Poetry doesn’t turn up in my reading list very often. Haiku even less. So I was somewhat surprised to find myself enthusiastically picking up Three Simple Lines: A Writer’s Pilgrimage into the Heart and Homeland of Haiku as part of my recent Natalie Goldberg reading binge.
Truth be told, it was the subtitle that was the real appeal. In my third stage of life, pilgrimages have a certain allure. Reading about others’ journeys can be enlightening, sowing seeds for personal reflection and encouraging us to seize the day.
As always, this Weekly Reader features links to recent books and articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy.
Three Simple Lines is part poetry, part history lesson, part travelogue. Mostly it is memoir of a writer’s pilgrimage, from Goldberg’s introduction to the form in 1976 by Allen Ginsberg to her study of the masters of haiku. From her visits to Japan to take in the places and spirit that drove masters such as Basho and Yosa Buson, to her return home to join a haiku writing class. She wants to experience these places and this work through “bare attention, no distractions, pure awareness.”
Goldberg is a master storyteller, and her capturing of details is part of what makes this book come alive. Sometimes it is a scene as simple and frivolous as the description of the “kissing couple” sharing their love as her tour group waits for a morning train.
“The young couple are at it again. One long tender kiss, arresting lip-on-lip action. This is a kiss that leaks last night’s love, spreading it all over the morning. I am so happy they came along. What’s better than a good, lingering canoodle?”
Delightful detail also shows up in her description of the landscape and atmosphere as she travels to a distant temple. From my short time in Japan, this feels right.
“We keep climbing — my calves are burning — and come to a raised wooden walkway and then occasional wooden bells, which I know are used to scare away bears. When I reach one, I ring it hard.
We keep walking in silence, hearing the creak of the wooden planks in each step. It’s late and the air is cold. We are in ebony shadows that swallow up the giant cryptomerias. The walk ends in a wide path through groves of tall bamboo, which draw our gazes up to the entrance of Chuson-ji. It has appeared out of nowhere, at the top of Mount Kanzan.”
There is one passage that, to me, speaks eloquently of why people go on pilgrimages. Goldberg has been to Buson’s grave, and she wants to read the group something he had written.
“‘What you want to acquire, you should dare to acquire by any means. What you want to see, even though it is with difficulty, you should see. You should not let it pass, thinking there will be another chance to see it or to acquire it. It is quite unusual to have a second chance to materialize your desire.'”
Three Simple Lines is a beautiful book, both thoughtful and illuminating. There are numerous examples of this shortest of creative writing throughout, including several pages from Chiyo-ni, one of the few women to be recognized as a haiku master. I’ll leave you with one from Chiyo-ni, written after the death of one of her mentors, touching on her familiar theme of impermanence.
“sad, so sad / to miss the plum flower / before it fell”
More to come…
Images of temple grounds at Toko-ji in Hagi and bamboo grove in Japan by DJB