Three Simple Lines is about writer Natalie Goldberg’s reading and writing of haiku as well as her travel to Japan to follow in the footsteps of the masters. Many years ago, Allen Ginsberg taught her that there were four great Japanese haiku writers: Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki.
“What is the way of haiku?” Goldberg asks. “Bare attention, no distractions, pure awareness, noticing only what is in the moment. Being connected to season, unconnected to self-clinging.”
Goldberg’s haiku pilgrimage weaves back and forth from the U.S., often Sante Fe, to Japan, as well as back and forth in time. There are haiku by the poets noted above and chapters on what Goldberg has learned about them. Like a travel diary in parts, Goldberg describes friends including Mitsue, her guide on the trip she takes to Japan in 2012; seeing a husband kiss his wife “long and hungrily on the lips” while waiting for a train; and the meals she’s been eating, such as “faux Chinese food.” As has been her practice for decades, Goldberg finds a coffee shop where she spends most of the afternoon writing in her notebook.
I appreciate Goldberg’s light-heartedness and humour when she describes a kiss of her own while away with a girlfriend at a rented cottage in northern New Mexico. It was 1993 and Goldberg “met” Buson through a translation of his work by R. H. Blyth. She was so ensconced in the book of haiku that her new girlfriend used haiku to get through to her. “Kiss me, you fool / Winter is coming” the new girlfriend said, and for one afternoon at least Goldberg left her translation of Buson.
While in Japan, Goldberg meets Harada Roshi, a friend of her late teacher Katagiri Roshi. Mitsue arranged the meeting and I found it fascinating to read Mitsue’s description of the Japanese language. “English builds from the inside out,” she says. “Japanese from the outside in. The inside of Japanese is hollow, soft, empty of a personal self. You don’t have to say everything. It can be ambiguous. Less is better. Least is best.” As Mitsue says, “We try to stand with the other’s point of view.”
It seems that “least is best” applies to the three lines of haiku as well. There is a haiku lesson by Beth Howard at the end of the book which doesn’t focus on the counting of seventeen syllables but rather on the entering of “what is before you.”
Goldberg’s haiku is from her everyday life at home and while away. This was something she discovered in reading about a woman haiku master called Chiyo-ni who was born in 1703, seven years after Basho’s death. Chiyo-ni was a nun whose work “celebrates everyday life outside the temple.”
Three Simple Lines celebrates Goldberg’s reverence for the haiku masters, her desire to “make a concerted effort to write haiku,” and her absolute delight in exquisite moments of “pure awareness.”