begin haiku is a place to take apart what we know about haiku, examine it closely, and put it back together again.

Our featured article for June 2003 comes to us from Lee Gurga . . .



by Lee Gurga

© 2003 Modern Haiku Press


Haiku artisans illustrate or depict phenomena, but haiku artists intimate the deeper reality on which phenomena are based.

Robert Spiess, Speculation for May 1
Beginners’ Haiku
Things have not changed appreciably since Harold Henderson observed more than thirty years ago, “experience has proved that beginners, unless they know at least something about Japanese standards and conventions, are apt to produce poems that have no relation whatever to haiku except in form” (Henderson, 46). A verse such as this one

red maples swelling
in the bud, crocus yellow
in the dark dark mud

looks like a haiku with its colorful images and seventeen-syllable structure but is actually a rhymed couplet in masquerade:

red maples swelling in the bud,
crocus yellow in the dark dark mud

The number of people who are aware that haiku is not simply a form has risen dramatically, but it sometimes seems that the number of people who are not has risen even faster. Giroux notes three kinds of faults in beginners’ haiku: a strained attempt to be profoundly philosophical; anthropomorphism that makes things speak instead of allowing them to speak; and the use of trite season words and the use of self-consciously Japanese subject matter (Giroux, 154–56). Henderson observes that the greatest difficulties beginners have are making the picture clear and omitting their own interpretations (Henderson, 57). Of these, interpretation is probably the most common. In this haiku attempt,

On a withered branch
a crow is perched
specter of death

rather than presenting two images that react imaginatively, a fine image is followed by a comment on that image. This example is, of course, a mangled version of Bashô’s haiku quoted earlier, “On a withered branch / a crow is perched / autumn evening.” Bashô does not tell us that the crow is the grim reaper and that the closing of day represents the waning of our lives. Instead, the extraordinary combination of a bare branch, the crow, and an autumn evening, show us as much about mortality as we need to know without spoon-feeding us pablum. We are free to make these associations, and others, if we please. The haiku be read on two levels, literal and symbolic. Haiku scrubbed clean of interpretive statements are the most difficult for poets from the Western tradition to write. The poet Robert Bly writes, “In the brief poem, the poet takes the reader to the edge of a cliff, as a mother eagle takes its nestling, and then drops him. Readers with a strong imagination enjoy it, and discover they can fly. The others fall down to the rocks where they are killed instantly. ("Dropping the Reader").” This willingness to go to the edge produces the finest haiku.

Another common error of beginner’s haiku is to try to relate an entire story in three lines, sometimes called “miniseries haiku”. For example in this attempt:

a loud thunderclap:
the abused child hides
under the bed

the three line presents an event of imagined social significance in a chronological, cause and effect sequence. Haiku should not tell a story but rather paint a picture with images. When this is done properly, the reader can create his or her own story. This is not to say that there cannot be something going on within the haiku, but the action must leave something unresolved. What gives energy to Buson’s haiku about the butterfly on the temple bell is that we are left in a state of suspension with nothing happening. The potential energy is what takes our breath away—anticipation of a monk swinging the tolling log into the huge iron bell.

Why Edit?
There are two parts to haiku composition: perception of the original experience and the translation of that experience into language. Editing has to do with the second part.

Haiku fail for several reasons. Some so not work because there is no haiku moment, some because there is no real significance to the moment that is presented. Some because what is significant about the experience cannot be put into words. It is not far from the truth when haiku poets lament that the only way to write one good haiku is to write a hundred bad ones! A haiku writer should try to step outside the poem and experience it as a reader does. The poet is personally involved in the experience that led to the poem, but the reader only has what is presented on the page. It is sometimes startling to discover that other people do not like some of our haiku as much as we do, that they just don’t seem to get them. When this occurs, the poet should always first suspect that the fault lies in the poem, that it fails to transmit to the reader the significance of the experience.

