Last year, I wrote a spontaneous post called Haiku: Sharing Essence, Shedding Skins, which I loved. Last week, in Why Haiku? we looked at why writing haiku is a good idea. We also looked briefly at the content they cover and their effects on the reader and writer. (Haiku is both a plural word and a singular, by the way.)
Today, I’ll be giving you some brief guidelines on how to write haiku. Why brief? Firstly, there are plenty of specialist haiku sites out there, and haiku experts and authors. Secondly, I suspect no poet enjoys being told what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and I believe the most important thing is the pleasure you get from writing.
Striving to write haiku, within the traditional guidelines, has given me a great deal of pleasure and repays the effort, even though most of my poems rarely make it into the realms of ‘proper’ haiku. That’s why my posts about haiku have been informative as well as personal; I’d like you to discover that joy, too, if you haven’t already.
So, here are a few tips.
- get used to carrying a notebook and jotting down life-sketches
- contemplate nature and objects so you can describe them objectively
- immerse yourself and stay centered in the NOW, the present
- become one with nature and empathise
- recollect your thoughts and recreate them in silence and solitude
- don’t attribute human qualities to nature; describe it as it is. (Tricky, this one, as vivid verbs and participles often wander into anthropomorphosis – see, I just did it!)
- if you use adjectives and adverbs, make sure they vivify
- make every word and syllable work hard
- use verbs in the present tense
- suggest the emotional reaction you had during your haiku moment
- use normal, common language; try and get your English as natural and ‘unpoetic’ as possible
- avoid end rhyme
- life is the essence of haiku; it doesn’t have to be beautiful
- don’t be obscure; avoid personal symbolism and intellectual allusions (there’s a lot of debate about this last one, because of how much homage goes on)
- avoid poeticism and figurative language if you can; haiku are immediate
- work on each poem till you’re sure the reader will feel what you felt
- haiku aren’t about you being clever; be as ‘invisible’ as you can so there’s nothing to detract from the experience you’re recreating
- the best haiku are written by those folk whose minds are contemplative, serene and calm; they are the people whose capacity for mental stillness is best able to recreate the experience
- use words which indicate the elements or the seasons (kigo); they give universal breadth and depth. The Japanese have plants, animals and elements that indicate the seasons and special times of the year. For example, the phrase kaze no kaori, ‘wind scent’, is a season word representing (Japanese) summer – May, June and July. There’s an extensive list at the back of William Higginson’s book, The Haiku Handbook -25th Anniversary Edition: How to Write, Teach, and Appreciate Haiku
Ah, …eventually, you sigh…here we go…
Haiku don’t have to be in three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables respectively. Folk did this originally, thinking it was the best way to represent Japanese syllables, or onji, which are shorter and more stable in their length than English syllables; English syllables vary in the length of time it takes to pronounce them. (Compare ‘ease’ with the ‘ed’ at the end of ‘started’.)
Personally, I love the 5-7-5 structure; I enjoy trying to corral my thoughts into a restriction that makes my tapping fingers feel like accomplices. And I suspect hundreds of thousands of non-Japanese folk feel the same. Cor van den Heuvel, a respected expert and haiku poet, says this in The Haiku Anthology
Though a few poets still write in the 5-7-5 syllable form, this form is now mostly written by schoolchildren as an exercise to learn how to count syllables, by beginners who know little about the true essence of haiku, or by those who just like to have a strict form with which to practice.
I guess that puts me in his third category. However, having taught haiku both in classrooms full of children, and to foreign adults learning English, I must admit I find their enthusiasm and beginners’ minds – and often their results – more full of haiku essence than the work of some élitist, haiku experts.
English haiku often have 7 accented syllables with a syllable total – including unaccented syllables – of about 12. Most experts agree that haiku shouldn’t have more than 17 syllables.
You don’t even need to have three lines…
at dusk hot water from the hose ~ Marlene Mountain
…although many haiku do have a structure of three lines with a 2 -3 – 2 sequence of stressed syllables.
On néaring the súrf,
évery fóotprint becómes
thát of the séa… ~ James W. Hackett
What you do need are two rhythmically balanced sections and a cutting word (kireji) or some kind of punctuation or natural break between them. Higginson suggests that if you leave a major grammatical pause between the 2nd and 3rd stressed syllables or between the 5th and 6th stressed syllables, it provides the sense of division created by the Japanese kireji.
In these examples, can you feel that break, that pause that heralds the moment of altered perception, or signals that there’s a universal message or deeper truth in the emotion conveyed by the juxtaposition of the images?
The names of the dead
sinking deeper and deeper
into the red leaves ~ Eric Amann
a bike in the grass
one wheel slowly turning –
summer afternoon ~ Lee Gurga
The Gurga poem makes me feel the essence of summer heat and fields and childhood and wide open spaces. I feel the presence of someone, maybe a child, who has tossed down the bike and just left the shot, maybe in pursuit of the next pleasure, as we pan in on the still spinning wheel; it suggests to me how childhood is gone in an instant, how that wheel spins and then slowly comes to a halt and how precious it is to take it all in and savour it while we have the chance. But that’s just my gut feeling.
I hope this mini-series has heightened the pleasure you get from reading and writing haiku. If you’re inspired to write haiku or any kind of haiku inspired short poems over the spring break, you know you’re always welcome to share them with us here.
I’m celebrating my blog birthday by reminiscing!
This week last year, I posted….