Gospel Haiku

A few years ago, a Texas lawyer named Keith Jaasma gained some notoriety for his poetry. Mr. Jaasma would take U.S. Supreme Court opinions and boil them down to haiku compositions that summed up the gist of the holding. For example, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, he summarized the opinion in haiku form as follows:

Schools for black and white
Separate is not equal
Desegregation

I was charmed by Mr. Jaasma’s trick, and for a couple years now, I’ve been using it to help me break down things that are difficult to understand. The process of taking something complex and trying to pin down its core ideas in a 5-7-5 format can be a worthwhile challenge. Seventeen syllables are not nearly enough to capture all the nuances of a complex idea, and as you wrestle with that constricting form, you can’t help but analyze every part of whatever it is that you’re trying to “haikuify.” You think just as much about the parts that you are leaving out of the poem as the parts that you manage to fit in. And for the parts that you decide absolutely must fit into the poem, you find yourself grappling with different ways to express those parts. You search for shorter words that will substitute for the longer, fancier ones that you find in the text you are working with. You have to decide whether each line of the poem will express a separate part of the overall idea, or if you’re going to write one sentence or phrase that is broken up into three lines.

Beyond these challenges introduced by the rigor of the haiku format, writing in this way forces you to take a break from excessive qualification of our statements. Sometimes when I write, I load my sentences with so many qualifiers, exceptions, and asides that it seems like I’m not saying much of anything at all. Heck, the first few paragraphs of this post probably have too much of this sort of clutter. (This may be the result of my training as a lawyer, where I live in professional fear of having my words come back to haunt me.) But haiku doesn’t give you room for any of that. Once you have taken something long and complex and chopped and squeezed it into a haiku composition, you’ll look at it and see not just what it says, but everything it leaves out. This haiku will be “wrong” in a sense, because it’s incomplete, but in seeing how it is wrong, you will better understand the material from which it was formed.

Now, the idea of using haiku poetry in this way is far removed from the form’s roots in Japan. I am told by those who speak Japanese that coming up with rhyming couplets in that language is incredibly easy, so Japanese poetry has adopted forms that present other challenges to the poet, such as strictly limiting the line lengths and subject matter. Japanese haiku traditionally has  focused on nature, and each composition is expected to communicate the season in which it is set. A traditional haiku was expected to focus on concrete images from a specific, brief moment of observation. This form has yielded poems that are striking even when translated. Some are profound and some are quite funny. Here are a couple classics to give you a sense of what can be done with the form even when addressing a topic as mundane as insects:

A cicada shell
It sang itself
Utterly away

by Matsuo Basho

Even with insects—
Some can sing,
Some can’t

by Kobayashi Issa

Westerners have been taking this elegant poetry format and turning it to other purposes since at least the nineteenth century, breaking all its rules. It’s sort of like yoga in that way—used in ways and for purposes far different from those envisioned by its creators.

So, here’s the LDS tie-in: I suggest trying to haikuify a scripture, doctrine, or conference address. It’s probably not something you’ve tried in your gospel study routine before, and maybe it will yield some new insight for you. Here’s an example. Moses 1:39 is a scripture that many church members can recite from memory. Here is my attempt to put it in haiku form:

God’s work and glory:
Immortality of man
And eternal life

You’ll notice that I had to put “immortality” first in the poem to make the line lengths work. That led me to think about whether there’s significance to the order in which “immortality” and “eternal life” are listed in the verse. Also, I think about the part I left out—“bring to pass”—and how that phrase echoes the phrase “it came to pass” that we see throughout the scriptures. The haiku doesn’t offer any mind-shattering insights, but it got me thinking more about that verse than I had in a while.

I hope that this can serve as a technique you keep in your back pocket for times when you want to change up your personal or family study, or a class you’re teaching. I’d love to see your gospel haiku compositions in the comments, or your thoughts on similar techniques. Gospel limericks, perhaps?

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