Plein Air Haikuing

Cottonwoods anchor
banks above the Missouri.
Chartreuse leaves dancing.

A cormorant flies
low over the gray water
like a black arrow.

For the past eleven years, I’ve spent a morning and afternoon on the bank of the Missouri River at Clay County Park near Vermillion, teaching children to write haikus, and haikuing alongside them. On a cool morning in September, school busses filled with sixth graders arrive at 8:30 a.m., and our day at the river begins. Some of these children from Vermillion, Wakonda, Centerville, Gayville and Volin have never before known what it’s like to experience this river’s ecotone. Before their three hour visit ends, they will learn about the animals and plants within and surrounding our nation’s longest river and will dance to the beat of a Lakota drum, construct a tiny sailboat, sketch the scene around them and write a haiku.

Each River Day, I write with fourteen groups of around a dozen kids each. It’s a challenge to write a haiku in 15 minutes. But the three-line haiku form with its 5-7-5-syllable format works for us. I begin by reading to them some ancient Japanese haikus by Moritake and Basho, written from five to six-hundred years ago. A haiku is a word-sketch of nature. They often focus on a season, and fall is a great time to watch the busy hummingbirds, bees and butterflies hovering and landing on the blossoms of goldenrods and sunflowers. Sometimes we spot an eagle high in a cottonwood tree or a muskrat swimming.

There with an unobstructed view, we feel the strong sunlight and the breezes and at one with all that surrounds me. I emphasize to the students the importance of finding precise images to show what we are seeing, smelling, feeling, hearing and tasting there. I also urge them to listen to their poems. It’s easy to clap the beat of the haiku poem and to hear its rhythm in one’s mind. I find that having a set structure can help one to more quickly focus on finding just the right words. Here are a few of the haikus 6th graders have written on River Days:

The Golden Maple
with Golden leaves. Follow the
wind to winter’s door.


Rainbow-like feathers
Colored like Autumn mornings
the Chinese Pheasant.


The crickets fiddle
Beneath the thickening grass
snuggled in the dirt


change is in my hair
grey cloud thunder in my hair
bees are in my hair


Haikuing outdoors makes me feel young again—partly because I’m often writing them alongside the sixth graders, and we’re playing outside. The term haikuing has been used by others to mean writing or speaking haikus. But since I often write haikus while hiking and canoeing, I include both of those activities in my personal meaning of the word. The two haikus that begin this blog, along with seven others, are included as separate stanzas of “Haikuing the River,” a poem in Rivers, Wings & Sky, my collaborative book with visual artist Nancy Losacker.

Any season in our beautiful state of South Dakota is a perfect time for poets to enjoy plein air haikuing.

Featured image by carfull…home from Mongo… under the creative commons license on Flickr.

4 thoughts on “Plein Air Haikuing”

  1. You have very attentive students who grasped the 5-7-5 haiku poetry writing and in just a few hours! They will remember it the rest of their lives! When I was in FL a few winters ago, I wrote a haiku every day for 3 months, after walking on the beach. Nature is so inspiring!

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