Guidelines for Editing Haiku

by Lee Gurga

Why Edit?

There are two parts to haiku composition: perception of the original experience and the translation of that experience into language. Editing has to do with the second part.

Haiku fail for several reasons. Some do not work because there is no haiku moment, some because there is no real significance to the moment that is presented, some because what is significant about the experience cannot be put into words. It is not far from the truth when haiku poets lament that the only way to write one good haiku is to write a hundred bad ones!

A haiku writer should try to setup outside the poem and experience it as a reader does. The poet is personally involved in the experience that led to the poem, but the reader only has what is presented on the page. It is sometimes startling to discover that other people do not like some of our haiku as much as we do, that they just don’t seem to get them. When this occurs, the poet should always first suspect that the fault lies in the poem, that it fails to transmit to the reader the significance of the experience.

Guidelines for Editing

This section presents a series of guidelines in the form of questions that a writer might use in performing a quality assessment of a newly minted haiku. This is not a set of rules. Rules are proscriptive, something to be used to make a poem better.

Choose a single moment: What is the moment? Is there a specific moment?

Bring out the significance: Will that moment mean something to the reader? If you cannot bring out the significance of the moment, should you let it go and write another?

Avoid cause and effect: Do you have two full-fledged, independent images? Is one image simply a restatement of the other? Is one image dependent on the other in a cause-and-effect relationship?

Suggest the season: Does your haiku contain a seasonal reference or inference? Would it have greater resonance if you included one?

Provide only what is essential: Does your haiku say too much? Too little? Has irrelevant material been introduced? Has something important been left out? Can the reader distinguish the incidental from the essential?

Say what you mean: Are you too close to your haiku to be able objectively to correct errors and judge its impact on others? Have you considered asking a friend or a writers’ workshop to look at your haiku with a mind to rooting out grammatical problems and lapses of logic?

Follow the order of perception: In what order are the images in your haiku presented? Have you re-arranged them for effect and risked jumbling the experience for the reader?

Engage the senses: What senses are awakened by the images? Can the poem be improved by expanding the sensory range of the moment?

Present clear, specific images: Do your images present the essential elements of the haiku moment? Do they focus attention on the moment? Could your images really be thoughts, statements, or opinions masquerading as images?

Use internal comparison: How do your images interact? Are they too close to be interesting or so distant that they seem arbitrary? Are they contrived? Which of the techniques of comparison presented in the section on juxtaposition above – echo, contrast, expansion – have you used?

Tap the power of suggestion: Is the haiku complete and total unto itself? Have you left something for the reader so the poem can grow? Is your creation a beautiful, highly polished stone displayed in a way calculated to evoke admiration from readers  … or is it a stone dropped into a pond that will cause ripples in readers’ minds?

Choose the best form: Which form have you chosen for the haiku? The traditional 5-7-5 syllables? 2-3-2 beats? Free-form? How many lines? Was this a conscious, informed decision on your part? Does your haiku have any awkward or nonsensical line breaks? Does the text follow the rhythms of speech? If not, is there a very good reason?

Suspect every verb: Does the haiku contain a verb? A participle? No verbal form at all? Have you tried the several options to see how the haiku works in other ways?

Challenge adjectives and adverbs: Which of the modifiers you have used in the haiku are necessary? Which are decoration?

Discriminate among articles and pronouns: Have you double-checked your use of definite and indefinite articles and personal pronouns?

Cut unnecessary words: Have you said only as much as necessary? Is there any repetition or redundancy? Have you over-edited and lost the natural diction?

Listen to the sound: Is the sound quality consistent with the mood you want to convey? When you read the poem aloud, is it smooth and natural? Can you eliminate jarring sounds?

Avoid unnecessary punctuation: Try to read your haiku afresh: does the punctuation facilitate understanding of the moment? Is a punctuation mark at the end of a line necessary or would the line break itself do the job?

Use figurative language sparingly: Does your haiku use simile or metaphor? Why?

Express mood sensitively: Is your means of expression consistent with the mood of the poem? Is your mood evident without your stating it outright? Will readers find it too obvious? Have you been properly sensitive to the way small word changes and seasonal distinctions can alter the mood of the haiku?

Consider propriety: Is your haiku moment very personal or intimate? Is there a chance that your haiku will embarrass or offend a reader?

Keep it light: Can you lighten your touch by adding a dram of humour? Is your haiku too serious or dark? Too flippant? Would you really rather be writing threnodies, senryu, or zappai?

Avoid half a haiku: Can you identify two full images in your haiku? Maybe the haiku is merely a single image chopped into three lines? Have you tacked a comment or title on to one sole image? Have you come up with a great image, then merely added a “date-stamp” to serve as your second image? Is your haiku an equation, with one line nothing more than the sum of the other two, i.e., a + b = c? Does one image simply explain or interpret the other?

Create a clear context: Is the context of your haiku clear? Does it need to be? Would it aid your purpose to sharpen (or blur) the focus a little?

Use fresh images: Can you omit or replace any clichés or trite images that have sneaked into your haiku?

Break old habits: Have you written a short Western poem and disguised it as a haiku? Are you intellectualising rather than letting natural images speak for themselves? Have you renounced your dependence on simile and metaphor?

Who would have thought editing a short poem could be so complicated! Even when the poet is satisfied with a haiku, there may not yet be enough for the reader. Skilful editing can narrow this gap and transform a gift to oneself into a gift for others.

Writing successful haiku is a “full-brainer”. It requires a combination of left- and right-brain activity, fielding the original perception of the haiku moment and the translation of that perception into language. Remember that the leap of intuition can take place either at the moment of original perception or during the process of writing.

Try to read your own poems as if you were someone else. If you are fortunate you will find someone trustworthy and constructively critical with whom you can share your haiku. Finally, remember that haiku is:

About discovery, not invention
About what is essential, not what is entertaining
About sharing, not persuading
About showing, not showing off.

Good luck!

Editor’s note: This article is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author, a well-known American haijin and former editor of Modern Haiku. It originally appeared on the Haiku Habit website. Lee Gurga, who lives in Illinois in the US, is the author of Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, published in 2003 and winner of a book award from the Haiku Society of America.