Understanding Modern English-language Haiku

by Tracy Koretsky

Introduction

This article is taken from a special edition of Critique Corner in the Winning Writers newsletter (April 2010) where five editors from top online haiku and related-form publications were invited to demonstrate the revision process they used to arrive at these poems:

flies explore
the newly painted sign
fish market

Jane Reichhold, editor of Lynx

cold night
the dashboard lights
of another car

John Stevenson, editor of The Heron’s Nest

snorkelling
a chasm as deep
as fear

George Swede, editor of Frogpond

dune wind —
the blackened seed pods
of a bush lupine

Linda Papanicolaou, editor of Haigaonline

blue sky
before me
beyond me

Colin Stewart Jones, editor of Notes from the Gean

Copyright in these poems is reserved to their authors. George Swede’s poem was first published in Acorn #24.

To begin, then, let us turn to some of the genre’s best magazines. In 2004 I conducted a poll of 22 such publications, discovering that none of them — that’s right, none — sought poems with lines of 5-7-5 syllables. To oversimplify, Japanese and English sound units are not easily comparable. As a result, it is rare to find a poem as long as 17 syllables in today’s English-language haiku, and the way those syllables are arrayed varies widely.

As you go through the demonstrations our kind guests have donated, take note of the syllables and the way they are distributed across the lines.

How to do so most effectively will be the topic addressed by our first guest, Jane Reichhold (1937-2016), a renowned teacher of haiku. In addition to these superbly lucid primer pages from her excellent book Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-on Guide, Reichhold [also provided] a free peer-critique website for the benefit of the world community of English-language haiku writers: the popular and lively AHA Poetry Forum.

Yet, have a look at Lynx, the magazine Ms. Reichhold edited with her husband Werner, and you might not see any stand-alone three-line poems. What’s going on? Well, there is a whole universe of material that shares the essential qualities one finds in haiku; material not far, in some aspects, from Western poetry, but possessing a somewhat different logic. There is inspiration to be found there, but you have to know how to interpret these poems first.

Jane Reichhold:

Haiku is a genre of form poetry meaning that the form has a definite form. Though we non-Japanese do not count syllables, I do strongly believe that we should maintain the shape of haiku with short, long, short lines. Take:

fish market
the flies explore
the newly painted sign

and notice what happens by simply rearranging the lines:

flies explore
the newly painted sign
fish market

First of all, we eliminate an article (the) — always a plus when trying to be succinct. Secondly, all haiku writers search for interesting first lines that grab the reader’s interest. ‘Flies explore’ opens up an activity — stronger than if on a place — ‘fish market’. Thirdly, since this haiku uses the riddle technique, the author should set up the riddle with the first two lines, then give the ‘answer’ in the third. As the haiku is originally expressed, the ‘answer’ is given away in the first line.

I created this poem for this demonstration, but often the original version is the way the author experienced the poem: being in a fish market, then noticing more flies are crawling on the sign than on the fish. In the revision the poem is expressing a situation: “flies are crawling on a sign — why?” The answer comes in the end “because this is a fish market!” — the AHA moment of the poem.

TK: That “aha” moment one hears so much about in haiku circles basically has to do with allowing the reader to make the connection for him- or herself. Haiku demands an active reader.

 John Stevenson:

Editor of the venerable publication, The Heron’s Nest, ties this to the form’s origins: “Haiku itself comes from an earlier form of poetry known as renku — a collaboration in which two or more poets contribute verses.” (Read a selection of his haiku here.)

So you see, haiku began as something of a game — or at least a participatory improvisation requiring the total involvement of the poets. But like games or musical improvisations, there are some rules, and one is that the opening verse, from which the form we know as haiku derives, contain a seasonal reference.

Note that this is slightly different from the common Western understanding that haiku is about nature. A seasonal reference is not only about nature, but about nature within time.

Mr Stevenson expands on this: “The reference can be a single word or a phrase. Some of the most frequently used are snow, cherry blossoms, and fireflies, denoting winter, spring, and summer respectively.” Take some time with some issues of The Heron’s Nest for a sense of how haiku poets make seasonal references. While there, notice how they operate with the rest of the poem.

