October 3, 2021: Haiku: a Way to Express the Experience of Illness

There’s something about the approaching autumn, for me,  that invites more quiet reflection, a daily tumble of memories.  Nature’s seasons are an apt metaphor for aging, something we become more aware of as the years pass or serious illness strikes.  I think of my own life now as synonymous with autumn, reminding me of how human life is so intimately connected to Nature’s seasons–metaphorically and physically.  Seasons, whether nature or the human life cycle, invite reflection and expression in the metaphors of poetry—none quite so elegant as Japanese haiku.

A few years ago,  I was invited to speak about the expressive writing programs I lead with a visiting group of medical students from Dokkyo University in Japan, hosted by the UCSD Moores Cancer Center in San Diego.   Not only was I challenged to explain the research and practice highlights of expressive writing in terms easily translatable to group whose English language skills were not well developed, but I also had to explain the definition and use of expressive writing while bridging the cultural differences between North American and Japanese populations.  To “tell the truth” of one’s painful or traumatic experiences and share it with others as is done in an expressive writing group is not common in Japanese culture. 

Haiku, however, is a poetic form that is part of the Japanese culture, so the medical students and I segued into an interesting discussion in how haiku might be used as a way to encourage Japanese patients to write and express their feelings about living with serious illness. Our discussion naturally migrated expressing the “seasons” of illness similar to the seasons of nature expressed in Haiku, and gave us additional possibilities for exploring haiku as as poetic form for cancer and other illnesses.

There was some precedent.  Shortly after the catastrophic Japanese tsunami of 2011, haiku became a popular form for the Japanese people to capture and express their pain and anguish in the weeks following the devastation and loss of life in the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan. Writing for The Los Angeles Times, reporter Julie Makinen described how it began: “Amid the cacophony of news bulletins and tweets and cellphone  alerts registering yet another aftershock, Yoshikatsu Kurota quietly sent out his brief verse. … Seventeen Japanese syllables, radiating out into the universe, perhaps touching a few other distressed souls adrift in the chaos.”

About the nuclear power plant

too much detail I hear

such unhappiness

You Yasuhara, a Buddhist monk living in Kyoto and a practitioner of haiku,  wrote a haiku ultimately carved into a memorial stone in the city of Kyoto:

Days of disaster

I can never forget

the cold and wet

Creating poetry out of life’s hardships is an acknowledged healing practice and also a way for people to express grief and sorrow in the weeks after the U.S. World Trade Center attacks in 2001.  ‘In times of crisis it’s … always poetry,” former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins remarked in a New York Times article. “What we want to hear is a human voice speaking directly in our ear.” I often use poetry to inspire writing in my groups, and on several occasions, we’ve explored the illness experience through writing haiku.

The essence of the haiku form lies in its brevity and visual intensity.  In seventeen short syllables, it paints a picture in the readers’ mind, calling our attention to an observation and the story hinted at behind the image.  Its most common form is written in three lines, the first line five syllables long, the second, seven, and the third, five, for a total of seventeen syllables, although when translated from Japanese, is not always perfect.  This week I stumbled on the British blog site, authored by https://heartytalescouk.wordpress.com/, authored by Laura Donald, a heart failure patient, which regularly invites its readers to write haiku expressing the experience of heart failure and cardiac disease. 

Stairs like a mountain.

I start to climb – my heart sinks

Like my oxygen.


Pulse:  Voices from the Heart of Medicine, www.pulsevoices.org, another great site for patients and medical practitioners, routinely publishes personal essays and patient haiku expressing the medical experience in its weekly issues.  Some of my former writing group members have had their writing published in Pulse.   And, as it turns out, I received a “Call for Submissions” from Pulse for haiku expressing the medical experience just this past week. It’s a great opportunity to try your own hand at creating haiku that express elements of your experiences as either a cancer or a heart patient. The deadline for patients and healthcare professionals alike is October, 31st.  

cancer support group

a circle of sympathy

which leaf will be the next to fall

(By Cynthia Colby, in Pulse)

Haiku also teaches us the power of observation, of being present to the here and now.  It can also be a short-hand route to express suffering and pain, as the tsunami haiku shows us, and used to express the medical experience, because it offers an alternative way to express what you are feeling, while finding, perhaps, metaphors in Nature too.

Haiku also offers us more. While the first level of Haiku is always located in Nature, the second is most often a reflection on Nature.  In haiku, a dialogue with Nature is more than just observation; it takes us inside ourselves.  Writing haiku is a kind of meditation,  calming, and quiet.  It takes us beyond the sorrow and pain to notice the fleeting moments and beauty in Nature, and that fosters gratitude.  Perhaps haiku, poetry in its simplest form, offers not only a way to find words to express our suffering, but also encourages to pay attention to Nature and the beauty around it. Perhaps the little three line poetic form is a prescription for a more observant life.

Open House for Butterflies, 1959

Writing Suggestion:  

This week, try using Haiku to express your experience of living with cancer or a serious heart condition in three lines lines, 5, 7, 5, for a total of seventeen syllables.  If you’ve been reluctant to try writing poetry, haiku offers you a very simple, but powerful, way to begin.  You might find inspiration in some of the haiku previously posted in Pulse.

Interested in submitting your haiku?  Pulse:  Voices from the Heart of Medicine is seeking haiku submissions on the medical experience.  Here’s where to find their haiku guide:  https://pulsevoices.org/index.php/haiku-rules-of-the-road. You can submit up to three haiku for consideration.  Deadline is October 31st.   https://pulsevoices.org/index.php/category/haiku

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