So, you’ve written a haiku, edited it to the best of your ability, and you’d like to send it to a contest or a journal. Yet, somehow, you can’t bring yourself to submit. Maybe you aren’t able to recapture the experience that led you to create the poem in the first place. The rhythm or structure isn’t working. Or perhaps you don’t know exactly what the problem is, but something just isn’t right. What do you do now?
This is where a haiku critique group can help.
In a haiku critique group, members bring in their unpublished work and let other poets discuss (and often dissect) their haiku. (Since these meetings aren’t open to the public, you can still consider your work to be unpublished.) Usually, someone in the group takes notes, so that you can review the comments at a later time. Everything about your poem will be examined: word choice, line length, subject, overall shape, ease of reading. This can be a stressful experience for first-time participants, but it does get easier with time. It helps to remember that those haiku which generate the most conversation and debate are usually poems that almost, but don’t quite, hit the mark. These are the haiku that you want to see discussed, because they have so much potential.
If you think of your initial editing of your poem as rock tumbling, the critique group is where you add the polish and shine to your gemstone. This is what I took away from attending a haiku critique group yesterday:
Check your use of articles. Are you overusing “the” or “a”? Does “the” work better than “a” or vice versa? Would adding back – or eliminating – an article before your subject change the reading of the poem?
Keep shifting words around. If it’s a three-line poem, shuffle the line order. If your poem is a monoku, reorder the words. Do any of these new versions add additional ways to read the poem?
Consider the number of lines. Read the poem aloud. Where do you naturally pause when you read the haiku? If there is no break, maybe this poem should be a single line. If there are obvious places to pause in your monoku, maybe you should split the haiku into more lines.
Make your words work for you. I’ve mentioned this tip before, but I saw it in a new light yesterday. As you consider using words and phrases with multiple meanings, be aware that readers from other countries may have different definitions for your words! These new ways of reading your haiku might work in your favor, but they might not.
Accept that other poets will experience your poem differently than you do. This can be uncomfortable to realize, but it’s also exciting. It might mean that what seems like a simple edit to you can open up your poem to multiple interpretations.
Deleting key words can make a poem stronger by adding ambiguity. I’ve spoken about the importance of deleting unnecessary words in your haiku. Eliminating key words can sometimes work in your favor as well, by allowing new ways for the reader to enter into the experience.
Trust your reader to bring something to the table. Don’t spoon-feed the reader your exact experience. This can be stifling, and make the reader feel like they are on the outside of the poem, looking in. There should be breathing room in your haiku so others can join in the experience.
Punctuation is rarely used in haiku, but it can be powerful when included. Choose any punctuation wisely. Does it add to the impact of the poem?
Consider the visual aspects of your haiku. Italicizing certain words, using a wide or narrow font, or choosing spaces, an ellipsis, or an em dash all convey a certain sense of movement. Do you want your reader to speed through the work or move through it slowly? The shape of your poem can evoke your subject matter. What draws the reader’s eye?
Repetition of words can be very powerful. Use this technique thoughtfully and carefully. Repetition in haiku may cause the reader to slow down, stumble, or fixate on certain words.
After a critique, you may find others’ editing of your words to be helpful, overwhelming, or both. Remember that ultimately, this is your haiku. What do you want it to say to the world? Honor the experience and feelings that led you to write the poem in the first place. When in doubt, it’s always okay to let your work sit for awhile and come back to it later.
Do you have a tip for editing haiku? Let me know in the comments!
We’d love to hear from you in the comments. The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy for more information.
P.S. My thanks to everyone at Cloudlanders for a wonderful meeting yesterday.