Becoming a Practical Poet: Editing Your Haiku

by Michael Dylan Welch

One of the best pieces of poetic advice I ever received was something I read in Poet’s Market in the 1980s. It appeared in a profile of Elizabeth Searle Lamb when she was editor of Frogpond. “Be your own editor,” she said. It may be easy to read her advice and move on, but if you take her words to heart, especially when considering which of your haiku you want to send out for publication, you can not only improve your chances of publication, but improve your poetry as well.

Once you have begun to read the haiku masters and write haiku, the next step for the practical poet is often to share your poetry. Some people feel a sense of accomplishment at seeing their names in print. Others find such delight in the haiku moments that moved them in the fist place that they can’t help but share their moments of awareness in haiku — and publication is one good way to do that. Whatever the motive, getting your poems into print can be very rewarding.

The difficulty with considering the broadest audience is in casting the poem so it has the greatest desired effect for many readers, which often means trusting your intuition. But over the years certain techniques and characteristics have shown themselves to be effective in communicating the haiku moment. The poem’s effect can range from subtle to stunning, but it should never seem contrived, and never abandon authenticity. Being your own editor means thinking through what’s important to you in haiku, and what is likely to matter to your readers (consciously and subconsciously) in terms of form, content, and technique.

Being your own editor means vigorously applying a “preflight checklist” to each poem you send out for publication. This will increase the quality of your work, and editors will appreciate not receiving a dozen nearly identical poems about a fallen swallow’s nest along with the lazy request that the editor pick the best one. Being your own editor means for you to pick the best one.

My own preflight checklist for haiku has developed over the years through much reading, much writing, and best of all, much discussion with other poets. Other writers have created effective haiku checklists in the past, including James W. Hackett, Anita Virgil, and Lorraine Ellis Harr. Hackett’s list appears in his own books and in Harold G. Henderson’s Haiku in English (Tuttle, 1967). The books of R. H. Blyth and William Higginson and others contain similarly helpful advice. Sometimes you just want to experience life and write about its suchness (there’s a time for applying the checklist, and a time for just enjoying the flight), but the practical poet, if he or she is seeking publication, may want to take the time to vigorously assess his or her work. It’s a simple task that’s too easily neglected.

For haiku inspiration, look closely at everything around you in nature, at home, at school, and at work. Write your haiku first, letting yourself be free and creative. Then ask the following questions (from my own checklist):

  1. How long is your haiku? It’s usually good to write in three lines of about 10 to 17 syllables. In English, haiku don’t have to be in the pattern of 5-7-5 syllables — the following questions are much more important.
  2. Does your haiku name or suggest one of the seasons—spring, summer, autumn, or winter? In Japanese, a kigo or “season word” tells readers when the poem happens, such as saying “tulips” for spring or “snow” for winter. This is one of the most important things to do in haiku.
  3. Does your poem make a “leap”, by having two parts? In Japanese, a kireji or “cutting word” usually cuts the poem into two parts. Giving your poem two fragmentary parts is also one of the most important things to do in haiku.
  4. Is your haiku about common, everyday events in nature or human life? To help you do this, describe what you experience through your five senses.
  5. Does your poem give readers a feeling? It can do this by presenting what caused your feeling rather than the feeling itself. So others can feel what you felt, don’t explain or judge what you describe.
  6. Is your poem in the present tense? To make your haiku feel like it’s happening right now, use the present tense.
  7. Did you write from your own personal experience? When you write other kinds of poetry, you can make things up, but try not to do that with haiku. Memories are okay, though.
  8. How did you capitalise or punctuate your poem? Haiku are usually not sentences (they’re usually fragments), so they don’t need to start with a capital, or end with a full stop.
  9. Does your haiku avoid a title and rhyme? Haiku don’t have titles and rarely rhyme.
  10. Is the language is simple, ordinary, and authentic? If the language is too unusual, the poem may come across as contrived.

With practice, you won’t need to ask yourself these questions about your haiku. Japanese haiku master Bashō said to “learn the rules and then forget them”. By asking some of these questions or applying some of these ideas to your haiku, you can improve the quality of your work. And with your own haiku checklist, you can be your own editor first before sending your haiku out for publication.

