Sylvia Forges-Ryan

Soul of Wit

What began as an attempt to write through the busy years of raising a family took an unexpected turn for Sylvia Forges-Ryan. But that was only appropriate. It was a case of life imitating art.

Forges-Ryan, of North Haven, is known today as one of the nation’s foremost haiku poets, with hundreds of published poems, numerous international awards and a three-year stint as editor of Frogpond, the Haiku Society of America’s literary journal. The deceptively simple poems that schoolchildren know for their standard three-line form of five, seven and five syllables were initially a perfect challenge for Forges-Ryan, a passionate student of English literature with an aspiration to write but little time to sit down with paper and pen.

“Three lines,” she recalls thinking. “Surely, Sylvia, you can find time. You can walk around, you can be doing the laundry and thinking of three lines.”

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Haiku, it turns out, needn’t adhere to the five-seven-five structure. Like many of her fellow poets, Forges-Ryan isn’t all that interested in counting the syllables anyway. What does interest her is what haiku can do. It’s “probably the shortest lyrical form that one could write that would have an impact on somebody… The first line usually sets up some situation. The middle part is kind of the workhorse line. It’s usually the longest line… gives some added information that you feel is necessary just to sort of flesh out the scene. And then the third line is often called the ‘aha moment,’ which something unexpected but also something can get resolved.”

The two of us
stumble over the rocks
the river and I

“There have to be two images,” Forges-Ryan explains, “because it’s a poetry of juxtaposition and resolution coming together… You put two different things out there, and then you make a connection between them.”

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Not all haiku have that ending twist. Some are “more Zenlike… just descriptions of a scene,” usually meant to connect us to nature. So it seems only fitting that rain is falling in sheets on the day I visit Forges-Ryan at her home—nature insisting it be noticed. Forges-Ryan puts the kettle on for a cup of tea for me and brews herself an espresso before we settle in her cozy living room among Persian rugs and shelves of books. Her aging, affectionate cat, Sasha, meows his contributions to the conversation.

We talk for over an hour about language and history and memory, our conversation the opposite of Forges-Ryan’s poems, which are more about removing every unnecessary word. “I love words. I love reading long, baggy novels,” she says. “But I also find it’s wonderful just to see how much you can take away.” When she gives workshops, she says, she explains it this way: The words are like a wine glass. “Once you drink the wine, you don’t need the wine glass anymore. You’ve taken it into yourself, and it’s the essence of something.”

In Take a Deep Breath: The Haiku Way to Inner Peace, Forges-Ryan teamed up with her husband, psychotherapist Edward Ryan, to teach readers how to use haiku to meditate. Breathe naturally and relax, they say. Read the haiku silently, then aloud twice, then focus on the first two lines before approaching the third, “open to where it takes you.”

Morning frost
expecting her voice
I unlock the door

Before she wrote a word, Forges-Ryan read as many haiku as she could find and studied the form’s history in Japan, where, she says, it was used by Zen monks in meditation but also emerged from poetry games in the ancient courts. According to Forges-Ryan, the roots of haiku can be traced back further, still, to China and India, while its branches can be traced forward into America via the 19th-century Transcendentalists and the 20th-century Beats. “I believe that you have to have the background,” Forges-Ryan says. “You have to know where it came from. You have to know the Japanese terms… and the forms and the history and how it developed and where it developed.”

Then you can play. While subjects from nature may be haiku’s most common, Forges-Ryan has also learned to play that reversal at the end to great effect. If the poem is “slightly satirical or comic” and the subject matter is “the human scene,” the poem is, instead, a senryu, as in this verse from her collection What Light There Is:

So much in love
she hardly needs
to see him

In other haiku/senryu, Forges-Ryan turns to darker subjects, including war, politics, sickness and loss, though they can still be contemplative.

I.V. drip
never quite in sync
with the melting icicle

While hundreds of Forges-Ryan’s verses have been published in literary journals, anthologies and her own collections, hundreds more are tucked away. She wrinkles her nose, indicating what she thinks of some of them. But, as with the words of haiku itself, less is more: “ Basho said if you can write ten good haiku in your lifetime, you can call yourself a haiku poet.”

Sylvia Forges-Ryan
To buy What Light There Is: email
To buy Take a Deep Breath: Barnes & Noble | Amazon

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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