Haiku: The Sacred Art by Margaret D. McGee

“I didn’t know it, but I was having a ‘haiku moment’- a moment when the mind stops and the heart moves”.  This quote is from Margaret McGee, the author of  Haiku: The Sacred Art (A Spiritual Practice in Three Lines), and it marks the beginning of her journey toward a haiku life.

This was a brief moment.  A moment that may have just passed her by if she wasn’t in a haiku workshop where she was asked to observe a flower vase.  After this moment, she wrote this:

a shift in focus– 
the whole rooms reflected
in a flower’s vase

Haiku: The Sacred Art (A Spiritual Practice in Three Lines) is McGee’s investigation into the spiritual aspect of writing haiku. This book starts with her first encounter with haiku at the age of 45, and then continues on a journey into developing a haiku practice. McGee writes in a conversational style and pulls in references from authors like R.H. Blyth, William J. Higginson, and Christopher Herold.  She also adds in haiku for Basho, Issa, and various other contemporary poets to help illustrate her points..  Each chapter ends with a haiku exercise for individual practice. 

Much like the first quote mentioned, I found many of McGee’s statements about writing haiku thought provoking. I have pulled a few of my favorites and listed them below.

Sunflowers in Vase
**Not the Actual Flower Vase**/Photo Credit cottonbro on Pexels.com

From Chapter One – “The Heart of the Moment”

“We human beings are carriers of meaning.  That’s one of the ingredients we add to the mix of the cosmos–a sense of relationship between one thing and another. We love to connect the dots, and we use our brains to do it,figure out how to make fire, navigate the seas, and communicate with each other instantly around the world.  Every now and then, the connection comes not from the figuring brain, but straight from the heart.  With a shock of recognition, we feel the bond between our deepest place and the world outside.”

From Chapter Two – “A Simple Prayer”

“Become a spectator in the greatest drama ever played–the drama of the opening leaf, the rising bread dough, the drilling woodpecker, the chasing dog, the cloud that crosses the moon.”

From Chapter Three – “A Companionable Form”

“In reading and writing haiku, people who live in deserts and rainforests, coastlands and inlands, all can find a common path to feeling and expressing their inner connections to the natural world. In sharing haiku with others, we discover that we are not alone in our feelings, but that sorrow, joy, and all that comes between are part of the universal human spirit.”

Chapter Four – “A Sense of Time and Place”

“Haiku show how seasons of nature can bring the universal and the personal together in a moment that evokes vivid feeling.”

Chapter Eight – “The Haiku Life”

“In paying attention to small things, the haiku poet honors the sacredness of everyday life.”

This last quote was part of McGee’s section title “Get in the Haiku Habit”.  For McGee, the practice of writing haiku is about appreciating the little things in life like the snow and the rain, the moon and the sun, and the people and places that making living so interesting. McGee says we should give them a special place in our writing as a way to honor our relationship with them. To this end, McGee proposes a challenge to the reader: write 100 haiku in 100 days.  McGee says these haiku don’t need to be perfect, but it is the practice that is important.  

So, I have decided to take McGee up on this challenge and write 100 haiku in 100 days. I started a few days ago, but here is what I have written so far.


(1/100 — In response to Now and Then exercise)

many paths converge 
under the apple tree
fallen fruit

(2/100 — In response to Just the Facts exercise)

muskrat tracks 
on the river's edge
New Years Eve

(3/100)

New Year's Day 
Issa's average remains
deeply profound

(4/100)

slipping 
in a day dream
icy roads

4 down and 96 to go! 

Not every haiku will be good, and I bet some will even be bad. But I hope through the practice, I can learn something about the world around me and the sacred art of haiku.

Follow me on Twitter(@MarkatNatWeekly) to see the 96 haikus!


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21 thoughts on “Haiku: The Sacred Art by Margaret D. McGee

Add yours

  1. hear hear Mark – another gem. I love the quote you start off with. At the moment my interest in this author is rather with her ‘haiku journey’ than her journey to find God, as it says elsewhere. (perhaps the latter being a concession to US book market? Or am I digging myself into a cynical hole here?) – shall continue to work with ‘the mind stops and the heart moves’ …

    1. Hi Barbara, McGee pulled some wonderful quotes from Blyth and Higginson that seemed pivotal in her journey. She is also fairly open about the religious aspects as being a part of her practice and might not work for everyone. Overall, definitely some interesting points to work with. Thanks for sharing! Talk soon,

  2. A wonderful post, Mark, for it reinforces my own ideas of writing through the seasons, using hokku/haiku. An interesting challenge; practice makes perfect, but what’s perfect?

    1. Or is it finding the perfection in the imperfections? I am glad that you enjoyed this and there is something about intentionally noticing the world around us that is so grounding.