Pamela Miller Ness has a useful list to teach haiku revision to her students:

  1. Is the experience, imagery, and language clear?
  2. Does the experience resonate? Is it more than a picture or a mundane experience? Does it transcend the merely personal?
  3. If a seasonal reference is used, does it augment the experience?
  4. Does the haiku let the reader enter the poem and complete the experience?
  5. Is each word necessary and evocative? Are the nouns and verbs specific? Is each adjective and article necessary?
  6. Are the line breaks effective and are the lines in the most effective order?
  7. Does the haiku have “music”? Consider the positive and negative effects of alliteration, assonance, accent, and internal rhyme.
  8. Does the language and/or experience have an element of surprise? Does the poem evoke an “aha” response in the reader?
  9. Is the image and/or language fresh and unusual?
  10. Does the haiku effectively juxtapose two images?

Lori Laliberte-Carey notes that her checklist is not so much for sending haiku out to editors, but for assessing haiku that aren’t working quite right. Her “toolbox” includes the following questions:

  1. Juxtaposition: Does the poem use a strong, interesting, or credible juxtaposition?
  2. Language: Can better words be used, perhaps with fewer syllables or better metre?
  3. Line placement: Does moving one or all of the lines around improve the clarity or impact of the poem?
  4. Direction: Does the poem move from small to large, big to small, up to down, down to up? And should the direction be changed to improve it?
  5. Focus: Is the poem about one focused moment or a whole afternoon? Is it one poem or many?

I like Lori’s question about direction in the poem. Often haiku move from large to small in an attempt to sharpen our focus. However, perhaps moving in another direction can give us fresh insight. In addition, sometimes it’s important to present images in the order they were experienced (first you notice a shadow, and then you turn and see the turkey vulture sweeping down upon you). In other cases you may want to rearrange the sequence of images if the effect is improved without becoming manipulative or contrived.

Lori also brought my attention to Phil Rubin’s six concise criteria for judging haiku that appeared in South by Southeast in the 1990s:

  1. Does the poem say something it doesn’t tell?
  2. Can I read the poem over and over and get something different from it?
  3. Does the poem use necessary and carefully chosen words?
  4. Do I like the poem’s sound and rhythm?
  5. Does the poem offer a new way of seeing a commonplace thing?
  6. Does the poem provide a natural, though unexpected, twist?

Of course, revising a poem so it passes these tests is the tough part. Some poems are best abandoned. But for those poems worth refining, the goal of these lists is to give you something to aim for.

Charlotte Digregorio has two useful lists divided into questions of form and then content. These classifications are a useful reminder that haiku are a concise marriage of both form and content. These divisions may be thought of as the science and art of haiku. Here’s Charlotte’s procedural checklist regarding form:

  1. After I write a haiku, I let it sit for a few days, rereading it to myself periodically. I am then able to tighten the haiku, cutting out extraneous, redundant, or implied words.
  2. I repeat each haiku to myself to determine the best placement of words. For example, sometimes a verb that one would be inclined to put at the end of a line may sound better as the first word of the next line.
  3. In revising my haiku, I choose the best line sequence.

With my own haiku, my habit is to let them sit so I can give them a fresh look after some time has passed. I often let two or more years pass before re-assessing the poems in my notebooks or considering them for publication. Hopefully, the best haiku will age nicely like a fine wine. I also like Charlotte’s suggestion to read each poem aloud. This is an excellent way to assess the lyricism, sound, and rhythm of the poem. Now here’s Charlotte’s checklist regarding content:

  1. Does my haiku appeal to the senses, emotions, and imagination of the reader, based on my daily observations that most people could relate to?
  2. Does my haiku avoid abstractions or explanations? Are the images specific, direct, and concrete?
  3. Does my haiku contain images that reinforce the relatively humble condition of human beings?

Here Charlotte considers the audience of her poem, and whether typical readers will find experience in common in what she writes. And by asking if the poem reflects human existence with humility, she asks if the poem produces a feeling of awe in the reader as he or she considers human experience in the grand context of nature.

This list by Christopher Herold appeared on The Heron’s Nest website in the early 2000s, suggesting the qualities that are essential to haiku:

  1. Present moment magnified (immediacy of emotion).
  2. Interpentrating the source of inspiration (no space between observer and observed).
  3. Simple, uncomplicated images.
  4. Common language.
  5. Finding the extraordinary in “ordinary” things.
  6. Implication through objective presentation, not explanation; appeal to intuition, not intellect.
  7. Human presence is fine if presented as an archetypal, harmonious part of nature (human nature should blend in with the rest of nature rather than dominate the forefront).
  8. Humour is fine if in keeping with karumi (lightness) — nothing overly clever, cynical, comic, or raucous.
  9. Musical sensitivity to language (effective use of rhythm and lyricism).
  10. Feeling of a particular place with the cycle of the seasons.

