
a split-rail fence crosses over
fields of summer grass

This book is a good introduction to haiku and related haikai arts such as haibun, haiga, and renku. It provides a clear "how-to" guide to getting started with writing haiku, and especially with approaching it as a contemplative, meditative art for self-discovery and spiritual enrichment. Not all of the haiku included are of the highest literary merit, but they do reflect a diversity of voices and the obvious pleasure of the writers engaging in the art. Published as a book on spirituality by SkyLight Paths in Woodstock, Vermont, this represents a quality invitation to new readers and potential writers to join in the broader haiku community. I applaud the publishers and author for bringing out this book.

I would like to end this review noting how pleased I am with McGee’s emphasis on a social approach to spiritual practice and development. This is not a book about alienation. It is about integration and connection. As she explains in her chapter Haiku in Community, "Writing a haiku on your own is a way to record and share the deep feeling of a moment; doing it with others is a way to both create and nurture community. Not only that, but writing haiku as a group experience can be flat-out fun." I’m always a champion of flat-out fun haiku!

daybreak
the slug beat me
to the strawberry

 

 

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