John Stevenson's Haiku
by Jessica Villarreal
John Stevenson is a highly esteemed American writer in the haiku community who has been writing haiku since 1992. He is one of my favorite haiku authors. The thing that drew me to Stevenson’s haiku the first time I read it was its elegant, simplistic style. He writes haiku in a very clear, straightforward manner that is easy to understand and be drawn into. He doesn’t fill them with excessive words or haiku clichés, and he doesn’t put too much detail into each haiku. Yet at the same time, his haiku are not too bare or ambiguous. He uses the exact number of words necessary to provide a haiku that is open enough for the reader to interpret in a number of individual ways, but focused enough so as to make sense.
I also love Stevenson’s haiku because of the subjects he writes about. His haiku all reflect the ordinary without being dull. Stevenson captures the beauty and emotion in the most plain, everyday objects and experiences with every haiku he writes. His haiku make me see things I would otherwise overlook or deem unimportant in a new light. Many of Stevenson’s haiku are all very personal. They reflect the various aspects of his life and mirror his life’s journey. Many of them have to do with his son or his divorce with his wife, and still others have to do with such small moments as worn out slippers and pool toys being blown by the wind.
Stevenson’s first full-length publication of haiku is titled Some of the Silence and was published in 1999. It contains a large variety of haiku and is sprinkled with a few haibun throughout. It captured my attention right as I began reading. One of the very first haiku in it has become one of my personal favorites, not just from Stevenson’s works but from all of the haiku I have read.
all those haiku
about the moon in the trees
the moon in the trees
Stevenson, SOTS, 7
When I read this haiku I pictured Stevenson going for a leisurely moonlight stroll some warm summer evening. As he is walking he is thinking of ideas for haiku. He happens to look up and see beams of moonlight shining down through some tree branches, and the line “the moon in the trees” comes to mind. Stevenson doesn’t want to use this for a serious haiku though. Rather, he immediately thinks of how cliché the particular phrase is, and ends up writing a haiku about that. The haiku almost made me laugh the first time I read it because the tone is humorous and almost even mocking. There are so many haiku that lack creativity and originality. “The moon in the trees” and other similar phrases have become so overused that they have lost their significance. When I come across those types of haiku I find them dull and uninspiring. I grow tired of reading haiku with the same bland kigo. They never mean much to me because there is nothing in them to capture my attention and make me stop and think. Stevenson has really captured this feeling in his haiku. He has a clear understanding of what will interest a reader and what will turn them away yawning, and utilizes that understanding in every haiku that he writes.
Another haiku from Some of the Silence that I really liked can be found on page 15.
border of sleep
the sound of nearby breathing
. . . mine
Stevenson, SOTS, 15
I really love the moment that this haiku captures. Everyone has had this experience. As you are laying in bed, drifting off into sleep, you suddenly become aware of your own breathing, your own presence. This haiku gives me a sense of calmness and security. I find it comforting to hear the sound of my own breathing when I am falling asleep.
I really like the way that Stevenson words this haiku. The second line “the sound of nearby breathing” gives the reader the implication that the subject of the haiku is not alone. When I first read it, I imagined that the person in the haiku was listening to the quiet breathing of their spouse next to them. But then the last line “…mine” surprised me. Immediately the story twists, and the person in the haiku is all alone. In some ways the fact that Stevenson described his own breathing as “nearby” makes me think that he also finds comfort in his own breathing, and is content even though he is alone. However, after I thought about it more, I began to interpret the haiku in another way. Stevenson was once married, but then he and his wife got a divorce. I imagine this haiku being written around the time of their divorce, when they have stopped sharing a bed together. For the first time in a long time, Stevenson is hearing breathing that isn’t his wife’s, but his own. This interpretation gives the haiku more of a lonely feeling.
Stevenson’s haiku are filled with a wide variety of emotions, and not all of them are happy. One of his haiku that stood out to me was the following:
a tissue box beside
the pay phone
Stevenson, SOTS, 39
This haiku is filled with feelings of anxiety. When I read it I imagine two parents who have a child in the hospital who is in critical condition. Hope seems grim, and there is a possibility that the child won’t make it out of the ICU. The parents are exhausted with worry. For the past several hours they have only had the strength to sit silently and pray. The hospital room is empty and cold. The only sounds are the buzz of the harsh fluorescent lighting and the dripping of the IV. Finally it gets to the point where the parents have to go home for the night. As they are leaving they notice a pay phone. Next to it, on a small table, is a box of tissue by a waste basket. The sight is almost painful. Too many people have been in this hospital before and have used that phone while crying. Tissues have been pulled from that very box to wipe tears. They hope that they won’t have to take the next one. In Some of the Silence Stevenson also writes about a little girl named Seneca who is in the hospital, presumably battling cancer. I imagine that this haiku is about her, and the struggle that she and her family were going through.
