Gospel Haiku

A few years ago, a Texas lawyer named Keith Jaasma gained some notoriety for his poetry. Mr. Jaasma would take U.S. Supreme Court opinions and boil them down to haiku compositions that summed up the gist of the holding. For example, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, he summarized the opinion in haiku form as follows:

Schools for black and white
Separate is not equal

I was charmed by Mr. Jaasma’s trick, and for a couple years now, I’ve been using it to help me break down things that are difficult to understand. The process of taking something complex and trying to pin down its core ideas in a 5-7-5 format can be a worthwhile challenge. Seventeen syllables are not nearly enough to capture all the nuances of a complex idea, and as you wrestle with that constricting form, you can’t help but analyze every part of whatever it is that you’re trying to “haikuify.” You think just as much about the parts that you are leaving out of the poem as the parts that you manage to fit in. And for the parts that you decide absolutely must fit into the poem, you find yourself grappling with different ways to express those parts. You search for shorter words that will substitute for the longer, fancier ones that you find in the text you are working with. You have to decide whether each line of the poem will express a separate part of the overall idea, or if you’re going to write one sentence or phrase that is broken up into three lines.

Beyond these challenges introduced by the rigor of the haiku format, writing in this way forces you to take a break from excessive qualification of our statements. Sometimes when I write, I load my sentences with so many qualifiers, exceptions, and asides that it seems like I’m not saying much of anything at all. Heck, the first few paragraphs of this post probably have too much of this sort of clutter. (This may be the result of my training as a lawyer, where I live in professional fear of having my words come back to haunt me.) But haiku doesn’t give you room for any of that. Once you have taken something long and complex and chopped and squeezed it into a haiku composition, you’ll look at it and see not just what it says, but everything it leaves out. This haiku will be “wrong” in a sense, because it’s incomplete, but in seeing how it is wrong, you will better understand the material from which it was formed.

Now, the idea of using haiku poetry in this way is far removed from the form’s roots in Japan. I am told by those who speak Japanese that coming up with rhyming couplets in that language is incredibly easy, so Japanese poetry has adopted forms that present other challenges to the poet, such as strictly limiting the line lengths and subject matter. Japanese haiku traditionally has  focused on nature, and each composition is expected to communicate the season in which it is set. A traditional haiku was expected to focus on concrete images from a specific, brief moment of observation. This form has yielded poems that are striking even when translated. Some are profound and some are quite funny. Here are a couple classics to give you a sense of what can be done with the form even when addressing a topic as mundane as insects:

A cicada shell
It sang itself
Utterly away

by Matsuo Basho

Even with insects—
Some can sing,
Some can’t

by Kobayashi Issa

Westerners have been taking this elegant poetry format and turning it to other purposes since at least the nineteenth century, breaking all its rules. It’s sort of like yoga in that way—used in ways and for purposes far different from those envisioned by its creators.

So, here’s the LDS tie-in: I suggest trying to haikuify a scripture, doctrine, or conference address. It’s probably not something you’ve tried in your gospel study routine before, and maybe it will yield some new insight for you. Here’s an example. Moses 1:39 is a scripture that many church members can recite from memory. Here is my attempt to put it in haiku form:

God’s work and glory:
Immortality of man
And eternal life

You’ll notice that I had to put “immortality” first in the poem to make the line lengths work. That led me to think about whether there’s significance to the order in which “immortality” and “eternal life” are listed in the verse. Also, I think about the part I left out—“bring to pass”—and how that phrase echoes the phrase “it came to pass” that we see throughout the scriptures. The haiku doesn’t offer any mind-shattering insights, but it got me thinking more about that verse than I had in a while.

I hope that this can serve as a technique you keep in your back pocket for times when you want to change up your personal or family study, or a class you’re teaching. I’d love to see your gospel haiku compositions in the comments, or your thoughts on similar techniques. Gospel limericks, perhaps?

15 comments for “Gospel Haiku

  1. Thanks for getting the juices flowing. Here’s one (be kind, I’m a haiku noob):

    God asks us to love.
    Love of friends is not the point:
    “Love your enemies.”

  2. Nathaniel: it only occurred to me recently that this haiku thing could apply to gospel study, which is why I’m interested in seeing what others do with it in that context.

    Hunter: I like it! And one nice thing about this format is that the basic rules are so simple that no one is really a haiku noob.

  3. The Good Samaritan

    He cared for the hurt:
    Immigrant, poor, the despised-
    Befriended their pain

  4. I really like this, Levi. Your description of how the restrictions of the format makes you think harder about the essence of the doctrine you’re trying to communicate reminds me of Jana Riess’s Twible, where she puts every chapter of the Bible into a Tweet.

    Here’s my attempt. I’m going the easy route by working with an idea that’s already expressed in a single short verse:

    Neither Jew nor Greek
    Not male nor female; All are
    One in Christ Jesus

  5. Behold, my first ever attempt at haiku:

    Peace unto thy soul
    The adversity shall pass
    Endure, God exalts

    (D&C 121 7-9)

  6. Amalickiah
    Tried his hardest to be king;
    Moroni said no.

    City of Enoch:
    We’re trying to figure out
    How to do the same.

  7. I’m a big fan of techniques that require us to see things anew. Here are my attempts:

    Dear Mother and Eve
    In Adam-Ondi-Ahman
    Our joint communion

    A God who begets,
    Whose hands plant and dung about,
    Is a God who weeps

  8. Revelation (from President Nelson’s latest talk):

    Revelation is
    Not just for things spiritual
    Life’s questions answered.

    Saving Ordinances Bring Marvelous Light

    Ordinances bring
    Marvelous light and protect
    From darkened world’s lies.

  9. Not haiku, but my teacher-aged son has taken to writing alliterative poetry, Viking style but modern English. His current project is transcribing the Gospels into this format. His work is sometimes awkward, sometimes profound. It seems that any structured writing forces you to really think about what you write in a different way, and insights acrue.

    Father and Mother
    We have Parents in Heaven
    Who love us forever

  10. Eric B is my Dad. I also wrote this, a haiku of haikues. That means it is 17 haikues divided into three sections. I call them the prolougue, body, and epilougue. The haikues go 5-7-5 in the sections. Here it is:


    Here is a king’s tale
    David would rule all Israel
    Jesus was his seed

    Samuel oiled saul
    Saul was somewhat a villain
    A new king was sought

    Bethlehem had one
    He was young and pure
    So there Samuel went

    Six wanting sons wrong
    One watching sheep would be king
    That was what was said.

    The musical boy
    Who watched over father’s sheep
    Was israel’s next judge.

    Three sons of Jesse
    To battle Israel then went
    Philistines would fall.

    A giant served them.
    Goliath of gath scared all
    Defying Israel.

    David came with food
    Finding brothers cowering
    He went to scared Saul.

    Saul gave large armor
    David had great courage then
    He took not of it.

    Only staff and sling
    With some stones he found he took
    Against the Giant.

    A stone to the head
    Knocked Goliath to the ground
    Where off went his head.

    David was hero
    He was still unknown to most
    Thus God showed his strength

    He would be a sword
    He would be a book of law
    He would be a king.

    Saul’s general great
    A warrior like no other
    He would soon rebel.

    Then he ruled Salem
    He stood against son’s revolt
    Great to God and man.

    Yet lust him knocked down
    He fell but gained a new heir
    Solomon was wise

    David’s seed saved
    Christ came from that crown’s children.
    God blessed him for good.

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