Haiku at Acadia: Finding Inspiration in Liminal Spaces
The haiku originated in 17th century Japan, and it has become the most popular poetry form in the world. However, this small and unassuming poem is sometimes misunderstood. Most of us were taught that haiku are brief poems of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. Today, many people have fun writing haiku that are basically prose sentences stuffed into three lines and seventeen syllables. Because of this, haiku are sometimes seen as lacking depth or artistic meaning. But haiku are so much more than that.
First of all, haiku do not have to be seventeen syllables long. Traditionally, haiku were written using a strict structure of seventeen Japanese sound units. But Japanese sound units are generally shorter than English language syllables. For instance, the word “haiku” consists of two syllables in English and three sound units in Japanese. Early translators of Japanese haiku into English used seventeen syllables, but often padded their translations with extra words to reach their syllable goal. Over the last several decades, most English-language haiku writers have come to believe that the essence of a haiku requires fewer than seventeen syllables.
There are several important elements of haiku that work together to help create power and resonance. Firstly, and most noticeably, the haiku is the briefest of forms. This concision is challenging—every word is precious—but also quite rewarding. Secondly, haiku are usually about specific moments in time, hence they’re written in the present tense. Thirdly, a haiku often contains a word or phrase called a kigo that denotes a particular season or time of year (e.g. “snow” for winter) to place the poem in the context of natural cycles. One of the most important elements of haiku is juxtaposition. Juxtaposition occurs when two sensory objects or experiences are presented to the reader in a haiku. The reader then finishes the poem by creating their own meaning and completing the metaphor. Finally, haiku use concrete, sensory experiences to allude to a deeper level of human emotion. An effective haiku is one which follows the writer’s dictum, “Show, don’t tell.”
Haiku have much to offer. They help us celebrate the extraordinary in the ordinary. They help us pay attention and they promote mindfulness. The haiku way of life can change the way we live and think. Because haiku beg us to slow down, to connect with nature, to observe, and to appreciate, I believe they provide an antidote to our modern day’s overly fast pace, consumerism, and self-absorption.
The haiku is the perfect poetic form for a writing residency in a National Park. Historically, the haiku is a nature poem. For over 400 years, haiku have been written in celebration of the natural world around us. Most haiku poets spend bountiful amounts of time walking through forests, past marshes, and along beaches, observing closely and staying open for inspiration. Thus, our National Parks are fertile and inspiring places for haiku poets.
Acadia National Park, specifically, is a perfect venue for writing haiku. As noted above, one of the major elements of haiku is the juxtaposition of two sensory experiences or objects. Many haiku are inspired by, and written about, the connections and interactions between organisms or entities. These interactions often happen in transition zones, places with fluid boundaries, or what we might call “liminal spaces.” The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word for threshold (limen). In architecture, liminal spaces are defined as "the physical spaces between one destination and the next," the spaces between states of being. Common examples of such spaces include hallways, airports, and streets. In nature, liminal spaces are places where habitats, ecosystems, or natural features meet, mesh, and co-exist. Thus, a spot lush with various species, natural features, or ecosystems can be quite inspirational to a haiku poet. For instance, edge habitats are the best places to look for birds. I find I write more haiku in heterogenous natural areas (e.g. where woods and meadow meet) than I do in homogenous areas (e.g. a pine forest). Acadia, with its beaches, rocky coasts, tidal pools, inlets, bays, coves, lakes, ponds, marshes, bogs, the only fjord on the Eastern coast, forests, meadows, mountains, and numerous rock formations, provided many opportunities for interaction and juxtaposition.
Because Acadia holds such a variety of habitats, it is the perfect place to study natural liminal spaces, for at least four different reasons. First of all, the most obvious and striking liminal space in Acadia is where land and sea meet. All kinds of actions and interactions happen there. With 64 miles of coastline, Acadia provides plenty of front-row seats to the show. In addition, the intertidal zone is quite dramatic, in part because of the Gulf of Maine’s unusually large tides (8-12 feet at Acadia). The more action, the more opportunities for haiku.
Acadia is also one of the most ecologically diverse national parks. It’s on the boundary of the northern boreal forest (red spruce, balsam fir, etc.) and the eastern deciduous forest (maples, oaks, etc.). That means that the park is biodiverse, especially for its small area of 48,000 acres. This threshold between ecosystems hosts a large variety of species providing a multitude of haiku moments to record. While hiking in Acadia, I wrote about conifers and deciduous trees, reindeer moss and beach pea, eiders and eagles, porcupines and porpoises.
About one-fifth of Acadia is wetlands: saltwater marsh, freshwater marsh, bog, and swamp. Wetlands act as liminal spaces in several ways. First of all, the name “wetlands” suggests the interaction between two elemental entities, water and land. In addition, these areas provide habitats for plants and animals from both land and water. The more species, the more opportunities for observing interactions.
Finally, as I mentioned, liminal spaces are about transitions. And transitions of weather and season often yield haiku moments. Downeast Maine and Acadia are no strangers to changing weather. For instance, I observed and wrote about numerous forms of fog from multiple coastlines and hills. Transitions from season to season are liminal as well. Therefore, I split up the two weeks of my residency to visit near the beginning and end of summer. I became acquainted with more species because I visited the park twice.
Acadia, the land of sunrise, fog, headlands, tidal pools, inlets, eagles, seals, cormorants, beach roses, pitcher plants, pink granite, and pounding surf, is the perfect liminal space and inspiration for haiku.
Arlington, Massachusetts, USA