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Three’s a charm: Author dives into the art and history of haiku and finds beauty in its simplicity

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Natalie Goldberg of Santa Fe has written memoirs, essays, poetry and a novel.

She’s known for her books on the craft of writing. Perhaps the most influential of them is 1986’s “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.”

Now Goldberg excitedly explores different literary territory with the publication of “Three Simple Lines: A Writer’s Pilgrimage into the Heart and Homeland of Haiku.”

She learns that the Japanese language adheres to the syllabic formality of five syllables in the first line, seven in the second line and five in the third. And Haiku is usually taught in the West as three lines of the same 5-7-5. However, the formal 5-7-5 pattern often taught in schools in the West does not necessarily work in English, Goldberg explained.

Goldberg writes that the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg introduced her to the liberating “small sensation of space” one experiences when hearing a haiku.

In “Three Simple Lines” she tells of taking a six-week haiku class that Ginsberg taught in the summer of 1976 at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He introduced Goldberg to haiku and pointed to the four great Japanese haiku writers, all male: Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki.

What, no women among them? Goldberg wonders.

Natalie Goldberg and Jean Devine, owner of Garcia Street Books, discuss “Three Simple Lines” in a remote prerecorded conversation accessible Signed copies of the book are available at the bookstore, 376 Garcia St., Santa Fe, by calling 505-986-0151 or by emailing

Fast-forward to 2012 and her pilgrimage to Japan. Goldberg writes about traveling to visit the grave of Buson, the 18th century haiku master and painter. The day before her departure she takes a bus, a cab and walks until she at last reaches Buson’s grave “in a quiet, remote temple at the edge of Kyoto.”

Goldberg pays her respects to Buson, first prostrate, then standing.

” ‘What can I say?’ I tell Buson. ‘Your haiku have touched me, centuries later, in another country. Thank you.’ ” She bows standing and reverentially offers up a Buson haiku: “Autumn night/it feels lonelier/than last year” On a later trek to Japan, she visits Basho’s grave.

She said “Three Simple Lines” is the third in a personal collection of “three cancer books. ” She wrote 20 pages of it, then put her pen down to fight the disease. When she knew she would survive, Goldberg said, she returned to writing the book: “I said, ‘See, cancer, you didn’t get me.’ ”

While writing, Goldberg joined a monthly haiku study group in Santa Fe. One chapter relates the group dynamics and the friendly give-and-take in critiquing each attendee’s haiku. She has returned to group meetings and keeps writing haiku. “Eventually what I begin to enjoy most is simply not knowing how to do it. … I like not being good, not having a clue,” Goldberg writes candidly.

And what of Goldberg’s hunt for a female haiku master? She tells of arriving home from a retreat center in Vallecitos and unexpectedly locating a book on a shelf she vaguely remembers having bought before an earlier trip to Japan. It had sat unopened.

The book is “Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master.” She was born in 1703 shortly after Basho died. Goldberg quotes from “Chiyo-ni”: “For decades she was considered equal and the counterpart of Basho. More importantly, she was known and respected because she lived the Way of Haiku: aware and open to every moment.”

The epilogue of “Three Simple Lines” swings back to Ginsberg, her beloved teacher, colleague and friend. While working on a manuscript Goldberg is experiencing unexplained sleeplessness, sobbing and grieving. Ginsberg, she soon learns, had died. This was one of her haikus to his memory: “Spring wind/blossomed you/into another world.”

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