The Honest Haiku of John Stevenson
by Catherine Hixson
When reading the haiku of author John Stevenson, it is necessary to take a critical view of life—the daily occurrences, memorable moments, and all the little nuances that make a person feel alive. Life, although it is not always happy or beautiful, is worth appreciating. The best way to truly appreciate being alive is by viewing life with an honest approach, and this honesty is something that John Stevenson strives to maintain in each and every one of his haiku. Whether it is a discussion of his relationships, a commentary on death or sickness, or an observation of the changing seasons, Stevenson writes with absolute honesty. He does not attempt to beautify moments that are not beautiful, and in doing so, he creates poetry that is relatable and true.
For example, he writes:
John Stevenson, Some of the Silence
This is an example of one of his extremely relatable yet brutally honest haiku. Divorce is such a common occurrence that many people can relate to it. Oftentimes, children suffer the negative side effects of divorce, and in this haiku the joy a child should feel on Christmas Day is diminished by the disappointment of having to say goodbye to one parent. It is a depressing yet truthful haiku because so many children experience this same event. His sudden shift from the first two lines which could be describing the joy and happiness of exchanging presents on Christmas Day to the disappointment of the custody exchange allows him to honestly describe how a child in this situation might feel. At first, the child might be able to put all thoughts of divorce out of his/her mind just in the moment of excitement when unwrapping a Christmas gift, but the disappointment will suddenly come flooding back, just as it does in Stevenson's shift in tone, when the gift exchange is over.
Occasionally, Stevenson includes a sense of bitterness or sarcasm in his haiku. Even these moments are honest expressions of his true feelings. Whereas most of his haiku are truthful observations of life in general, these rather sarcastic ones allow a reader to put themselves in Stevenson's shoes. This occasional connection between reader and author allows readers to appreciate all of Stevenson's other haiku on a deeper level. They now understand his sense of humor, and they can take a guess at what his feelings might be when experiencing the aspects of life he writes about in his other haiku. It makes the simply honest observations more personal for the reader because they can almost feel that they know Stevenson personally.
For example, Stevenson writes:
we might as well build
a sand castle
John Stevenson, Live Again, 16
Many of Stevenson's readers have traveled to a beach at some point in their lives, and even if they have not, they can at least imagine what it might be like. They know this feeling of wanting to be able to have a good time and create special memories but just feeling so tired or dead to the world that anything they do seems forced. Clearly, this haiku is a rather sarcastic one that describes this feeling. Readers can imagine that Stevenson has traveled miles with his family to get to the beach. Perhaps his family has been arguing because they have been in each other's company for so long, or perhaps they are simply tired from the journey. They finally arrive at the beach, and they feel this requirement of having a good time in order to create lasting memories or to please the camera. Everything they do, however, is forced, and their special memories are faked. Because Stevenson writes this haiku with more sarcasm and bitterness, readers can clearly hear his voice coming through. The relatability of this situation allows readers to enjoy his sarcasm and create a more personal connection with him because the haiku itself is almost like an inside joke
Additionally, Stevenson permits honesty to seep into the literal format of his haiku. Besides the truthfulness that can be found in the actual content, the layout of his haiku is free and easy. He does not attempt to follow any specific format. For example, a reader might notice that some of Stevenson's haiku have been added to and are five lines rather than the typical three. Some of his haiku are as short as one word packed with a great deal of meaning. Some are spread out over a page in a way that makes a reader work to discover what his intentions were when he originally wrote the haiku. Stevenson simply allows himself to write what he honestly feels without attempting to comply with a prearranged form. He allows his observations, his feelings, and his honesty to determine the organization of his haiku. Simply from the arrangement of the lines on the page, a reader can see that Stevenson's haiku are not forced. Thus when in the actual content of his haiku, Stevenson writes about truth, the arrangement of his haiku only support his honesty and the freedom he permits himself when writing.
Several of Stevenson's haiku perfectly exemplify this freedom of form. One is as follows:
John Stevenson, quiet enough
In this example, he allowed the words to freely flow onto the page. His lack of any spaces between words makes the haiku seem cramped which only adds to the actual image he is creating. He allowed himself, when writing this, to feel the stress and the claustrophobia of this rather common situation not only through the words he chose but also by the physical layout of the haiku. It is as though each word represents a person on the elevator he is describing and, like the words he put on the paper, they have no choice but to stand shoulder to shoulder.
Another example of his freedom of form is:
on top of everything
John Stevenson, quiet enough
In this haiku, he allowed the format to create itself based on the honest feelings associated with this haiku. There is that slight disconnect that a person feels after a bad, hectic day when they believe that their day just cannot get any worse, and then it does. It takes a moment to reach the word "rain" when reading this haiku because it is slightly separated from the first line. This creates that exaggerated pause where the reader might think, even for only one second, which the haiku is over. Stevenson allows the format of his haiku to speak for itself as much as the content of his haiku speak for themselves through their absolute honesty.
Readers of John Stevenson's haiku can say that he uses simple honesty in haiku to provide himself with an outlet for appreciating life. Sometimes, it takes only the smallest moment to make a person feel truly alive—a moment that shows someone that they are, in fact, human. These moments are not always beautiful moments, and Stevenson addresses that point in his haiku. There are moments of pain in a person's life, but it is that pain that allows a person to recognize that they can feel, therefore they are alive. It would seem that Stevenson's purpose in writing his haiku is to feel alive himself and to allow his readers to feel the same.
