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One Line at a Time: How and Why Haiku

night on the lake
I touch
the moon
—Abby, grade 7

What do you see when you read Abby’s poem? How do you feel about what you see? When was the first or the last time you observed the moon? Where were you? What was the occasion? What sights, sounds, smells do you recall from that time and place?

Feel free to write from memory, or if you happen to be reading this under the night sky, capture the moon in the here-and-now. If all else fails, use your imagination.

Okay. You’re ready to write you own moon haiku. Almost… but first a few rules.

Since you’ll be writing an English language haiku, I encourage you to abandon the 5-7-5 syllable structure you learned in school. The ON of which there are 17 in Japanese haiku is different than the English language syllable. Ideally, haiku in English is written in approximately 11-12 syllables, seventeen tops.

  • You should be able to recite your poem in one conversational breath.
  • Haiku are economic. Try limiting yourself to ten or fewer words.
  • Stick with three-lines for now.

Reread Abby’s poem. Has she followed the rules so far? How many parts does Abby’s poem have?

If you said two, you are correct:

  • night on the lake
  • I touch the moon

Haiku often consist of a fragment and phrase. Our first grammar lesson will be to understand sentence fragments and phrases.

  • Try not to rhyme but don’t shy away from alliteration.
  • Avoid similes.

My turn:

summit road
once more the moon
changes windows

The discussion you just followed is a brief introduction to English language haiku I use with junior high students. Here’s a promise. If you commit yourself to the practice, you’ll learn more about the world, about writing and especially about yourself.

Simple, uncomplicated images, common language, objective presentation and musical sensitivity to language are additional hallmarks of a successful haiku.

Take for example this lovely poem by ninth grader Stuart:

moonless night
last of the rain
drips from the branches

The key to becoming a haiku poet is to stop, look and listen. Freshman, Grace composed the following about her father when asked how she knew autumn was really here.

late autumn
his callused hands
feed the line

As a seventh grader, Liana had all of the pieces to her haiku, but it was not until she discovered the perfect verb that her poem achieved this splendid representation of childhood innocence:

a crack
in the parking lot
I tightrope to the car

It is often the artful juxtaposition of concrete images that make a good haiku, one that is able to delight and surprise. The trick is to show, not tell, and when the poet achieves this her or his words resonate with meaning.

Olivia achieves a wonderful juxtaposition of concrete images:

autumn wind
the spool
feeding thread

Emma is the first place winner of the United Nations International Haiku Competition Middle School Division for 2013 with the following:

in the ashes
embers
wink out

With what season would you associate Emma’s haiku? In the haiku tradition there are five seasons, the fifth being the days leading up to and including the New Year.

Here is a favorite New Year haiku of mine, written by poet Pamela Miller Ness:

new year’s rain
the circles in the puddle
widen

Borrowing from the Japanese, students explore the human condition through Sabi, (loneliness) Wabi, (austere beauty) and Yugen. (mystery) This haiku by freshman Naima hints at all three:

alone
the wind blows
the opposite direction

Virtually all holidays and cultural traditions are represented in haiku. Addison composed this poem when he was in the eighth grade.

through the teeth
of the jack-o-lantern
the wind

People as a part of nature are also excellent subjects for haiku poems. Students are encouraged to be alert to human moments- both serious and humorous- where the essence of being human is revealed.

Abby captures one such moment here:

public library
the shy boy
wipes dust off a book

In the next haiku, freshman Danielle reveals inner growth and awareness through the subtlety she observes in her home life.

family dinner
the lights
too dim

Along the way, students read hundreds of haiku by accomplished haiku poets in order to discover “what works.” As confidence grows, students often feel compelled to experiment. There is plenty of room.

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At a certain point, after composing a number of haiku, students revise in order to find out what additional territories might be discovered or perhaps what’s lurking. The first phase is “internal” revision where the student works independently. I generally ask them to consider the following five activities:

  • Revise for discovery: The first time you read your work, you are reading to discover what you still need to write about. What ideas or facts did you miss in writing the first time?
  • Revise for meaning: Does your haiku say what you want it to say? Would you understand what you meant if you were not the writer? Are you assuming that everyone will know what you are talking about?
  • Revise for order: Could your images be presented in a better order, a more effective order?
  • Revise through grammar: Remove all modifiers and prepositional phrases from your poem to get to the subject/verb of the poem. Then one-by-one re-insert the modifiers and prepositional phrases, checking at each step that the addition is necessary.
  • Revise for audience: Who will be reading your poem? Pretend you are the reader.

Eighth grade student Emma J. has this to say about haiku and the writing process:

I like watching a haiku form. The original idea may change throughout the revision process. After chipping away unnecessary words and switching around the lines I often find myself with a new version that may or may not look how I originally intended it to be. Since haiku are written with so few words it has made me think about each word in all of my writing. Sometimes haiku is written about the smallest and seemingly unimportant moments in life. Writing and reading haiku has made me seek out these moments and grasp their importance

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As a community of writers, student haiku poets learn the language of critique and offer meaningful feedback. Often through the simple act of reading the work of others, students unlock the treasury of their own experience. The resulting conversations are both delightful and affirmative.

By extension, the study of haiku encourages an historical understanding of Old Japan, the poetic sensibilities of Eastern thought versus that of the West and the fascinating journey of haiku to our shores. Jack Kerouac and Richard Wright each wrote haiku. Students are generally delighted to read the novels Haiku Guy and Laughing Buddha by David Lanoue, whose protagonist sojourns between Old Japan and modern day New Orleans. Professor Lanoue is one of the foremost translators of the Japanese poet Issa, whose work students read in order to understand the breadth and scope of the haiku experience.

The study of haiku also acts a springboard to the visual and textual forms of haiga and haibun, which have become popular among western artists and poets.

The best way to explore well-written English language haiku is to visit one of several journals or web sites. Highly recommended among the journals is Modern Haiku < https://www.modernhaiku.org/> and one cannot go wrong by checking out the web site for The Haiku Society of America. < https://www.hsa-haiku.org/> While on the Haiku Society of America web site, be sure to click the link to Annual Contests. There you’ll find the results to the Nicholas A. Virgilio Memorial Haiku Contest. This contest features award-winning poems from students’ grades 7-12. Another place to find excellent haiku and instruction is The Haiku Foundation web site. < https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/>

As my students and I travel the haiku path, I’m reminded that we are on the same footing. Each of us must experiment with the difficulties of language and become keener observers of the world and ourselves.

big sky
the uncertain legs
of the foal

—Tom Painting

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