by Aubrie Cox
In a handful of words haiku strikes a careful balance between individual moments and universal resonance. In order to achieve this balance, the poet has to be attentive to individual words and their connotations. Leaving something unsaid and maintaining clarity are two sides of the same coin — not unlike the individual and universal—and both can make or break a haiku.
While the poet must provide enough for context (and for some, season), haiku treats the reader as co-creator, someone that must meet them halfway. As haiku poets we relinquishes control of the full story to allow the reader room to ruminate and fill in part of the poem. What’s unsaid creates ambiguity and the possibility for multiple readings, which in turn creates intrigue. To strike a balance between the said and unsaid requires strong editing skills and the ability to let go.
In determining what to leave in or take out, I’m reminded of Craig Ferguson’s three questions he asks before speaking rashly: “Does this need to be said? Does this need to be said by me? Does this need to be said by me now?”1
In haiku, I might ask: Does this need to be said to understand the poem? Does this need to be said by the poet? Does this need to be said in this poem (or should it be another poem)?
Here are a few haiku by poets who thought carefully about these questions.
only part of the message
– Julie Warther2
than I want to see
– Ann K. Schwader3
Warther’s haiku not only leaves the message unsaid, but what part “she” translates. The tension is only heightened in its juxtaposition to “mockingbird”. Meanwhile “no farther” by Schwader leaves it up for the reader to determine what “I” wants (or doesn’t want) to see. The mist in the final line emphasises the lack of visibility and hazy situation. For some poets, it can be difficult to let go, but there’s still ways to add detail while not revealing everything.
saying you’re sorry
the time it takes for fish to bite
– Karen DiNobile4
she asks why everything
– Bill Cooper5
DiNobile includes several striking details: An apology by “you” and fishing (without bait). The haiku is lengthier than the previous two, but it leaves just as much unsaid: Why an apology, what kind of waters are being fished, and exactly how long it does take for a bite under those conditions? Cooper’s “head cold” sets the stage with illness and ends in questions without an answers. “Post-something” adds character; “something” can be switched out for anything, spiralling out from the physical to the philosophical.
editor’s desk —
a spider mends
– Barbara Snow6
frost on the pumpkin the child who might have been
– Margaret Dornaus7
Webs break, but Snow’s haiku makes the reader question how it became damaged, and its relationship with the editor’s desk. Is it located in a back corner, or does the haiku ask the reader to push into the metaphorical relationship between web-mending and editing? Equally, Dornaus’ one-liner begs the question (again, without answers) of not only the child who may have been, but any child that is. Who might anyone who isn’t have been? Who are we not and what could we have been? It’s not something that can be answered within one poem, but must addressed by each individual reader in his or her own way.
Clarity is not just about efficiently getting an idea across, but the images the right words can produce. If the poet wants the reader to be able to engage the poem, the reader has to be able to visualise what’s happening. The less time a reader has to puzzle over what the words mean for the physical situation, the more time he or she can spend exploring the possibilities of the unsaid. One sure fire way to help your reader orient him or herself is to establish location.
the pond path softened
by pine needles
– Deb Baker8
a butterfly comes
in the window
– Mike Fessler9
Baker’s haiku thoroughly grounds the moment. I not only imagine myself near a body of water, but possibly in a patch of woods or park. I’m on the path, and the path is near or under pine trees. The clarity of the physical details allow me, as the reader, to explore my own senses in the moment — the smell of the pine needles and the way they quiet my footsteps, the coolness of the shade from the trees. In the combination with the cloud reflections, I have an overall calming feeling.
While Baker’s haiku as a whole focuses primarily on the physical location, Fessler wraps up the overall setting fairly quickly. “Final lecture” directly takes me to a classroom, and likely the end of the spring semester. The latter thought is reinforced by the butterfly. Because Fessler clarifies this is the final lecture, the butterfly’s entrance has a slightly different connotation than if it were just any other day in class — rather than just the restlessness all students feel when the weather turns nice in the spring semester, there is heightened a sense of new beginnings and anticipation whoever is in the class will soon discover what else is beyond the window.
Clarity in physical details and setting roots haiku in reality, but it can also be helpful to clarify relationships and identities of persons as well. This brings us to the one of the more difficult aspects of clarity. If we were going to be 100% clear, we would perhaps tell our readers everything, and we’ve already established this is not a good quality in haiku. Yet, we must tell the reader something, whether it be the time of year, who a person is, or what is happening. When giving information, it comes down to what you’re telling, and how much.
leaving his stepson
at the new school
– James Chessing10
she says no
to further chemo
– Marcus Larsson11
Like Fessler’s final lecture, the time of year bears some importance. Here, there’s the start of a new year at a new school. And it’s not just his son, but his stepson. I can’t help but imagine that this parent-child relationship is relatively new, and that because of the marriage and possible move, the son has had to change schools. All the while, the stepfather attempts to be a parent to the child, taking up duties such as taking him to school. Identifying this relationship creates tension, which evokes an emotional response. If the last two lines were “leaving his son / at the new school,” the emotional response would still happen, but the tension would be less. Having both the emotion and tension creates a more dynamic poem.
“autumn sun” probably has the strongest amount of telling among the four.
But it’s the telling that makes this haiku so powerful. Not to mention the clarity and simplicity of the phrase “she says no”. This poem could have ended with that: autumn sun / she says / no. It works as a haiku with its juxtaposition and room for the reader to wonder what the she said no about and why, but I think Larsson’s choice to include “to further chemo” is a wise one. Clarifying what the she says no to, while it cuts off some possibilities, creates a whole new dimension that most readers probably would not consider. In providing a little more guidance, Larsson’s haiku also sparks a whole new range of emotions and questions that hits sooner and greater than if found by the reader’s interpretation of “no”.
The aim of clarity is not to limit the reader, but to open the most potent doors.
1 Craig Ferguson, Does This Need To Be Said?, directed by Keith Truesdell (2011; Comedy Central, 2011), DVD.
2 A Hundred Gourds 2:2, March 2013.
3 Modern Haiku 44.1, Winter-Spring 2013.
5 A Hundred Gourds 2:2, March 2013.
6 Frogpond 36:1, Winter 2013.
7 A Hundred Gourds 2:2, March 2013.
8 Modern Haiku 44.3, Fall 2013.
11 The Heron’s Nest XV.4, December 2013.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared as two separate pieces published on The Last Page of Ripples, the Haiku Society of America newsletter, in July 2013 and March 2014. The original pieces appear here and here. This article has been rewritten slightly by the author to make it a cohesive whole, and appears here with the kind permission of the author.
Aubrie Cox went to university to write a novel – and came out writing haiku. She graduated in 2011 from Millikin University (Illinois) with a BA in English literature and writing, and recently completed her MA in English creative writing at Ball State University. She is an adjunct professor at Millikin University.
Her first chapbook collection tea’s aftertaste was published by Bronze Man Books in 2011. Aubrie’s work was included in A New Resonance 8: Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku (Red Moon Press, 2013) and among her awards are a 2012 Touchstone Award from The Haiku Foundation.