Publishing Haiku
Haiku poets like to see their work published, and rightly so (if the haiku are genuine ones), as each haiku marks a return from solitariness to society. What is created in secret should be verified and enjoyed in common.
[Robert Spiess, Speculation #324]

Sooner or later all poets ask, “who am I writing for?” The answer may be “for myself,” “for one or two intimate friends, “for anyone sensitive enough to understand what I am trying to do,” or “for publication.” These targets are all quite different, of course, and a writer’s choice of readership may well affect the craft that he or she deploys as well as the quality of the final poem. If the poet is simply writing for him- or herself a sort of nature journal or chronicle of the high points of life, the literary quality of the poems may not be of primary concern. The poet may simply be satisfied to capture vibrant images. If the intention is sharing haiku with others, however, additional considerations come into play.

In cases where “it’s the gift that counts,” haiku created to share with family or friends also may not need to be of top literary quality. For this type of work sincerity and unencumbered transmission of feelings is probably of paramount importance. Writing for the larger audience and for publication, however, will generally require that the writer take the time and trouble to learn what haiku is and can be. When writing for others the poet should be certain that the moment is something appropriate to share. If it is too private it may embarrass rather than move the readers. An understanding of lightness and a maturity of judgment will serve the poet well.

When a haiku poet is ready to go public, he or she might want to start by joining a haiku group or signing up with an on-line haiku discussion group such as the Shiki Internet Haiku Salon at http://shiki.toward.co.jp/. Before submitting to a periodical, one should take the time to find out what kind of material the journal publishes and write for submission guidelines or a sample copy. (Always include an SASE—self-addressed stamped envelope—with any inquiry.) General submission guidelines are also available in The Directory of Poetry Publishers, available on line from Dustbooks http://www.dustbooks.com/.

Haiku journal editors will usually agree to review new work if they are approached with courtesy and consideration. Some people are not interested in having their work critiqued, so editors are wary of offering unsolicited advice, even when they have time to do so.

The Secret to Writing Haiku
We have made the point that haiku is a tandem art, with the reader as co-creator of the haiku moment. This means that poets cannot know how much space to leave to the readers unless they have experienced these collaborations themselves from the readers’ perspective. The secret to writing successful haiku, then, is reading haiku. Why would anyone bother to write haiku if they do no enjoy reading them? It is not reasonable to expect to write haiku of any quality without the ability to read them both responsively and critically. Critical reading does not mean finding fault but seeing what makes a haiku that works work and what makes a failed haiku fail. If poets open their hearts to other people’s experiences, they will begin to see ways in which to enhance their own. “Know thyself” the Oracle says. Lightening oneself with haiku also enlightens.

Getting in the Mood
The following checklist may be helpful in preparing your mind for writing haiku:

  • Remember that haiku is not competitive.
  • Turn off your internal dialogue. Relax and empty your mind. Attune yourself whatever the day has to offer. Note the commonplace and the unpleasant as well as the cute and striking.
  • Write about whatever you experience. This includes what is going on inside you as well as what is going on around you. Senses include what you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch as well as what stimulates your mind. You can write about what you are experiencing at the moment or memories of past experiences may trigger other images.
  • Think in images rather than evaluations. Show, don’t tell, is the haiku way. Haiku approach the subjective through the objective.
  • Do not try to write “killer haiku”; just respond to what is around you. Reticence and egolessness are important parts of the haiku way, as they are in Zen.
  • Don’t be in a hurry to move from one experience to another. Shiki advised writing 30 or 40 haiku at a time on a single subject.
  • Focus on experience rather than writing. Just jot down notes; you can revise later.
  • Most importantly, be mindful Zen master Shinryû Suzuki’s advice, “true understanding is actual practice itself.”

Works cited:
Jean Giroux, The Haiku Form, Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1974.
Harold Gould Henderson, Haiku in English, New York, NY: Japan Society, 1965.
Robert Spiess, “Multiple Sense-Imagery in Haiku,” Modern Haiku, 2.1, 1970.

--Lee Gurga is a haiku poet and editor of Modern Haiku. He is also poetry editor of Illinois Times (Springfield) and haiku columnist for Solares Hill (Key West, Florida).

Haiku: A Poet’s Guide is forthcoming from Modern Haiku Press in June, 2003. Check the Modern Haiku website www.modernhaiku.org for ordering details.