Bitter cold, structured poetry, and scotch whisky

The art of writing haiku is attached directly to the experience of nature. Sure, when you learned about the poetic form in middle school, you probably only remember that it’s a poem with three lines and 17 syllables (if you recall that much). That’s the structure, but it says nothing of why you might want to write such a thing, let alone why anyone would want to read one.

In the Japanese tradition of the haiku, the poet would wander the forest, perhaps contemplating the cherry blossoms, and would write the experience as it was occurring. So it makes sense why it would be such a short poem. It’s more about capturing the essence of a moment in nature; something that a magnum opus of a verse might be overkill to accomplish.

Last fall, my friend and theater comrade, John, and I held a poetry reading dubbed Porters & Poetry (we served beer too). This was the second time we did this, and the theme for this event was limericks and haikus. Readers could bring forward whatever they wanted for the open mic portion, but we had specific prizes for the best limerick and best haiku. Prior to this, I can’t say that I ever spent much time writing either style of poem, preferring to work on free verse than on a particular form. Though I still prefer free verse, there’s an interesting challenge with the narrowed parameters of a structure poem, one that requires you to think creatively to solve the problems of simply how you’re gonna write the damn thing. It’s an exercise that all writers should undertake at some point. But since that time, I’ve found that I really enjoy writing haikus (and limericks too, but that’s a whole different topic entirely). John has been much more consistent with his haiku production, but I have my moments. Especially when faced with the bitter cold of the past couple days, and the fact that I’m a bicycle commuter much of the time, I’ve had only too much opportunity to recognize what nature is doing to me. In fact, I notice it whether I want to or not!

Here’s some recent haiku examples:

Crisp air mistaken
for cold caresses the skin
of Minnesota.

I smuggled a look
though the winter air. My breath
clouded the treasure.

Sight of stars begs us
relax in silence, resting
in the shade of earth.

I can’t say that I stopped in the middle of the road to pull out my notepad, creaking the pen over the page with my frigid fingers to share the moments with you, dear reader. No, I actually sat at my laptop late in the evening with a glass of single malt scotch long after arriving safely home. Which, I might add, is at least the second best way to work on a haiku. And with each new poem I wrote, and with each sip of Lagavulin whisky, the two art forms came closer together. Truly, a haiku about scotch was inevitable.

Earth and smoke waft past
a clear crystal rim. The scotch
is aged 16 years.

i smell a farm on
fire, caught in glass. it’s a
dram for lost poets

Based on those two pieces, you can probably deduce that this was a rich, smoky whisky if there ever was one. It’s an Islay malt, meaning that the barley used for the mash is likely drenched in smoke from burning peat. And in the case of Lagavulin, this is very much the case. The result is a flavor that tastes like the smell of freshly tilled earth in late spring on a farm near the western edge of the Great Plains, where the neighbors Gus and Judy have started a bon fire that they intend on feeding all evening so that they can bask in the warm glow as they try to make out constellations in the night sky. It’s one of my new favorite whiskies.


I sometimes forget how pleasurable it is to just sit back to write short poems. They’re not for anything, and that’s part of the point. They’re simply for their own sake. Because of Twitter and Facebook, you can easily share them with the world if you want, but evenings like last night are simply for the living. It’s another way of walking past the cherry blossoms in bloom, taking in the essence of the moment to help simply enjoy life.

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