Simplicity and Awareness
in the Poetry of Elizabeth Searle Lamb
Poetry is a language that transcends culture, time, and life experience, as the words and stories on the page intimately speak to their reader. Haiku is a special form of poetry that not only communicates to diverse audiences with unique backgrounds, but also allows each reader to share imaginative, personal moments with the author, as he or she paints vivid images of time, place, and detail. One of the most influential voices in the haiku community was that of haiku poet, Elizabeth Searle Lamb. In the preface of Lamb's haiku collection, Across the Windharp, Miriam Sagan explains that Lamb's poetry serves as an "emotional memory device" for each poem's reader (Lamb 16). The emotion and memory woven into Lamb's poetry, along with her respect for haiku tradition and fearless approach to whimsy, played a vital role in her success in literary arts (Lamb 10). For five decades, Elizabeth Searle Lamb was a highly respected haiku poet, collector, historian, and editor in American haiku, and her work continues to resonate with readers today (Lamb 12).
Elizabeth Searle Lamb was born in 1917 in Topeka, Kansas (Lamb 13). From a young age, Lamb had an affinity for words. Her book describes, "...as a prekindergartener Lamb lay on the floor picking out words she could recognize from the newspaper and circling them in an attempt to learn to read (Lamb 14)." This love for words would shape her future in literature. In addition to reading, Lamb was also passionate about music, learning the harp from a young age and later attending the University of Kansas to study music (Lamb 14). There, she met her husband Bruce, and upon graduation, Bruce joined the Army Corp of Engineers, which provided the couple the opportunity to travel the world for Bruce's career (Lamb 14). Together, the couple lived simply in small, quirky homes around the world, where Elizabeth developed a keen perception and emotional connection to the world surrounding her. Lamb's love of language, music, and nature helped define her career as a poet.
As I began reading Lamb's poetry, I was drawn to her writing technique and haiku content. Her approach to poetry reflects the contentment and joy she found in the simplicity of life and exemplifies her ability to be present and aware in the moments she experienced. This ability enabled her to craft sensory images that allow readers the enter each moment alongside her. The following analysis of Lamb's work will focus on her appreciation for simplicity and sense of awareness in each moment she describes in the haiku featured in her collection, Across the Windharp.
too early awake
but this mocking bird
(Lamb, ATW, 23)
Lamb's collection opens with this haiku, which allows readers to immediately sense the awareness she has in her experienced moments. While reading this haiku, I imagine Lamb, half
awake and still groggy from an early rise. The air is still chilly, and the sky is still dark. A full moon lingers in the sky, so large and bright that its light enters through the windows and floods the small house before sunrise. Everything is silent.
In a moment where most people would be distracted by morning coffee or even sitting with their eyes still closed, Lamb stops to take in the moment. She is suddenly aware of the of the birds singing in the dark and the moon hanging in the sky. The feeling of irritability from waking up too early leaves, as readers imagine the second line and continue into the third line. As the tone of the haiku changes, readers are left feeling Lamb's sense of joy and contentment with the simple beauty of nature surrounding her. Her writing technique for this haiku has no extra frills, as she only includes critical detail and leaves plenty of room for pause and reflection. The simplicity of her approach enhances the sense of contentment that readers feel.
half way up the stair—
(Lamb, ATW, 30)
This haiku is another piece of poetry that showcases Lamb's awareness and eye for detail in each moment. The structure of the haiku builds anticipation, as readers hang on the single word "pausing" in the first line. After reading through the second line, readers get an imaginative image of movement, as they travel up the stairs with Lamb. Finally, the em dash encourages readers to stop and take in the moment with her. I imagine Lamb catching a glimpse of the chrysanthemums out of the corner of her eye, then stopping to enjoy their beauty. When reading this haiku, you can sense that Lamb is in no hurry. Through her writing approach, she allows readers to enter the moment with her and to take time to pay attention to the things that we would typically hurry past. In this haiku, Lamb takes even more time for pause and reflection. Readers are almost snapped from their busy thoughts to the simplicity of the moment that Lamb is describing.
