Becoming a Haiku Poet
by Michael Dylan Welch
When I first tried writing haiku, my attempts were based on very limited information. The quality and effectiveness was poor as a result. My schoolteachers meant well, but often presented only a superficial and sometimes misguided notion of haiku. If you’re new to haiku, you may be in the same situation – without knowing it. While too much information can also impede the poetic impulse, with haiku, as with other genres of poetry, it’s worthwhile to move beyond superficialities to gain a more substantial knowledge of the genre. So what is haiku, and how does one become a haiku poet?
The most important characteristic of haiku is how it conveys, through implication and suggestion, a moment of keen perception and perhaps insight into nature or human nature. Haiku does not state this insight, however, but implies it. In the last hundred years – in Japanese and English-language haiku – implication has been achieved most successfully through the use of objective imagery. This means you avoid words that interpret what you experience, such as saying something is “beautiful” or “mysterious”, and stick to words that objectively convey the facts of what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.
Instead of writing about your reactions to stimuli, in a good haiku you write about those things that cause your reactions. This way your readers can experience the same feelings you felt, without your having to explain them.
spring breeze –
the pull of her hand
as we near the pet store
Michael Dylan Welch
A haiku also centres structurally on a pause or caesura (“kire” in Japanese). By juxtaposing two elements or parts (with one of the elements spanning over two of the poem’s three lines), the two parts create a spark of energy, like the gap in a spark plug. The two elements of a good haiku may seem unrelated at first glance, but if the reader lingers on them sufficiently, he or she may notice a reverberation. When you realise the connection between the two parts (sometimes called an “internal comparison”), you have a “spark” of realisation, an “aha” moment. As a writer of haiku, it’s your job to allow the poem to have that spark – and not to spell it out for the reader. This is perhaps the most difficult thing to do with haiku, as well as its most important – yet often least understood – structural characteristic.
new moon . . .
curve of the steeple bell
in winter twilight
Another key strategy in haiku is the seasonal reference. Traditional Japanese haiku use a season word (“kigo”) to anchor the poem in time and to allude to other poems that use the same reference. While a formalised set of season words has yet to fully evolve in English-language haiku, many seasonal references are intuitive, and are worth including in your haiku. A simple example would be “snow” to indicate winter, or “frog” to indicate spring. You could name the season also, but the best season words are more subtle than that. Some terms can be troublesome, as in “dry grass”, which may mean winter in some places, but summer in other places.
As you begin to learn haiku that are well known in English, you will be able to allude to or understand allusions to other haiku (including Japanese haiku). It’s important, with season words, to usually use just one in each haiku (unless one clearly dominates another). As you become more experienced with haiku, you’ll discover that words often have seasonal associations to them that you might not have been conscious of before. You can maximise the effect of these words by using them carefully in your haiku.
slides from my shoulder –
Peggy Willis Lyles
Speaking of writing carefully, haiku is often thought of as the most compressed poem in the world. This doesn’t just mean it’s the briefest, but that it packs a lot more into its scant three lines than you might have in other poems or prose. This is thanks to the techniques already described. With objectivity, the images reverberate for themselves, opening up for the reader rather than being closed down by the use of subjective explanation. With a caesura, you create energy through the juxtaposition between the two elements, which may be a background or context, juxtaposed with a foreground or focus. And with a season word, you connect the poem to nature and time and other poetry. Above all, a haiku mysteriously creates an emotional impression, a whole that is often much greater than the sum of its parts.
gone from the woods
the bird I knew
by song alone
Paul O. Williams
On a practical note, haiku never have titles, almost never rhyme, and seldom use overt metaphor and simile. The reasoning for this is that these devices often make the reader more aware of the words than their meaning. Haiku, as Jack Kerouac once said, should be as simple as porridge. Use direct and simple language. Avoid long, conceptual, Latinate words. And note, too, that the word “haiku” is both singular and plural (thus one doesn’t say “haikus”, even though Kerouac did to rhyme with blues”).
the fence-builder pulls a nail
from his lips
You may have noticed that thus far I’ve said almost nothing about form in haiku. That’s because form is not nearly as important as the other strategies I’ve covered. Form, in fact, is the most misunderstood aspect of haiku. Haiku is frequently mistaught in schools, and many textbooks and dictionary definitions are superficial and sometimes even misguided. Many textbooks are simply out of date, and haiku is best understood as a genre of poetry, not a form.
Haiku in Japan are arranged in a single vertical line, and traditionally (meaning, not always) have three parts of 5, 7, and then 5 Japanese sound symbols (which are not the same as syllables). Many English-language textbooks say that haiku in English should be 5-7-5 syllables. This assertion exhibits a gross misunderstanding of the differences between Japanese and English syllables and how the languages differ. Indeed, the vast bulk of serious haiku written in English are usually shorter than 17 syllables, and choose to follow or apply a free or organic form rather than an arbitrary external syllable count that hasn’t proved effective or appropriate in the English language. This fact may come as a surprise to many poets who are new to haiku (or even some who think they aren’t that new to it), but it’s worth reading anthologies to see examples and to understand why haiku in English is best written without a slavish adherence to a set syllabic form.
When you write your haiku, focus on perceptions and images. Be aware of the seasons and what you perceive through your five senses. Write about your perceptions objectively. Strive to master the understanding of what is objective and subjective in what you write. Learn the difference between description and inference, so your poem can avoid doing any inferring for the reader; instead, let the reader infer ideas and connections from the carefully juxtaposed objective descriptions you present.
With the proper haiku fundamentals in mind, you can write haiku that rise above the superficial understandings that are commonly presented or believed about haiku. Using the more advanced techniques, which you can learn the basics of quickly, but which can take a lifetime to master, you can write excellent haiku. It isn’t hard to write haiku that are far more effective than lesser attempts that may fit the popular misperception of haiku merely as a 5-7-5 poem, but that lack many of the other techniques that are much more vital to haiku than a superficial external structure.
Search for the deeper form of haiku – the keen perceptions that are presented objectively through the use of juxtaposition. Read a lot of good haiku to see what makes them work. Observe life around you closely and see freshly and authentically so that you may imply life’s little epiphanies effectively. Let the “aha” moments of life be implied by your carefully chosen words describing nature and human nature. Then you, too, will become a haiku poet.
meteor shower . . .
a gentle wave
wets our sandals
Michael Dylan Welch
Editor’s note: Michael Dylan Welch is a former first vice-president of the Haiku Society of America, founder of the Tanka Society of America and a former president, and is a director of the Haiku North America conferences. See a longer bio note here.
This article first appeared on the Haiku World website and is published here with the author’s permission. Michael Dylan Welch lives near Seattle in Washington state and maintains a busy website, Graceguts.