To show how such references function expressively, Mr Stevenson offers:

overnight travel
the dashboard lights
of another car

This may have evoked a haiku mood for some readers, but the application of a traditional seasonal reference can offer powerful associations. Since one has so few words to work with in a haiku, it’s important that each carry its weight. Why not avail myself of the additional resonance of a late autumn seasonal reference suggesting the imminence of winter — especially when it expresses part of what I am feeling:

cold night
the dashboard lights
of another car

Since I have said no more in the poem itself, I will say no more now about the particular associations this adds to the poem. But perhaps you will agree that an additional element has been introduced and that it broadens the implications of the poem. Not to be overlooked are the implications of the fact that I have identified with other poets through the act of using a traditional season reference.

TK: This sense of referring to, and thereby resonating with, centuries of poets who have used the same or similar seasonal references is often cherished by people who love the form. It is the principal way to access emotion in these poems.

The concept of resonance is perhaps the most difficult for Western readers to understand. We tend to make Ezra Pound’s error and read the second part of a haiku as an expansion upon the first, as if there were a colon between the two parts. Rather, the intention of the combination is to create a sort of chord — the relationship may be subtle or oblique or witty or stark or joyous; the relationship is literally the crux of the form. To read haiku means to make the connection.

George Swede:

People who write haiku in English generally use the term “juxtaposition” to describe this, and it is never easy. “A successful juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated things leads readers to a moment of awe and wonder; an unsuccessful one leaves readers disinterested, even irked,” says our next guest, George Swede, [then] editor of Frogpond, the journal of the Haiku Society of America.

“Across the centuries, writers have over-used some pairings, so that rather than being unexpected, they have become familiar: Blossoms/spring, rose/woman, rain/tears, night/monsters, and so on. Any poet who employs such established associations must find a fresh way or risk boring the audience. To avoid this, the poet can always opt to unite two things no one has yet considered as possibly belonging together. But, an unusual combination risks that readers will find the pairing incompatible.”

Mr Swede shows us how he struggled to make choices in this poem, the final version of which appeared in the haiku magazine, Acorn 24:

snorkelling
a chasm as deep
as a massage table

The two main elements were the deep chasm and the massage table; snorkelling provided the context or linking mechanism. My reasoning was that snorkelling involves the same posture as getting a massage — lying prone. The reader was supposed to connect the chasm in the ocean floor with the idea that a massage table can also lead to deep experiences, sometimes painful or exhilarating.

Looking at the poem again, I found the connection too far-fetched. I had to find something more meaningful than a massage table:

snorkelling
a chasm as deep
as feeling

This change didn’t work either, but for a different reason: ‘feeling’ was too vague. So, I recalled what emotion dominated my adventure snorkelling:

snorkelling
a chasm as deep
as fear

At last the two chief parts were linked in a way that made sense, but the poem no longer possessed what I had originally sought: Two entities never before juxtaposed. Instead, I had brought together two oft-associated things, chasm and fear. I can only hope that readers will find snorkelling to be a context novel enough for them to experience the haiku as unique.

TK:  Notice in each of these examples how the third line operates. In Jane Reichhold’s poem, it answers a riddle, in John Stevenson’s, it subverts our expectation — the intimate light does not originate in the poet’s own car. As for George Swede’s, we expect something tangible, concrete; what we get is anything but. Appreciating these small surprises yields much of the delight of the genre.

What they have in common is that a resonant juxtaposition is relevant in all of them. This is the quality shared by the daring work on the pages of Lynx. It is true also of haiga, the exciting visual collage form, in which a haiku is paired with an image.

Linda Papanicolaou:

“There is an openness in the relationship — a ‘link/shift’ relationship to each other,” says Haigaonline editor Linda Papanicolaou. “Images are not coupled with captions or explanations that tell us what we’re seeing in the photo. The haiku may, in fact, be about what’s in the image, but amplify or complement it, say, with sound, smell, or other imagery beyond the pictorial. Or, it may be about something else completely, linking to the image through comparison, mood, etc. A good haiga suggests rather than tells; this allows the reader to enter the work as aesthetic experience.”

To see what she means, click through an issue of Haigaonline. You will find there everything from ink brush painting, simplified in style, with a haiku written in calligraphy on an empty section of the paper, to Western-style drawing and painting, collage, digital imaging, photography, etc. Doing this may be the fastest way to comprehend the range of sensibilities current in contemporary English-language haiku poetry.

