Whether you’re a kid or a kid at heart, reading “H is for Haiku: A Treasury of Haiku From A to Z” (Penny Candy Books) by Sydell Rosenberg is a great way to explore the fun and poetry in everyday moments, captured in beautifully penned micro-poems, accented with Sawsan Chalabi’s delightful illustrations that fill the pages of this New York City-inspired, hardcover picture book.
This is a charming tome, which belongs on every young reader’s book shelf. You’ll see, before long, your youngster may be conjuring up his or her own imaginative wordplay, haikus and mini stories depicting colorful characters and thought-provoking plots — ’cause that’s what micro-poetry such as haiku and senryu is all about. Senryu is a form of poetry with three lines of unrhymed poetry, like haiku, which differs in that it is humorously about human nature. Haiku is a verse poem written in a structure of five syllables for the first line, seven for the second line, and five syllables for the third.
When you hear the word “haiku,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Perhaps you remember learning about it in school? Ask your kids if they know what it means.
The literary art form, which originated in Japan, says a lot in just three, lines of verse — while leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination. Think, “mindfulness poetry” for the soul.
An example is Rosenberg’s short nature poem: “Munching on acorns / A squirrel sweeps Up Sunbeams / With her transparent tail”
Although haiku is known for its simplicity and economy of words, the Japanese say that mastering it can take a lifetime; it seems easy, but it’s quite challenging. A lot of thought goes into each wonderfully visual poetic nugget.
The poetess behind the book — native New Yorker and Jewish immigrant, Sydell Rosenberg (1929–1996) — spent her entire life in her beloved New York City writing and teaching. She was extremely creative, gifted and fun-loving, according to her daughter, Amy Losak, who collaborated on the book with her mom — in spirit — years after her passing.
Rosenberg lived in Manhattan in the early years of her marriage and motherhood, then moved her brood to Briarwood, Queens, where Losak grew up before moving to New Jersey years later.
As a young wife and mother, Rosenberg developed a passion for everything haiku and loved it so much, she became a charter member of the Haiku Society of America in 1968. Her short poems and other pieces were published in various magazines and anthologies.
Much of that unique poetry reflects an urban sensibility or flavor, according to Losak, who says her mother referred to those poems as “city haiku.” They were included in the classic 1974 “Haiku Anthology,” edited by Cor van den Heuvel.
After grieving her mom’s sudden passing at age 67, Losak went on a years-long mission to revive some of Rosenberg’s literary works, especially her haiku, and keeping her memory alive through this special book, which was a labor of love.
Here is Syd’s story, according to her daughter:
“I always knew mom was talented and passionate about her teaching and writing. She studied and wrote haiku and senryu for years; even studied Japanese in order to try and read the original masters.
“But she also was a bit of an ‘oddball.’ I say this with love. I have come to realize that this was part of her gift … her vision for seeing ‘into’ things — even small slices of life we might overlook in our daily distractions and the onslaught of ‘busyness’ that can get in the way of enjoying them.
“Syd greeted each day with expectation, even joy. She had an almost childlike exuberance. Mom loved the rich cultural and intellectual plenitude of the city. She was always having ‘adventures’ on her own and with friends.
“When her life became more difficult in later years, her literary pursuits became even more precious.
“They were her escape from drudgery. I didn’t quite understand this then, and sometimes, I got impatient — even irritated — with her behavior. But I do now.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more understanding about mom’s unusual ‘ways.’ I now write and even sometimes publish my own short poetry: haiku and senryu. Doing so, brings me joy — the process challenges me. Writing makes me stop and pay attention to my surroundings — those small things. In hindsight, my mother has inspired me in a number of ways that are still unfolding, still flowering.”
An example of Rosenberg’s haiku shows her skill at seeing the mundane in a new light:
the cat sits in the fur ring
of his tail, and dreams.”
“A poet-children’s author-child play therapist, Rita Gray, once told me, ‘haiku is lineage,’” says Losak. “At the time, I wasn’t sure I understood what she meant. Now, I do.
“I miss mom’s gigantic laugh and joie de vivre, and her offbeat way of engaging with the world. She left her family something of a legacy, one I am trying to carry on, emulate, and share with ‘H is for Haiku.’ ”
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Losak has a successful partnership with Arts for All, a New York-based arts education nonprofit, where Rosenberg’s micro-poems are used in one Queens and one Bronx public school to teach the basics of painting, drawing and collage, as well as music and theater.
She has contacted arts education, literacy, and nature organizations in New York and New Jersey with ideas about using her mother’s haiku as teaching and artistic “tools,” while also collaborating on several creative projects.
At the Children’s Museum of the Arts in the city, teaching artists built a spectacular golden PoeTree. A selection of Rosenberg’s haiku was placed on the walls. Kids wrote their own haiku on colored paper “leaves” and hung them from the tree.
At the Queens Botanical Garden, where Losak did haiku presentations, kids walked around the pretty grounds for inspiration and wrote their own haiku.
After her haiku reading at the Poets House in the city, kids created their own haiku stone keepsakes.
As a proud member of the Haiku Society, Losak says, “As I endeavor to learn more about this exquisite, brief form of poetry, it makes sense to be a member of this talented and supportive community. And it helps keep me connected to my mom.”
Tammy Scileppi is a Queens-based parent and regular contributor to New York Parenting.