Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Summer 2005, vol 3 no 2


Feature ~

Tom Clausen


From Conflict to Poetry

Some days, sometimes, life becomes an unfortunate series of conflicts. I would like to examine how conflict in our lives might inspire us to read and write haiku and other short poetic forms. I believe turning to these forms as a response to conflict creates for us an opportunity both to lose and find our selves, as well as to gain some resolution, levity and redemptive understanding. Conflict in our lives, as I'm sure everyone here can attest, is epidemic. It can range from the petty, everyday variety to the profound, deeply unsettling type of conflict that makes our very existence miserable.

The list of how we define conflict is as endless as the days and the lives of those experiencing these conflicts. In examining the self, it becomes apparent that conflict creates in us incentive and impetus to recreate our reality or at least to adjust our understanding of reality. In a critical sense, it is conflict which challenges and upsets our old, comfortable self-understanding. This may lead to a reconfiguring of the self which in essence we have merely invented as a reflex and reaction to the myriad circumstances, needs and desires we experience daily. The chameleon of our self usually remains beyond the conscious control, unless of course we are a saint, a Zen monk or in some other way tremendously disciplined in the ways of the self.

As we go along in life we cling to this self like a life preserver. After awhile we may begin to recognize that the self, like all forms in nature, is subject to change and extinction. Carrying identities and shedding them like snakeskins is a lifelong and humbling negotiation beginning on the playground and requiring each of us to close down and let go of significant parts and ideas we have of our self all along the way. Yet, combined with these losses, may come the discovery that a certain currency of self exists in concert and unity with all things, great and small, simple and complex. This currency always exists but may be only discovered and intelligible when we feel deeply the wheel of our life turning so that we begin to look, listen, and notice our 'self' with extra-sensory interest and attention. It is at such times of awakening, often in the midst of conflict, that our perception to receive poetic messages opens. These messages visit us with heart lasting truth and insight which may dissolve as quickly as it arrives. Haiku are from this realm, and the best of haiku give us glimpses at a uniquely clear and liberated relation to our sometimes imprisoning and limited alone little self.

As writers we have two main paths of response to our conflicts:

1. We can directly confront our conflicts by cathartically writing about them and in the process gaining both perspective and distance which in turn, often provides levity. I often favor this approach and have found a healthy degree of self therapy is available by simply reporting on the essence and edge of my conflicts, aware that they are as likely to be universal as they are unique. As the Buddha pointed out, there is not one house that does not experience struggles and suffering. When we share and find ways to help each other bear burdens, we begin on a path of liberation even if in our writing we feel as if we are simply walking in place!

2. The second path is to seek alternative reality by choosing to contact apart or a level in the self that is not feeling conflicted. In other words, to basically shun and reject conflict in favor of a reality that is at least seemingly, if only temporarily, free from conflict. This
response I liken to the poet in person being much like a dream catcher; catching the burdensome while allowing those joys and affirming visions to pass through. The widely sought serenity that is often equated with nature and nature poems is perhaps the written representation of those who in response to conflict are inspired to focus on images, places and feelings that are not conflicted.

I've often wondered if the most classically undramatic and still point nature poets are not selectively creating what they as individuals most need as a response to their personal conflicts or those in the world at large. Perhaps as a group, those of us who associate and strongly relate to haiku are doing so as a collective response to a world gone quite mad with too many conflicts.

D. T. Suzuki in his introduction to Essays in Zen Buddhism points out: "life is after all arguing, a painful struggle . . . this however is providential for the more you suffer the deeper grows your character, and with deepening of your character you read the more penetratingly into the secrets of life." A gift of conflict then, encourages us to read these secrets, and haiku offer a way to articulate and share our findings. Each of us writing haiku and other short forms is as a reporter of sacred and small bits of news about our transitory passage through this mysterious life and world. Conflict is our reality check—our chance to reflect, review, and take time out to look, listen . . . and note! When the poetic and intuitive speaks to us, we become a medium for a message that allows us to be refreshed with seeing anew and again that which simultaneously lets us lose and find our self.