Ms Papanicolaou, for example, studies and often tries to emulate traditional haiku. She demonstrates:

I wanted to write a type of haiku called ‘shasei’—a sketch. It was early October, I was in some dunes in California, and the wildflowers were past their peak. I jotted:

blackened seed pods of lupine

on my pad.

Often in traditional haiku, the first line is a season word fragment, but mine already had its season — blackened, dry seedpods occur in late autumn. I felt they brought to the poem the Japanese aesthetic of impermanence and loss. So what I still needed was an image that established setting, or complemented and deepened the phrase:

dune wind

evokes harshness and brings in sound as well as the tactile sting of blowing sand.

blackened seed pods
of a lupine

needed something — more specificity, perhaps — so that the phrase didn’t just end with a third line that just completed line two without bringing something of its own. The original plant was what’s called ‘beach lupine’, a small, blue-flowering mounding plant. But a taller, more robust yellow-flowered lupine called “bush lupine” is also native.

dune wind —
the blackened seed pods
of a bush lupine

I liked the sound; plus, ‘beach’ lupine with ‘dune’ was redundant — closed. The larger, showier species, with its sense of resilience, seemed the right way to end the poem.

Colin Stewart Jones:

Toward the other end of the spectrum of haiku sensibility is Colin Stewart Jones, editor of Notes from the Gean [no longer available], who uses his “sketch” to somewhat different ends:

To choose to record an event in haiku form is a subjective act and one has, therefore, given the event meaning. So I tend to record my initial reaction to a set of circumstances and then work on the composition later. I use the word ‘compose’ deliberately. For example, I remember first taking a note of the scene:

the expanse of summer sky ahead of and behind me

I then started thinking about how the sky was also above me, so I jotted down:

over my head

This started me thinking about how the sky was beyond my understanding, which led me to other philosophical questions and my emotional responses to them. I felt like I was young again, looking up at the sky in wonderment for the first time. This would become the essence of the haiku I would try to write.

Often, when I try to write my thoughts as a haiku, it just doesn’t work. I had:

summer sky —
the expanse of blue
ahead of me

summer sky —
the expanse of blue
all around me

I thought of synonyms for ‘ahead’ and ‘behind,’ and came up with ‘before’ and ‘beyond.’ These would better suit the philosophical questions I had posed as they had more depth of meaning. To finish the haiku, I simply pruned and arranged these elements:

summer sky
expanse of blue
before me
beyond me

I wanted not just to set a scene, but to pose an existential question then supply an answer of sorts. Thus I arrived at my arrangement.

I decided to drop the obvious seasonal reference ‘summer sky’ for ‘blue sky’ which I felt was more universal yet still gave a strong sense of summer. I deliberately chose no punctuation so the poem could be read in multiple ways.

blue sky
before me
beyond me

The consonance of the B sounds was serendipitous but, with the monorhyme of ‘me’ on the end of lines 2 and 3, added a dimension to the poem, highlighting man’s eternal search for understanding.

TK: Mr Jones explains the somewhat cryptic name of his publication this way: “A Gean tree is a wild cherry which, though not as showy as the formal Japanese variety, is nevertheless still rooted in the same ground and will produce fruit.” In Notes from the Gean, readers  encountered one-line poems, and poems on subjects not usually associated with haiku. “There are many poets whose work I admire,” says Jones, “but I still feel the haiku community could do with some radical new writers.”

His publication featured them from every place in the world where English is spoken, and sometimes where it’s not; its masthead reflected this. “I first ‘met’ the original editors of Notes from the Gean on an internet discussion forum,” he said — a forum very much like the spirited community Ms. Reichhold hosts. “There,” he continued, “as I developed as a writer and started to submit my poems for publication, I began to encounter the work of, and form relationships and even friendships with, other poets.”

Which is what I, along with all the hard-working editors who generously donated their time to this piece, would like to invite you to do. It’s a great way to begin a practice that will allow you to be highly creative with words and images for free every single day if you like. Listen well and patiently, and you will strengthen your ability to read and write poetry that surprises and delights.

**

Editor’s note:  This essay was originally published in the April 2010 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter and appears here with the author’s permission.

Tracy Koretsky has been widely published in literary magazines,  including short fiction, poetry, essay, and review. These have earned over 50 awards, among them, four Pushcart nominations. She has also published three novels, a screenplay, stage play, songs and “I can’t get enough of that haiku stuff”. Visit Tracy’s website.

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