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In this primer and travelogue, author Natalie Goldberg illustrates her decadeslong immersion into the haiku form by both practice and travel to Japan to visit the places that inspired the Japanese masters.

Book Review 

Three Simple Lines:

A Writer's Pilgrimage into the Heart and Homeland of Haiku

By Natalie Goldberg

New World Library (2021, 161 pp.)

Simple, but painfully elusive, as author and writing teacher Natalie Goldberg describes haiku, the three-lined, 17-syllable verse form perfected by the Japanese.

Allen Ginsberg first introduced author Goldberg, then a young student at Naropa Institute, to haiku through the four famous Japanese masters of the form: Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki. (No women? Goldberg wondered. She rectified that omission later.)

The distilled verse form may encompass thoughts of nature, a passing fancy or observation that manages to encapsulate an experience of the human condition. Or as Goldberg eloquently describes the writing of haiku: "The world drops away, mind and body shatter, and the only thing left is the crow cawing."

"If you write five haiku in a lifetime, you are a haiku writer," she quotes Basho as saying. "If you write 10, you are a master." Perhaps Basho's most famous haiku was the following elliptical musing, translated variously:

Old pond

Frog jumps in

Plop!

(The five-syllable, then seven-, then five-line form does not correspond to translation, thus it's looser in English.)

In this gentle haiku primer and travelogue, a mixture of poetry and prose, Goldberg illustrates her decadeslong immersion into the form by both practice and travel to Japan to visit the places that inspired the Japanese masters. She writes of two trips to Japan in particular: one in the fall of 2012 with a group from the Upaya Zen Center (Santa Fe); and another, in the fall of 2016, expressly to follow Basho's path, as well as visit an aged Japanese fan of her previous book, "Writing Down the Bones," which was inspired by their mutual Zen teacher, Katagiri Roshi.

Goldberg moves through observations of places and people that evolve almost organically, and are never forced, such as a spur-of-the-moment visit to the zoo in Osaka with her translator Mitsue, and sitting zazen on the benches till closing time.

The work is full of haiku, such as her favorites by the masters, like this one by Buson:

Ah, grief and sadness!

The fishing line trembles

In the autumn breeze

As well as her own inspired attempts. And, yes, she rebels against Ginsberg's strictures ("the little sensation of space, nothing less than God") and discovers a host of women haiku masters who were writing at the same time, each handing generously from master to student their gift to the next generation of poets. Here is one breathtaking haiku by Chiyo-ni:

Clear water:

No front

No back

Essentially, the form is a lineage, both literal and figurative.

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