In 2004 Stevenson published another full-length work of haiku, Quiet Enough. Stevenson maintained his style of plain, expertly-written haiku. Several of my favorite haiku of Stevenson’s are in this book, which does not contain page numbers. This following haiku is one that particularly stood out to me when I read it, and remains one of my favorites.
just so high
This haiku gives me such a wonderful feeling when I read it. Stevenson doesn’t use many words, but he still manages captures a wonderfully aesthetic experience. I love how it starts out with green grass. Immediately the haiku surrounds the reader with the beauty of nature. I can see and smell and feel the grass, and I imagine it extending on and on through rolling hills. Specifically this haiku makes me think of warm spring days spent at school. I pictured myself lying out in the quad with one of my friends. The weather hadn’t been the nicest lately but today the sun is smiling down on the earth and the air is the perfect temperature. The grass is the greenest I’ve ever seen it and the sky is an amazing shade of blue. There are big fluffy clouds in the sky, and I watch them to see what shapes I can find. Then I close my eyes and breathe in the wonderful scent of spring. I can feel warm sunlight on my face. Today is one of those days where everything seems perfect, and I am convinced that all of my problems are going to work out for the best. They don’t even seem to matter anymore. I feel so s that the weather is going to stay lovely, and that my life is going to be wonderful soon too. School is almost over, and pretty soon it will be summer and life will be a lot less hectic and stressful. As I look up at the sky, I think “My hopes are higher.”
sometimes you can’t be
This is one of Stevenson’s more somber haiku in Quiet Enough. It is also the haiku that his book is named after. I imagine Stevenson and his soon to be ex-wife up arguing late one winter night. They are trying to be quiet because their son is sleeping, and they don’t want to worry or disturb him. However, despite their efforts, they are not quiet enough. Their son hears them and is upset about the fighting. I can hear him the next morning asking “Daddy, why were you and mommy fighting?” The moment is a very sad one for Stevenson because he doesn’t want to hurt his son with the fighting.
a sparrow flies
into the room
This haiku is one of Stevenson’s less serious ones. It creates a funny picture. Most people have experienced the sheer chaos that occurs from a bird or other small animal finding its way indoors at one point or another. Some people run around screaming in melodrama, others may chase the animal around with a broom or some other household object, trying to get it back outside where it belongs, and still others stand back and do nothing but laugh at the scene in front of them. Not many events bring as much drama to a group of people as a sparrow flying into the room. As I read this haiku I keep thinking of more and more ways to interpret it. First I imagined the most straightforward response of a sparrow flying into an acting class of some sort, creating even more drama than was already there. The students, being drama students, do not hold back in expressing their shock at the presence of this bird indoors. Then part of me imagined that there was no sparrow in the room at all. This is just a drama exercise, and the students are doing very well reacting to the imaginary bird convincingly. There is also another part of me that imagines a normal classroom that has turned into a very dramatic classroom with the presence of the bird. The actions of the students are not unlike those practicing acting. This haiku does an excellent job demonstrating how flexible all of Stevenson’s haiku are, and how his cleverness in word choice can lead them to be interpreted in many different ways.
I love the fun, unique style of this haiku. It is unlike any of the other haiku that Stevenson has written. Instead of being a typical three line haiku, it is only one. I love that the words are all packed closely together like people in an elevator. It illustrates a feeling of claustrophobia. Stevenson is wedged uncomfortably between two strangers in this tiny elevator. I imagine there being a lot of floors in the building. All of the buttons are pushed, and Stevenson’s floor is at the top of the building. He’s only in the elevator for a couple minutes, but it feels like an eternity.
Since Stevenson’s haiku cover a vast number of subjects and are so easy to relate to, I found that several of them made good matching pairs with haiku from other authors.
none of the students
has failed . . .
the third-grade classroom
one desk short
Peggy Lyles, To Hear The Rain, 30
These two haiku fit together so well in my mind, but both tell a tragic story. At first glance when I read Stevenson’s haiku I wasn’t really sure what he meant by saying “none of the students has failed…” Maybe it was a good thing that they had all moved on to the next grade. However, my mind stayed on that lingering pause at the end. Then I imagined a tragic scene. I imagined a small school, with one class per grade. It’s the first day of school. Everyone is back from last year…except for one person. The way the haiku trails off at the end made me think that a student had died over the summer, maybe in a car accident or something equally unexpected. The class is somber as they come back for another school year without their classmate.
In Peggy Lyle’s haiku, I initially had a completely different picture in my head when I read it. I imagined a young third grader who is the last to arrive in class. When she gets there she’s horrified to discover that all of the desks are taken, so she is forced to stand there very awkwardly with the rest of the class staring at her while the teacher finds a desk for her to sit in. Her cheeks are red and warm from embarrassment. However, once I read Stevenson’s haiku, I thought back to this one with a different image in mind. I imagined that the third grade classroom was missing a desk because one student would not be moving on to the third grade this year. None of the students has failed…
I also matched up one of Stevenson’s much less depressing haiku with a haiku by William J. Higginson, which I found in The Haiku Anthology, edited by Cor van den Heuvel.
the tea water
Higginson, THA, 77
a third cup of tea
from the same bag
Stevenson, SOTS, 6
Both of these haiku are very similar. They both portray a haiku author who loves to drink tea while he writes. In the first one the writer is so busy writing new haiku that he has forgotten about the boiling tea water entirely. In the second he is drinking cup after cup of the same flavor of tea as he revises poetry that he has already written. Both Higginson and Stevenson have written these haiku in a similar style. In both of them the first line of each introduces the writer, the second line the tea, and the third line has the surprise element.
John Stevenson is and will always be one of my favorite haiku poets. His simple writing style complements the essence of a good haiku. His attention and appreciation for the small things in life is something that a lot of poets carelessly overlook. These things make it easy for his readers to understand and relate to his work. His contribution to the haiku community is something to be treasured.
Heuvel, Cor Van Den. The Haiku Anthology. 3rd Ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Co. 1999.
Lyles, Peggy. To Hear the Rain. Decatur: Brooks Books. 2002.
Stevenson, John. Quiet Enough. Winchester: Red Moon Press. 2004.
Stevenson, John. Some of the Silence. Winchester: Red Moon Press. 1999.
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