on the balcony
(Lamb, ATW, 31)
Readers catch a glimpse of Lamb's confidence in haiku experimentation while reading this piece. The addition of extra letters in the word "shivering" paints a distinct picture for readers, and it
almost allows readers to feel the cold temperature of the air. The creative use of words, used to depict distinct images in this haiku, exemplifies Lamb's skill in writing sensoryrich poetry. After feeling the coldness of the air, readers can place themselves on the dark balcony with Lamb, as she watches the stars. While reading it, we can smell the crisp air and feel the sting of the cold as enters and exits ours lungs. Readers further experience the sensory pieces of the haiku, as we feel our muscles tense with each shiver and watch white clouds form in front of our faces as we exhale into the cold air. Though the cold air leaves Lamb and her readers feeling slightly uncomfortable, we are filled with contentment, as we gaze into the starry night sky. This haiku is an example of the joy and connection that Lamb felt with nature. On a cold night, when most people would retreat to the house for shelter and warmth, Lamb ignores the cold to take in the beauty of the winter sky.
across the black sky
the constellations dimming:
the moon, its fullness
(Lamb, ATW, 35)
Illustrating her love for the simple beauty of nature, Lamb includes another haiku about the night sky. This time, her word choice and tone suggests that she is awed by the image that she sees. The use of the word "across" creates an image of a dark night sky that stretches for miles and miles. I imagine that the vast night sky fills Lamb with wonder. After the second line, readers are left questioning why the constellations are dimming. Was it a cloudy night? Was a storm rolling in? Finally, the haiku drives home a sense of awe and wonder, as Lamb directs the focus to the moon. I imagine that the moon is several times its typical size and glowing bright, like a harvest moon. Readers realize the stars in the sky only seem dim because the moon's light is so powerful.
Lamb's decision to include the second line shows her awareness for detail in the moment. Many people would only focus on the details of the moon, since it is clearly the focal point of the scene and the haiku. Lamb, however, notices the fine detail happening in the background and attaches descriptive words to it that allow readers to focus on it as well. Readers become so focused on the dark sky, dimming stars, and glowing moon, that nothing but silence is left. This haiku is simple and evokes a feeling of peace within readers. I believe the peace and contentment that Lamb shares in this haiku stems from the association she makes between this night sky and the midwestern night skies that she remembers from childhood.
a young girl
playing on a flute . . .
(Lamb, ATW, 42)
Like much of Lamb's work, this haiku spotlights her passion for music. As a professionally trained harpist, a significant part of Lamb's life revolved around music, and her work reflects the joy she found in her hobby. Though many of her haikus focus on her own instrument and practice, this haiku stands out because her focus is external. By this time in her life, Lamb is sixty years old. I imagine the grayhaired lady, captivated by the music of a girl many years younger than her. The use of three periods before the word "watching" helps readers realize that Lamb is locked in to the moment. Once again, I think the haiku stirs emotion associated with her childhood, as Lamb watches the passionate, young musician and sees a reflection of the girl she once was.
Readers can feel the concentration that Lamb keeps, as she watches the young flutist. Her writing approach encourages readers to focus too, as she draws them in to the moment. This haiku is a strong illustration of Lamb's appreciation for simplicity. She makes no mention of scenery, background images, or fine detail, which I believe was an extremely intentional artistic decision made by Lamb. By only including the two activities of playing and watching in the haiku, Lamb emphasizes that the only important thing occurring in that moment is the music.