In the following haiku, Stevenson describes those simple moments of pain that make a person feel alive. He writes:
takes off his glasses . . .
cold for May
John Stevenson, Live Again, 28
This image is upsetting because of its clarity. He makes his readers feel all the emotion of this one simple moment by creating a vivid image that even those readers who have not experienced this exact situation can relate to. It would seem that he is describing an instance when he went to his doctor for what he hoped was something minor, but he could tell, just from his doctor taking off his glasses, that something was wrong. It is such a simple action, but it is an action that implies so much. Often, glasses wearers may remove their glasses if they feel stressed or tired in order to rub their eyes or their temples. Because this simple action occurs so often in negative situations, people tend to associate it with stress or sadness. It is meant to convey a certain feeling of seriousness. Readers can appreciate how Stevenson's last line transitions the haiku from describing the scene itself to describing his personal feelings. All of a sudden, he is cold. It is a powerful last line that makes the reader feel for the author. He first creates a clear image and then allows his readers to make a personal connection with him or with the overall pain of the situation.
Another example of this honest pain expressed in the simplest way is as follows:
John Stevenson, Live Again, 56
Here Stevenson presents a clear voice that, again, makes the reader feel for him or feel the pain of the situation for themselves. Perhaps he is attending, in this haiku, some sort of Memorial Day service. The man or woman leading the service might ask the audience to take a moment to remember those who have died in the past. At that moment, he murmurs under his breath the last two lines of this haiku, "some losses/are recent." These two lines create a feeling of bitterness and of great sadness. Memorial Day is a chance to honor those who have died, but when the loss is more recent, it just makes it more difficult to forget. The simple scene Stevenson sets in this haiku is complemented by the deep sadness he expresses. Often, the saddest, simplest moments are the clearest because they are the most truthful.
John Stevenson's often depressing, occasionally sarcastic, haiku can be compared to the haiku of George Swede who also likes to take an honest look at life. For instance:
the beetle I righted
flies straight into
George Swede, Almost Unseen, 24
a sparrow flies
into the room
John Stevenson, Quiet Enough
These two haiku, the first by George Swede and the second by John Stevenson, are very similar in that they are both describing simple, honest moments but at the same time they are implying a bit of sarcasm. In fact, the first one, by George Swede, includes a little less sarcasm than most of his haiku, but it is this subtler use of sarcasm that makes it so similar to the haiku written by John Stevenson. Both Swede and Stevenson are describing some sort of human relationship with other living creatures. Swede describes the care he took to help a creature as lowly as a beetle, and Stevenson makes the connection between the swallow and the drama class.
Readers of both of these haiku have to think to understand the sarcasm that each of the authors implies because it is not obvious. Swede writes about taking a moment to help a rather insignificant creature and the result of his efforts when the beetle flies straight into a cobweb. By cutting off his haiku right after explaining the beetle's actions, he emphasizes how suddenly his attempts to help a creature were spoiled. A reader can only imagine that this suddenness made Swede somewhat bitter, thus his description of this situation can be interpreted as sarcastic. Stevenson also includes slight hints of sarcasm in his haiku about the sparrow, and, just like Swede, it is his honest description of the situation that makes it amusing. The haiku encourages readers to wonder what the students in the class would do in this scenario. It is almost as though Stevenson is poking fun at the drama students by implying that they would be overly dramatic if a bird really did fly into the room. But, in making fun of them, he is just expressing his own honest opinion, and that is what makes it interesting.
Besides the similarity George Swede and John Stevenson possess in their use of sarcasm in haiku, they are also similar in their basic truthfulness. Although George Swede prefers to make truthful observations about the darker side of life whereas Stevenson can write honestly about both the good and the bad, the basic idea of both of their haiku is to allow what they observe to dictate what they write.
dead roadside deer
a snowflake melts
on its open eye
George Swede, Almost Unseen, 105
into the shape
of the ditch
John Stevenson, Some of the Silence
Both of these haiku are describing a dear that has died on the side of the road, an image that people often retreat from but that these two authors approach with utter honesty. Swede observes a deer on the side of the road with a light snow slowly falling, and Stevenson observes, through the use of his word "nestled," that the dead deer looks as though it could be sleeping. Many people would prefer to write about more beautiful moments than this; however, it is the head-on approach that both Swede and Stevenson take with their haiku that make them so intriguing.
In all of his haiku, John Stevenson allows the truth to dictate what and how he writes. As a well-known haiku author, Stevenson may have gained a wide following of readers due to his willingness to embrace life as it comes. He is observant, and he uses this skill to tell stories in only three lines. The clear images he develops, the layout of his haiku and his books, and the simplicity in the words he utilizes all allow him to convey a message full of an intriguing honesty. In one of his simplest haiku, he writes:
sparrows sift through
the shopping carts
John Stevenson, Live Again, 23
He allows himself to write exactly what he sees, but he paints, at the same time, a vivid picture that allows his readers to make a personal connection. It would be easy to imagine an abandoned parking lot in the evening with sparrows hopping around on the shopping carts. It is a lonely scene, yet, with the somewhat silly image he creates of tiny sparrows hopping around, he still permits hope to be expressed. If he did not, it would be as though he were telling a lie by not allowing what he truly observes to come through in his haiku. In all of his books, John Stevenson remains true to his style of honesty that is so refreshing, original, and intriguing.
Stevenson, John. Live Again. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2009. Print.
Stevenson, John. Quiet Enough. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2004. Print.
Stevenson, John. Some of the Silence. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 1999. Print.
Swede, George. Almost Unseen: Selected Haiku of George Swede. Decatur, IL: Brooks Books, 2000. Print.