  3. Well, add yet another book to my wishlist! I really liked McGee’s haiku about the flower vase. It does capture a significant sort of turning-point moment, when she looked at what was a typical flower vase and then suddenly saw humanity reflected in it. That sort of serendipitous epiphany can really leave an indelible mark on a person’s psyche. An entirely new way of seeing the world can emerge, as it did for her. As for her “100 haiku in 100 days” challenge, it appears as if I’ve already inadvertently completed that challenge without even knowing about it (144 new haiku written since Sept. 28 and a total of 150 so far). It’s my goal to continue my pursuit of tracking down the basic essence of this art form. I love writing haiku/senryu–it puts me in a very unique place in my head, a meditative state, so peaceful. I have my own personal method of getting to that place (I’m sure others would think it’s rather silly so I’ll remain mum on the details) but the process of writing haiku is both introspective and invigorating and I’m always excited to share them on my blog.

    As for your own haiku…beautiful and thoughtful and such a sense of place… It’s so good to finally see some of your poetry, Mark. All this time I’ve known about your blog, I’ve wondered if you also write poetry. Please keep sharing it with us. It’s wonderful. I can especially relate to the ones about the apple tree and the icy roads.

    As always, this was a delight to read. Thanks so much for all your hard work and research to give your readers so much to ponder. Well done, good sir! 🙂

    1. Hi Mike, Thanks for the kind words! I definitely do more reading about poetry then writing my own. But I am am starting to make a bit of a shift. A find a haiku practice is very enjoyable.
      Way to go on the 150 haiku. Are you able to tell the difference between haiku #1 and haiku #150? Is there a difference in the way you approach the process?
      Always good to hear from you. Talk soon,

      1. Hey, Mark. If it’s okay with you, I’m including haiku #1 and #150 below:

        (#1) (written in April 2017)

        Raindrop on elm leaf
        Slipping toward oblivion
        I am falling too

        …..

        (#150) (written in Dec. 2021)

        in silence in shadows
        cold earth trembles beneath
        blanket of regrets

        The basic melancholic theme is there, although #1 is a little less dark (I can’t seem to write happy stuff no matter how hard I try). The nature theme is ever-present, sometimes at a specific, individual level (a raindrop on an elm leaf) and sometimes on more of a grand scale (the earth trembling beneath a blanket of snow). In many ways, they’re very similar. As for differences between then and now, I’ve abandoned the strict Western interpretation of haiku structure and am trying to write more in tune with the traditional Japanese structure. This has resulted in a sense of loosening the shackles of arbitrary Western influence on Japanese poetry and I find ideas flow more freely now. Without the harsh 5-7-5 syllable format, the haiku now seem more alive and emotive. As mentioned above, they’re still darkly themed and that has seemed to intensify as winter has set in, but I imagine it will change when springtime arrives and my mood lightens.

        As for my approach, I’ll share my silly method and hope it makes sense. I was in PTSD treatment for awhile in 2018, doing EMDR therapy. EMDR relies on first establishing a “safe place”: in our mind where we can retreat when traumatic thoughts become too much to bear. The first couple of months of EMDR therapy were all about creating the safe place, as well as relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises and visualization. My safe place was a vivid, living, breathing place based on a little area I discovered during my days in Oregon along the central coast. There’s a stream that feeds into the ocean near Heceta Head Lighthouse. I followed the stream into the woods and found a little piece of heaven. That was the basis for my safe place. I added to it, installing a koi pond with lotus blossoms and a red footbridge, a waterfall, and one very special person. This is in addition to the ferns, hardwoods and conifers, seagulls and all other natural beauty found there. So, skip to the present. I’ve developed a “haiku safe place” where I imagine myself as living in ancient Japan, where I have a little hut, a white dog, a cat that sometimes comes around but who is very aloof, a stream bordered by reeds and cattails that feeds into a koi pond with lotus blossoms, and which has a red footbridge that spans it. A waterfall is nearby. There are willows along the banks, and across the stream stands a bamboo grove. There is a small garden of vegetables and flowers. Herons visit regularly; turtles lounge on rocks in the stream, the chorus of frogs is ever-present, and dragonflies hover about. There is a footpath that leads up the mountainside which I’ve climbed many times in my mind and in my haiku. If anyone has read my haiku collections, they probably can recognize these elements I’ve created for my haiku safe place. When I write, I close my eyes and retreat to my little hut, walk around and see what’s there, observe nature and just let images, sounds, scents and sensations come to me. This is my respectful tribute to the ancient haiku masters such as Matsuo Basho, Kobayashi Issa and others, and my ode to Japanese art and culture. And that’s my inspiration for writing haiku.

        Sorry for rambling on here. It’s a fascinating subject and I could go on forever. 🙂

      2. Hi Mike, thank you for sharing! I appreciate your comments about haiku form. It is interesting to read about how some people think the form is very important where as others prefer the free form. I have read several times that the syllable counting is very helpful as you start. Help get your brain thinking in haiku form.
        Also, thanks for sharing about your process. It is so good that you have found a visualization process that supports your creativity.
        Thanks again and talk soon.

      1. No, it is not. I think it’s just an artistic impression of a hummingbird, but there are many types. I have a giant book of beautiful prints of all sorts of interesting Hummingbirds I never knew existed!

      2. I feel like we only have ruby throated hummingbirds, but I also have not done a lot of research on them. I may have to dive into that next summer.

    1. Hi LaMon, It is great to hear that you found McGee’s book useful in your own writing practice. I can definitely see how it could be helpful in working with groups. Did you embark on the 100 haikus in 100 day challenge? If so, how did it go for you?

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