In David Steindl-Rast's book A Listening Heart, he has an insightful chapter devoted to haiku called "Mirror of the Heart". In this chapter, he begins by calling haiku a mirror; "Like a crystal, the facets of which mirror and bring together so many different reflections of the world around it, the haiku shows us some important aspects of the world gathered together and reflected as if in one brief sparkling flash. The clarity and precision of this remarkable poetic form is only heightened by the fact that it is so utterly unsentimental. So is a mirror." As we go about our day to day rhythm of routines, a degree of unconscious-automatic pilot type behavior dims our awareness and attention to see and feel many miracles and poetic messages about us.

The calling of haiku requires of us a daily recognition of moments, simple and subtle as they may be, that rise above the plain of our life and give a good glow of knowing . . . bringing humble grounding and poetic order to the cottage of the self. Brother Steindl-Rast describes this aspect of haiku as a "Peak Experience" . . . "for we do experience our lives as relatively long stretches of ascent and decline culminating here and there in brief moments for which a peak is the perfect image. What makes a Peak Experience so liberating is that precisely for once I no longer feel and know that I know but simply feel and know just that. Only afterwards can I reflect on it and so talk about it. And what I am then inclined to say is something like "I was simply swept off my feet," or "I was out of myself, carried away." Even though it might have been for a split second only, "I had lost myself." This was all. But not quite all. For looking back I will so admit that at the moment of my Peak Experience I was more truly and more fully myself than at any other time. And so I find myself confronted with the strange paradox that I am most truly myself when I forget myself. When I lose myself, I find myself.

To receive and record haiku is a challenge requiring considerable patience and readiness for those moments of serendipity when suddenly like a candid camera we are shown ourself in a most special way. It takes practice and regular reading to discover the breadth and depth of the endless ways haiku can be felt. That conflict and adversity may turn us to writing, is in no small way an honoring of our life and all life and can be the compassionate venture beyond our self on the way to find our self. . . . In Francine Porad's collection The Perfect Worry Stone, Connie Hutchinson writes in the preface: "Greeks carried "worry stones," usually agates, in their pockets. Fingering them had a calming effect, reducing anxiety. As haiku poets, we observe the moment, craft the poem. Poet and reader re-experience the moment through the poem. Haiku in all these aspects engage us with life, diverting our attention from ineffectual worry over personal and communal pains, redirecting our thoughts and energies. Haiku is the perfect worry stone. In my life I have found considerable solace in being able to write about my personal conflicts, moments where I felt moved to pause, reflect, regroup and recognize that even in conflict and distress are silver linings and the potential for poetry that each of us can find in our heart . . . and in turn move on from our conflict through the poetry we create from it.

~ Tom Clausen

waking me
just to tell me
she can't sleep

Some poems from my chapbook, published by Snaphot Press in 2000, entitled, Homework:

cleaning the poop out
his little Superman

how long he cries
for the little shell lost
on the way home

home from work ...
the little one brings me
an empty wine bottle

playing a child's game
      I learn all
      his rules

all through
his temper tantrum
her calm

now that I'm over
my bad mood,
she's in one

she's waited up ...
to have some last words
with me

while brushing my teeth
    she tells me again:
       "let's move"

the plumber
kneeling in our tub
     – talking to himself

done –
the repairman tells me
any fool can do it

the snow
            moves me
                        window to window

second day
of the New Year:
taxes arrive

at the mailbox
the emptiness
of another day

outside the glass door
our old cat has forgotten
      it wanted "in"


Tom Clausen lives in Ithaca, NY with his wife, Berta Gutierrez, and their son, Casey (16) and daughter, Emma (10), in the same house Tom grew up in. Tom works in a library at Cornell University where he used to post haiku in an elevator for patrons. This has evolved to become a link at the Mann Library home page featuring a daily haiku. He became enchanted with haiku and other short poetic forms in the late 1980s after reading an article about Ruth Yarrow, a fellow Ithacan at the time.

Tom has five chapbook collections of haiku and tanka: Autumn Wind in the Cracks, Unraked Leaves, Standing Here, (self published) A Work of Love (Tiny Poems Press) and Homework (Snapshot Press, UK).

Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku