Recently, I attended a lovely Zoom meeting for beginners of haiku, hosted by the Poetry Society of New Hampshire. One of the topics that came up during the event was how different it is to write haiku than to write prose poetry – particularly, free verse.
This reminded me of the first “haiku” I tried to write for publication. It went something like this:
melody and harmony
I sent it off to an editor. Of course, it was rejected. The only thing I knew – thought I knew – about haiku, was that it had to adhere to a strict syllable count. This is not true. English-language haiku can be written in 17 syllables in a 5/7/5 pattern, but they don’t have to be. (You can read more about haiku and syllable count in a previous column here.)
What other pitfalls can prose poets fall into when first trying to write haiku?
Here are some tips for prose poets new to writing haiku. (Do keep in mind that for every “rule” I mention below, some skilled haiku poet somewhere has broken these successfully!)
Using my example above, the first thing that sticks out for me now, as a haiku poet, is that there is no concrete image in this poem. Haiku usually juxtapose two images. In addition, haiku focus on images, not emotions. As a prose poet first, this was a difficult switch for me.
Next, my eyes catch on the punctuation. Apart from the caesura (the break in the haiku), which can be punctuated with a dash or an ellipsis, haiku rarely have punctuation.
Same goes for capitalization. Capitalization is not often used in haiku.
Adverbs are rare for haiku, and adjectives are used sparingly. If you think of Japanese sumi-e painting, the merest brush stroke evokes an image. Don’t overpaint with your words.
My poem above also uses judging words with “blending beautifully.” Haiku poems can (and hopefully will) evoke a feeling in the reader, but shouldn’t tell you how to feel. There is a Japanese aesthetic, called wabi-sabi, that applies here. In essence, everything is beautiful as it is. There is no need to tell someone what to see or that something is beautiful. We simply describe things as they are and trust the reader to figure it out. The reader is an integral part of haiku poetry. I have heard it said that a haiku is not complete until a reader enters the poem.
Western form poetry relies heavily on the use of simile and/or metaphor. Haiku poetry employs neither, at least directly. In a haiku, you wouldn’t say that a flower looks like the sun, for example. You might juxtapose a flower with the sun so that readers make that comparison themselves. But you wouldn’t use “the flower looks like the sun.” It would take up too many words anyway.
Speaking of flowers, flowery language is a no-no. Focus on images when writing haiku and then pare your words back. It is rare that I don’t strip down a haiku after I write it. Editing haiku is similar to editing prose poetry, but you need to be more aggressive. Force those words to work for you. Don’t say something using three words when a single word would do, even if the three words sound lovely together.
Free verse prose poetry uses line breaks differently than haiku. GRIX, co-editor of the new journal, Whiptail: Journal of the Single-Line Poem, pointed out to me that line breaks are often used in free verse to create more tension, but in haiku, they are rarely used this way. This is a powerful observation. In free verse, you could have a short poem with three independent lines. In haiku, this is rarely the case. Usually, two of the three lines go together to create a phrase. Haiku is often referred to as having a fragment and a phrase. The break in a haiku usually occurs between lines 1 and 2 or between lines 2 and 3. Sometimes, you see poems where line 2 could work as either the fragment or as part of the phrase. Such lines are called pivot lines. You don’t see a pivot line in every haiku.
“Haiku are generally a moment, or the observation of the moment. Brief. Almost a snapshot with a note – not a story,” observes Shane Pruett, recent winner of a Sakura Award from the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Haiku Invitational. As prose poets, there is flexibility to your focus. With haiku, you must drill down to one or two specific details.
Prose poets have sometimes been given the briefest of introductions to haiku, often with misleading information. As Pruett continues, “We are often told that haiku are ‘nature poems,’ but in reality they are poems about our environment, and that environment is wherever we are. I read somewhere once that if Basho or Buson were alive today, [they would be writing] haiku about subway rides and telecommunications.”
you take my hand
as we sing the refrain—
What difficulties did you encounter when you first started writing haiku? Share them with us in the comments!
My thanks to Jimmy Pappas and the Poetry Society of New Hampshire, GRIX, Shane Pruett, Alan Summers, Michael Dylan Welch, Bryan Rickert, Tia Haynes, Margaret Walker, Kat Lehmann, and Susan Burch for their inspiration and helpful insights.
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