From Then to Now: What Haiku Means to Me

by kala ramesh, february 2016

what is tradition, classicism?
something that is framed in time
like a movement long dead
or something that is …
something that pulsates with life

stagnant waters stink
but what about classical arts
of music, poetry and drama
forced to stay put in one place
do they not take the colours
of these stagnant, murky waters
reiterating what has been said
again and again and again
like a snake beaten and beaten to death

tradition is a flowing river
techniques are her banks
that hold and keep the art
and the creative spirit alive …
but ever expanding
        and unrestrained
like a meandering Ganga
to move at free will
to change course
to venture into unknown fields
and discover pastures anew
ever alive
ever challenging

I wrote these words before I came into haiku. When Don Baird asked me to lend my thoughts on “defining haiku,” I couldn’t but help quote this poem of mine again, for my ideas have not changed over the years when it comes to ways of keeping tradition and classical arts alive; and the 400-year-old art form called haiku falls into this category.

Last evening I was looking out from my balcony and saw a sparrow perch on a branch. All of a sudden, with a quick jerk, she ruffles her feathers and spreads out her wings – her bodyline on an upward curve, about to take off.

I noticed two parallel movements, two parallel thought processes that came together– and I instantly knew what was coming next!  This parallels the structure of haiku: two thoughts, two gestures, come together to fly beyond what lies on the page.

 The one ingredient that sets haiku apart is, in my opinion, the ‘cut’ (known as ‘kiru’ or ‘kire’ in the Japanese language), which both separates and connects two images. This one technique can make or break a haiku – and the pun is intentional, believe me!

Film directors, choreographers, and painters have created masterpieces using two juxtaposed images that come together as a whole to make sense. I teach haiku extensively in India, to school children, adults and senior citizens. During one of my haiku workshops in a school in Kashmir, another mentor, a well-known artist, made a memorable observation. He said many good paintings use the same technique we use in haiku. He said we use a static backdrop with action in the foreground. It is with this juxtaposition of two contrasting images – one static and the other moving – that a painting comes to life.  The Cut!

To make clearer this technique (the most important of many tools used when writing haiku), let me use Master Basho’s famous haiku:

an old pond  
a frog jumps in
the sound of water

•    L 1 - static
•    Ls 2 & 3 show movement, involving our senses.

Basho has said, ‘learn the rules, then break them’— learn the art of bringing this old art form to the present age.

Give it your voice.

Some haiku:

an ocean in a raindrop inside my womb a heart  
                                                                            Modern Haiku 43.3 Autumn 2012                                                     


Gita recital
as each stanza ends
the bell                                                                                                                 
                                                                             tinywords 13:3 February 2014

autumn leaves am I the one I am
                                                                             Is/let – August 2014

her plait in step with her hips a string of jasmine

                                                                            one-lines twos – a collaborative work with Marlene           
                                                                            Mountain, published by Bones, Jan 2016

incomplete being
     you and me
complete the city
                                                                            Roadrunner Haiku Journal – 13.2 August 2013

thunder coming downhill the sound of glass bangles
                                                                           Presence # 46 summer 2012

to the terrace
whistling :: breathless
the milky way
                                                                          Presence  # 42. September 2010

morning raga
yesterday’s buds
in full bloom
                                                                         Modern Haiku 42.2 summer 2011



Kala RameshKala Ramesh’s work comprising of haiku, senryu, tanka, kyoka, haibun and renku, are published in reputed journals and anthologies, both online and print editions in Japan, Europe, United Kingdom, Australia, United States of America and India.

Kala has been instrumental in bringing Indian school kids and college youth into haiku, senryu, tanka, haibun, tanka prose and renku. Indian classical music, being extempore in nature, has taught Kala to think within and without the box — to be creative, daring and innovative and still adhere to the demands of an art form. Her latest passion is to paint city walls with haiku, to weave in a pause, a breather into hectic lives. It can be viewed at. Kala is the originator of the shortest 8 verse renku, ‘Rasika’,

Kala has organised four Haiku Festivals in India in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2013.  Through her initiative, IN haiku was formed on 23rd February at the Haiku Utsav 2013 — to get Indian haiku poets under one umbrella to promote, enjoy and sink deeper into the beauty and intricacies of this art form.

Kala is chief haiku mentor for the Creative Writing Initiative of Katha and the Central Board of Secondary School [CBSE]. As an external faculty member, Kala teaches haiku, tanka, haibun, tanka prose, and renku – a 60 hour course at the Symbiosis International University.

Kala Ramesh’s haiku workshops and reading of her work in Literary Festivals:
Hyderabad Literary Festival – 2008, 2010 & 2013. Prakriti Poetry Festival Chennai – 2010 December. Pune Biennale – February 2013 & February 2015, Pune International Literary Festival (PILF) September 2013 and in September 2015, with an Australian poet Kathryn Hummel in “Crossing Poetic Genres”. Bookaroo Children’s Literary Festival – Oct 2012 in Delhi, May 2013 in Kashmir, Oct 2013 in Pune, Oct 2014 in Pune, and Dec 2015 in Goa. Katha Utsav, a Katha & CBSE Creative Writers Initiative – Dec 2012, Dec 2013, Dec 2014 and the up-coming one in December 2015, Gyaan Adab, Malhar Festival, on 18 July, 2015, Haiku North America 2015 Conference at Albany, NY on 15th Oct 2015, British Haiku Society’s Winter Gathering at the Conway Hall in London on Saturday 14th November, 2015,