From Poetry to Prose: A Tiny Bowl of Twigs Long Abandoned

January 15, 2020 § 13 Comments

Sheila and Pups-1By Sheila McEntee

Though I am an essayist, not a poet, I recently discovered that esteemed poet Billy Collins and I have much in common. For one, we both love words. For another, we are fellow alums of Holy Cross, a small, Jesuit, liberal arts college in Worcester, Massachusetts. Third (and coolest of all), we both write haikus while walking our dogs. For Billy, it is a practical way to practice his art. For me, it is an avenue to awareness and to deepening my prose.

I’ve never met Billy Collins, but I know about his poetic promenades because he mentions them in his introduction to Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years. Billy says he first discovered haiku in high school, when he was just beginning to explore Beat literature and Zen sensibilities. He dabbled a bit but then gave it up, considering his works “unwitting travesties to the ancient and honorable tradition.”

Decades later, he rediscovered the form after he rescued a dog from the local animal shelter. A mixed-breed female, he named her Jeannine, after a Cannonball Adderley tune. Billy and Jeannine take long, daily walks around a reservoir, she sniffing and he counting syllables on his fingers. He tries to return home each day with a new haiku.

“I like to think of the haiku as a moment-smashing device out of which arise powerful moments of dazzling awareness,” Billy writes. “But I also like to think of it as something to do while walking the dog.”

I was both affirmed and delighted when I read about Billy’s haiku dog walking, for I had begun the same practice some months before. My loyal companions, Murphy and Missy, and I log many miles together, walking in our densely residential neighborhood. The dogs never fail to find fascinating scents, while I muse on countless haiku-worthy subjects, some of which find their way into my prose. Like Billy, I stick to the 5-7-5 syllable structure, counting them out on my fingers.

Most mornings, it is all too clear that the pups and I have different agendas:

Brisk walk or sniffing
expedition? Ever a

Here’s one from a walk in deep summer, when I thrilled to the light, lilting flute song of my favorite bird. The wood thrush and its captivating voice have appeared in my nature writing time and again:

July morning, baked
air too thick to breathe, and yet,
a wood thrush singing

Here is a lonely image I discovered on a recent winter walk:

At the tips of bare
branches, a tiny bowl of
twigs long abandoned

When I attempt a haiku while walking with Murphy and Missy, I begin my day with a small stab at creativity. I like the idea of preserving an image, a moment, that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. I also like being fully present to something.  As Billy says, a haiku declares “that someone was present—actually there, living and breathing—at that particular intersection of sight and sound.”

The gentle gathering of ordinary moments is important to me as a writer. It keeps my mind stoked and attuned to the world around me. It also gives me a feeling of accomplishment. I sometimes think, “If I write nothing else today, I have recorded this.” My haiku collection has since become a sort of poetic diary.

When I get home, I quickly scribble down my haikus before I forget them. Often I marvel at their brilliance. Days later, I come back to them and see that they are clunky and utilitarian—indeed, “unwitting travesties.” Sometimes I refine them. Most times I let them be. I won’t enter them in a contest. It’s unlikely I’d publish them in a book, though I once used some of my better ones to introduce the sections of a segmented essay. In any case, they remain evidence of sweet moments I’d have otherwise missed or forgotten.

Of course, composing haikus can happen anywhere: on the subway, in the car, at the DMV.  No need to be an esteemed poet, and no one will notice your gentle finger counting. You just have to remember to write them down, for

they vanish quickly,
like dreams, or dew, or wisps of
fog in morning light.

You may find, like me, that writing them heightens your awareness and primes you for deeper, richer prose writing.

Sheila McEntee is a writer, editor, nature lover, and musician living in West Virginia. Her articles and essays have appeared in Wonderful West Virginia magazine, Goldenseal, and the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and aired on West Virginia Public Radio.


Author (with Murphy and Missy) photo by Al Peery

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§ 13 Responses to From Poetry to Prose: A Tiny Bowl of Twigs Long Abandoned

  • OMGosh, those are cute dogs!

  • A pointed meditation! I walk each morning on the shore and gather trash (just shy of fifty pounds already this month). Working through a poem in my head seems a wiser use of my mental energy than counting the bits of plastic foam and candy wrappers. Thank you for that.

    • Sheila McEntee says:

      Wow, Jan, that’s amazing … I see how those moments could easily inspire haikus or other poetry. I bet they’d be fabulous! Thank you for commenting.

  • So nice to read another haikuist – who is primarily a prose wroter.
    I’ve found the daily practice of haiku to be a great tool to open myself up to writing in the morning. I don’t have a dog, but I’ll have my first try at haiku in the morning while watching the squirrels in my backyard.

    On Twitter I’m part of a vibrant a supportive haiku community and I’ve learned so much through them in my year and a half of daily practice.

    • Sheila says:

      Thank you for replying, Hege. Yes, the goings-on in my backyard inspire haikus for me too. Happy that you have a Haiku community. Lovely to regularly practice being present in community with others. Thank you again for commenting!

  • kperrymn says:

    I love thinking of writing haiku as a daily practice, to open yourself up, as you say, to a moment you might not have noticed otherwise, but also to open yourself up to poetry. I like the idea of composing the haiku somewhere other than at your desk. I don’t have a dog, but I am heading outside soon to shovel snow. I hope to come back in with a haiku for today. Thanks for a lovely post!

  • awesome

    On Wed, Jan 15, 2020 at 3:09 PM BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog wrote:

    > Guest Blogger posted: “By Sheila McEntee Though I am an essayist, not a > poet, I recently discovered that esteemed poet Billy Collins and I have > much in common. For one, we both love words. For another, we are fellow > alums of Holy Cross, a small, Jesuit, liberal arts college in” >

  • kperrymn says:

    Hi, this is Katy again (see above). I went out and shoveled yesterday, and I have to say that trying to create a haiku as I worked was a very pleasant distraction. Thought I would share it with you:

    January sun
    Emerges as the snow falls;
    Leaves gray sky blushing.

    Thanks again for your inspiring post!

    • Sheila McEntee says:

      Thank you, Katy! Your haiku is beautiful. I am picturing you pausing amid the shoveling and counting on gloved fingers. 😊 Thank you for your thoughtful replies to my essay. Warm wishes to you and for your writing—Sheila

  • equipsblog says:

    I am a haiku writer also. Sometimes I have to work to convey the desired message within the required structure. Five begins Haiku / Seven syllable middle/Finale of five.

  • I wish I have the same beautiful dogs as your’s 🙂

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