You all know what a haiku is. Three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. Traditionally consisting of small, concrete, visual (or other sensory) images drawing from nature. In the best haiku, the third line will impart some special insight, irony, dimension, or angle to the first two.
Up until early this week, I had written perhaps three haiku in 20 years. Then, Sunday night, I got on a roll and wrote a baker’s dozen.
X.J. Kennedy (a very fine poet as well as an esteemed literature textbook author) gives these guidelines for writing haiku:
Note that a haiku has little room for abstract thoughts or general observations…Haiku poets look out upon a literal world, seldom looking inward to discuss their feelings…not just pretty little sketches of nature (as some Westerners think), haiku assume a view of the universe in which observer and nature are not separated…
[H]ere are a few suggestions. Make every word matter. Include few adjectives, shun needless conjunctions. Set your poem in the present – “Haiku,” said Basho, “is simply what is happening in this place at this moment.” Confine your poem to what can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched. Mere sensory reports, however, will be meaningless unless they make the reader feel something…
[Kennedy, X.J.: An Introduction To Poetry, 5th Edition; Boston: Little Brown, 1982]
I’ve got a helluva nerve using all my own work as examples. Try to think of me as a fellow traveler rather than a paragon or a guru. I can talk about my work and my intentions. I have no business pontificating about Basho.
As I said, most of these were written last Sunday or within a day or two. Earlier ones are noted.
These first four are perhaps the most straightforward or conventional (hopefully they’re still pretty good).
Stripped of its raiment, stands in
A puddle of blood.
In a moss-covered
Basin, stone cherub watches
Dove take a whore's bath
This one was written a few months back as part of a haibun.
Sparkling diamonds on
coal-black sky: raindrops on a
cosmic spider web
Your naked breasts, soft
as fresh bagels: angel hands
in a warm cocoon
Not sure about the diction of the word “bagels.” It’s a private joke between me and Carol, so it stays. What do you think? Can I get away with it?
These next four might be called senryu rather than haiku. Senryu focuses on human insights whereas haiku traditionally focuses on the world of nature. But then the modern English haiku is a quite different animal from the haiku of Basho, so the distinction should not be obsessed over.
Sleep comes as a fog
Like a warm and cottony
Pillow in my head
Sits in his own little world
Like a sedan chair.
New kitchen faucet
Shoots my whole day. Still, it drips,
Smelling like failure.
Constant pang of dread
In the pit of my stomach—
It’s my ulcer app.
The last line of the above was originally “virtual ulcer,” which carried a nice bit of ambiguity, as “virtual” can mean “almost” or “software-based.” But I finally decided “ulcer app” was clearer and livelier. Do you agree?
Here we start sliding into a more post-modern or ironic voice. Images, particularly the punchlines, or “aha” images, are more mundane (worldly) or surreal.
Bright orange prize in its beak
Floodlit Goodwill store
Promising old books, bijous
Lighthouse in drear fog
Stripped the lower limbs
From our overgrown blue spruce.
It screamed like a girl.
Due to reckless optimism.
Teacher's last lesson.
This was inspired by a couple programs just out about Richard Feynman and the Challenger Disaster inquiry. You probably thought immediately of teacher Christa McAuliffe, whom I originally had in mind. But I also found out the Challenger report was the wonderful Professor Feynman’s last major project before he succumbed to cancer.
Despite X.J. Kennedy’s warning that there is no room in a haiku for abstractions, this piece is primarily abstract (“due to,” “reckless,” “optimism,” “lesson”). Do as I say, not as I do. Or not.
When I skritch her neck
My old Maine Coon cat purrs like
A hand massager.
Roiling black monster
Threatens lightning and hail,
Empties the stadium.
This one has syllable scheme 5-6-6 for the obvious reason. Uncle Doug’s Golden Rule: Never, ever, be a slave to form.
However, this is the sole exception. In this collection, I made it a point to stay with the 5-7-5 syllable discipline, polishing each piece until I achieved that. Haiku is an especially fruitful exercise in reconciling the demands of form and content.
On the other hand, in the literature, many modern American poets prefer to disregard this requirement. Which is of course the poet’s prerogative and not a thing to be disparaged.
Football helmets clack
Like stampeding horses' hooves.
Three yards, cloud of dust.
(Woody Hayes’ Ohio State Buckeyes offense back in the 80s was popularly referred to as “three yards and a cloud of dust.”)
My mother's hair turned
Completely gray by thirty,
No thanks to her sons.
Finally, this one, from my first poetry collection (2002), is what you might call an out-and-out anti-haiku.*
Pixels draw you near
You answer my cyber-ad
Cling like silicon
*Like “anti-poetry,” used in a sense analogous to the word anti-hero.
What other pieces above really ought to be described as anti-haiku? Why?
Write a haiku (or senryu, or anti-haiku). Or two. Or thirteen. Try to stick to the 5-7-5 structure. Or not. Try not to stop, satisfied, when you’ve achieved the 5-7-5 scheme, if that’s what you’re doing. Polish it until it reads smoothly and grammatically (in this case, sentences or sentence fragments). Replace abstractions with concrete, crystalline images. Give us an extra reward in the third line. Be original.
© 2013 Douglas J. Westberg. Doug's blog is http://dougwestberg.com