by M.L. Gordon
M.L. Gordon has been a contributor to a number of national and international haiku journals, as well as to the Utmost Poetry Gallery.
Haiku is often the first form of poetry we learn as children; as such, it is often one of the last forms we turn to as mature and look for more "serious" poetry. When carefully crafted, though, it can provide a
moment—and in three lines, it is just a moment—of inward growth, of contemplation and depth unapproachable in longer poetic forms.
What is haiku?
The way haiku is often taught in elementary schools does it a great disservice, as it is customarily presented as an easy form of poetry, a little thimbleful of 17 syllables "about nature," as many well-meaning teachers explain.
Traditionally, the Japanese haiku has five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third; however, English-language haiku tends to adhere more to the "short-long-short formula rather than a specific syllable count. And while many haiku do revolve around nature, modern haiku writers give more emphasis to the "a-ha!" moment—a spontaneous, reaction to the world around them. The result is authentic and immediate poetry—all at once incisive, reflective and meaningful without artificially attributing significance to an experience.
Much of the best haiku holds itself just at arm's length from circumstance, viewing it from an objective lens that allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions and in doing so, see the "big picture," or cosmic significance of the small moment. Matsuo Basho, considered one of the masters of traditional haiku, demonstrates this in one of his most famous compositions:
soaking into stones
It is hard not to feel the profundity of such a moment expressed so acutely.
How to write haiku
To write a haiku, begin first with a concrete, vivid image—with the short syllabic requirements, there is little room to overindulge in unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. As rhyme is uncalled for, the focus can be entirely on creating a clear image and easy meter, or perhaps playing with alliteration as did the translator for Basho's poem above. You might begin with the most basic of starts for your haiku:
This conjures up all sorts of accompanying connotative images and implications. The temptation here might be to finish the haiku with an easy simile and a "moral" like this:
like an old scar:
pain lingers on
However, the best haiku is objective and restrained. Rather than ascribing a particular meaning to a moment, haiku lets it unfold, lets the reader feel the moment out for him or herself:
tracing the silver curve
of an old scar
(originally published in Modern Haiku, Spring 2002)
The blending of images here—the implied instead of stated comparison between the moon and the scar—speaks for itself about a memory of pain. It also demonstrates another principle of haiku: the caesura, or pause (here, between the first and second line), at which point two images or ideas are often juxtaposed unexpectedly, seen with a narrowed focus, or punned upon for that "a-ha" moment of clarity so honored in haiku.
Avoid morals and preachiness
These guidelines set haiku apart in terms of poetic subtlety; it avoids didacticism and "preachiness" that can turn people off from poetry. Another example:
even the dandelions
The message regarding the value of human life is clear, but without being overbearing. The image created, haunting in its poignancy, becomes in a way its own small sermon.
With its simple nature, haiku as a warm-up can serve as a way to practice fresh imagery minus overt similes, heavy modifiers and forced rhyme, the "baggage" of many Western forms of poetry. And while haiku in and of itself is rewarding, it often becomes a jumping off point for longer compositions, such as haibun (haiku prose; a haiku with commentary) or renga (linked/sequenced stanzas). It may even give the poet a good concrete image on which to base a more Western form of poetry. Modern Haiku, which celebrates some more experimental modes of Western haiku, and William J. Higginson's The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku are wonderful resources for learning about this form of poetry.
Simply stated, haiku is a way to strip away that which is unnecessary in our lives and reflect upon the divine spark within us all.
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