the first pink peony from
her Kansas hilltop
(Lamb, ATW, 46)
Most of Lamb's haiku features moments experienced firsthand by Lamb throughout her life. Though many of the topics focus on lighthearted subjects like nature and music, Lamb was very transparent when addressing heavier topics, like the illness and death of her mother, Helen. This haiku, originally from the chapbook, Lines for My Mother, Dying, connect readers to her work on a deeper level, as she allows us to enter some of her hardest, most painful moments. Readers are filled with bittersweet emotion, as Lamb paints a picture of entering her mother's hospital room and handing her the first peony of the season, freshly picked from the garden her lifelong home. From the hospital bed, Lamb's mother gets to smell, see, and touch the flower from a garden that she will never see again. I think the fresh picked flower symbolizes the beauty captured in an ephemeral moment, which Lamb wrote about often. The flower and mother may evoke feelings of life and joy for a short time, but both will reach the end of life soon. The use of the phrase "Kansas hilltop" in the third line allows the reader's thought to expand out from the inside of the hospital room to a house sitting atop a hill found in the middle of a plain. Not only does the scene expand, but we are also moved back in time, as we start to envision her mother's life when she was young and healthy enough to plant pink peonies. Her simple approach to writing this haiku encourages readers to fill in the detail for themselves. Opposite of most of her haiku, readers become aware of the detail in the moment without her prompt.
a new hearing aid:
adjusting it, she tunes in
(Lamb, ATW, 60)
Emphasizing both her joy for the simple things and her awareness of detail in life moments, this haiku is a lighthearted, playful haiku from Lamb's later years of poetry. One can imagine the now aged Lamb, placing a new hearing aid in her ear for the first time. As she adjusts the device's settings, she regains her hearing ability. In typical Lamb fashion, she does not choose to tune her device to hear something superficial, like the sound of a television. Showing us her passion for nature again, she tunes her hearing aid to hear the sound of crickets.
Sounds of nature are often ignored by those with even the sharpest hearing. Many times, people move through their day, too distracted to notice the whisper of nature around them. Lamb shows readers her relationship with nature, as readers see her choice to hear crickets as her very first sound. Readers can sense the joy she feels to not only hear again, but to reconnect with the world around her, the way she had as a younger woman.
watching her fingers
folding the tiny cranes
(Lamb, ATW, 103)
While Lamb's writing approach can be easily identified in the majority of her work, some poetry pieces capture her technique so well that readers are able to see the world through the eyes of Elizabeth Searle Lamb. This haiku has that effect. Rather than starting with a broad, opening line like many haikus do, Lamb immediately draws the readers in closely, as the focus moves right to the woman's hands. Readers are so concentrated in the moment, that the end of the first line leaves them waiting for more. While reading the second line, readers can almost see the detail in the origami, noticing every crisp fold in the paper. I imagine the women, probably an expert in paper art, manipulating the paper with ease. Lamb encourages the reader to become so engrossed in the moment that they are not even aware of their surroundings. While reading the
first two lines, I hung on the image of the origami folding process so long that I did not immediately desire more detail about the scene. I believe that this is exactly how Lamb looked at the world.
In the third line, she finally provides information that reveals the setting to her readers. The focus of the haiku is immediately widened, as readers begin imagining the detail of the renku party. Until the third line, both Lamb and her readers were so focused on the fine detail of the moment that the bigger picture was less important. Whether it be in nature, music, or everyday routine, Lamb seemed to look at the world in a unique way. Fine detail and simplicity of life received so much of her attention, that she found beauty and joy in things that the typical person would find mundane or unnoticeable.
With a unique perspective on life and a deep emotional connection the the world around her, Elizabeth Searle Lamb's poetry speaks to readers from all walks of life. Lamb's appreciation for the simplicity of life and awareness of detail in ephemeral moments enabled her to craft intimate, relatable poetry for her readers. Her artistic approach to language and eye for fine detail allows her haiku to produce realistic images for readers still today. Just as she once hoped, Lamb's poetry is powerful enough to evoke emotional responses and vivid memories in readers, as they leave the world for a moment and escape to an imaginative place where her poetry comes alive.
Lamb, E. (1999). Across the Windharp: Collected & New haiku (M. Sagan, Ed.). Albuquerque, N.M.: La Alameda Press.