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Volume 36.2
Summer 2005

book review:

The Healing Spirit of Haiku
by David Rosen and Joel Weishaus

 

Reviewed by Paul Miller

The Healing Spirit of Haiku, by David Rosen and Joel Weishaus (Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 2004). ISBN 1-55643-530-4. 175 pages, 9 x6, paperback. Illustrated by Arthur Okamura. $14.95 from booksellers.

At first glance, The Healing Spirit of Haiku looks to hold much promise: nicely produced by a mainstream publishing house and loaded with interesting artwork. The idea of the book is equally interesting: a conversation in prose, poetry, and artwork, between two poets and an artist on the subject of healing. Since both Weishaus and Rosen are published poets (Weishaus’
free verse poetry has been published widely, and Rosen’s work can be found occasionally in Modern Haiku), they would seem to have the tools to pull it off. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

The book purports to be a “haibun of the psyche” and the structure of a haibun is followed in each of the fifty-four sections concerned with the poets’ healing journey. The subjects examined by the poets farm emotional territory such as “Being Alone,” “Going to the Opposite,” “Facing Reality,” “Scattering of Families,” etc.… Unfortunately, it is this adherence to the haibun structure that ruins the book.

The biggest weakness a haibun can have is for the attached haiku to be little more than a reiteration of the prose. This eliminates any discovery the reader might potentially have made in the poem. Rosen (analyst) and Weishaus (educator) are perhaps used to explaining things, and most of the poems in the book work as such. For example, in the section titled “Dark and Light,”
Rosen’s prose explanation that “Solidly in springtime, dark yin gave birth to yang light” is followed by the poem,

Dark evergreen woods—
Blossoming pear trees emerge
In the evening light

There is an obvious line of thought at work here. The title sets up the prose, and then the prose sets up the poem.

Since a fair chunk of the book’s prose is about events many years in the past, the lesson-learned quality of the poems feels false. Rather than feel that the authors wrote a healing poem, and then wrote prose to explain the process — we feel the opposite. We feel instead that they have something to say on one of the subjects and then wrote the prose and lastly a poem as way of further explanation. While haiku can be created solely from imagination or memory, and can deliver lessons or messages, they must be more than simply explanations. I hate to use the haiku cliché “show, don’t tell,” but the authors are in need of that advice here.

Near the middle of the book, so as not to be influenced by the titles and prose, I found myself reading the poems first. A few of them, Weishaus’s in particular, were enjoyable. Two examples:

On the pavement—
Fallen soggy leaves
unable to go home

Older than I thought I’d ever be—
Across the path,
Acorns are scattered

from “Facing Reality” and “Turtle Wisdom.” Many of his other poems, however, lean a little too far toward the devices of Western poetry, and many of Rosen’s are simple lists with little or no internal energy: “Make peace with father / At home create altar — / Pray for his soul.” In fact most of the poems in the book lack tension and any sense of discovery. The stilted language often in use by both poets doesn’t help.

The artwork by Arthur Okamura is interesting at first, but also too often figuratively literal. One of the early poems is about a bench in the rain. The picture is of a bench in the rain. With all twenty-seven paintings in the same literal style they get a little redundant.

I believe haiku can “heal” the gap between our environment, our ghosts, and ourselves, and I believe this has happened to the authors — especially given their interest in Zen and Taoism—but the poorly used haibun structure is the flaw in this book. Without it we might simply enjoy the poems as a spectator of someone else’s experiences. Haibun, like haiku, ask the reader to be a participant in the creative process. Unfortunately, the reader isn’t given that opportunity.

 

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