In his book An Introduction to Haiku (New York: Doubleday, 1958), Harold G. Henderson presents a haiku checklist by none other than Shiki. Here are what Henderson calls “the chief points in his advice to beginners”:

  1. Be natural.
  2. Don’t bother about old rules of grammar and special points like spelling, kireji, etc.
  3. Read the old authors, remembering that in them you will find good and bad poems mixed.
  4. Notice that commonplace haiku are not direct, but artificially twisted out of shape.
  5. Write to please yourself. If your writings do not please yourself, how can you expect them to please anybody else?

Henderson then notes that “all this advice is simply ‘Be natural’ repeated in a number of different ways”. For more advanced students of haiku, Henderson reports that Shiki offered this advice:

  1. Remember perspective. Large things are large, but small things are also large if seen close up.
  2. Delicacy should be studied, but it cannot be applied to human affairs in 17 syllables. It can be applied to natural objects.
  3. Haiku are not logical propositions, and no process of reasoning should show on the surface.
  4. Keep the words tight: put in nothing useless.
  5. Cut down as much as possible on adverbs, verbs, and “postpositions”.
  6. Use both imaginary pictures and real ones, but prefer the real ones. If you use imaginary pictures you will get both good and bad haiku, but the good ones will be very rare. If you use real pictures, it is still difficult to get very good haiku, but it is comparatively easy to get second-class ones, which will keep some value even after the lapse of years.

Henderson then presents Shiki’s advice to poets in “the third class, those who are already haiku masters”, advice that he says “is perhaps more interesting for what it does not say than for what it does”:

  1. Read, whenever you can, all worth-while books on haiku; think over their good and bad points.
  2. Know all kinds of haiku, but have your own style.
  3. Gather new material directly; do not take it from old haiku.
  4. Know something about other literature also.
  5. Know at least something about all art.

In a way, the best advice for writing haiku is the advice we give ourselves. As we read and write, and read and write yet more, we are bound to improve into the haiku art by noticing subtleties and internalising what we learn. This, I believe, is what Bashō meant when he said to “learn the rules and then forget them”. What haiku poets are after is simply poetic truth.

Several others have written valuable haiku checklists, including Lorraine Ellis Harr with her “Isn’ts of Haiku” and Jane Reichhold with her list of “Haiku Rules that have Come and Gone”.

One list that I find particularly useful is by James W. Hackett (you can find it in each of his books as well as in Harold G. Henderson’s Haiku in English). He emphasises the importance of interpenetration, as does Christopher Herold (“learn of the pine from the pine,” as Bashō said). My favourite item from Hackett’s list is to remember that “lifefulness, not beauty, is the real quality of haiku”.

Haiku can indeed be about the beauty of nature, but I feel they should also contain a reverence for existence whether beautiful or not. An oak leaf riddled with holes from a ravenous insect is just as valuable as a haiku image as the freshly unfurled ferns of spring — and so are leaves in the intermediate stages of existence in the cycle from birth to death. The world is filled with lifefulness, and it is our challenge as haiku poets to observe and record the breadth of experience around us. It is our challenge to see life in its suchness and present carefully juxtaposed image-moments that give us and each reader instants of empathy.

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Author’s Footnote: Other useful checklists for writing haiku are available on the Literary Kicks site, by Joshua Gage; on Writinghood, by Myron Lysenko; and on Baymoon, by Ebba Story and Joan Zimmerman. For additional information on writing haiku, including its myths and realities, please read Becoming a Haiku Poet.

Editor’s Note: This article is an amalgamation of two essays first published in Frogpond in 1999 with an update added in 2010. The articles were amalgamated with the author’s permission. The essays appear on Michael’s website Graceguts and may be viewed in their original forms there: Be Your Own Editor and Creating a Haiku Checklist. Michael’s own checklist, quoted here, may be found on Graceguts.

Michael Dylan Welch was born in England (he’s a British subject), and grew up in England, Ghana, Australia, and Canada (adding Canadian citizenship as a teenager), travels frequently to Japan (his wife is Japanese), and now lives with his wife and two children in Sammamish, Washington, in the United States. He founded National Haiku Writing Month, and has served as poet laureate for Redmond, Washington. He has been writing haiku since 1976 and teaching it since 1990. He founded the Tanka Society of America and co-founded the American Haiku Archives and the Haiku North America conference. He has many books — as editor, author and contributor — to his credit. See a full biography.

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