Saying Less to Mean More

by Lew Watts

Why do we write poetry, and for whom? The first question has engaged some of the greatest minds and sharpest critics and, at the risk of being ridiculed, let me suggest for now that we write poetry because it is sublime, beautiful and utterly insistent. But for whom do we write?

Ted Kooser, Poet Laureate in the US from 2002-2006, in his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual (Bison Books) quotes Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney as saying “the aim of the poet and poetry is finally to be of service”. Kooser further states that “we serve each poem we write … we make ourselves subservient to our poetry”, before introducing a key theme (in Chapter 2) on the importance of Writing for Others. He laments over students who argue that they have written poems for themselves, and warns (in the Introduction), “if a poem doesn’t make sense to anybody but its author, nobody but its author will care a whit about it”. Fiona Sampson, past editor of the UK’s Poetry Review, extends this argument in her book Poetry Writing – The Expert Guide (Hale) to insist that poets should always have an “Ideal Reader” (Kooser uses the term “Imaginary Reader”) in mind, what many would call a muse.

But then, even when we write to serve someone other than ourselves, our poems can fall flat. We all know the perils of sentimentality, but obscurity is an equally big turn-off for many readers, albeit one that many editors appear to allow from work described as “difficult”. Stanley Fish, in his book How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One (HarperCollins), highlights that writing that can “move your audience, please your audience and instruct your audience”. Unless the intent is to write a user’s manual in verse, one can argue that only the first two apply to poetry. Indeed, poems that tell all leave little to the imagination and somehow seem less nourishing. And does poetry really need to please us? This is a difficult question, particularly if we believe Lorca’s proposition that the power of poetry lies in Duende, or closeness to death and the dark side! I would argue, instead, that the essence of a great poem is that it truly moves us.

So how do we, as poets, do this? How do we serve and move our readers? By that magical balance of being objective while not telling all, of painting a picture but leaving the interpretation with the imaginative mind of the reader. I personally find much of the poetry of surrealists a leap too far (Robert Bly’s Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations (University of Pittsburgh Press), explores exceptions to this), while many contemporary free-verse poems seem … well, overcooked. But in the right hands, the use of simile can project the reader’s mind and emotions beyond two linked ideas, driven forward by rhythm, sound and form. In fact, many would argue that metaphor is a more powerful tool in this respect, and a truly beautiful example is the poem “Etude” by Ted Kooser (if you don’t believe me, read it and be astonished).

Kooser is a poet who has long urged for simplicity of language, that suggestion is better than description, that one should remove anything that comes between the reader and the poem and, lastly, that one should not “worry about the rules” — interestingly, “Etude” is written in tetrameter. But many poets, Kooser included, do write “within rules”, and it is not by coincidence that much of the great poetry in the English language follows formal, metrical forms.

This is one reason why metrical forms are enjoying a resurgence today, and why even the most experienced free-verse poets frequently return to classical forms. Stanley Fish, although writing about sentences, has a clear perspective on form — “because it is bounded, it can be the generator of boundless meanings” — and we need look no further than the 14 lines of a sonnet to see the infinite possibilities of magic that result. But even the greatest sonnets can sometimes seem descriptive (I used to live close to Tintern Abbey), but are able to power their way into our souls mainly by their breathtaking beauty.

But there is a form that combines minimalism with intense observation, whose central purpose is to capture “a moment” in a way that it is the reader who dreams and imagines beyond the words. That form is a haiku.

Many people first learned of haiku in school. They would have relished assembling three lines of precisely 17 syllables, arranged 5-7-5, and would have marvelled at how much information could be crammed into such a short sentence. Their better attempts, incorporating a season-word (or kigo), would have come close to some of the earliest haiku introduced into the English language; many (but not all) of these, with their strict rules and syllable count, were invariably written by academic poets and now seem almost wooden and laborious, quite unlike the early classical haiku of the great Japanese poets.

It took some time for people to appreciate that a Japanese syllable, or onji, is generally shorter than one in English. Staying with the concept that a haiku is a breath, 17 English syllables are too many. Indeed, most modern haiku in English have 14 syllables or less, and some are even written in one or two lines. What truly distinguishes a haiku is the pure description of a moment, but a definition is harder to grasp. Try this, from the Haiku Association of America:

A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.

But many of the haiku in today’s English-language journals do not include a kigo word and, in his third edition of The Haiku Anthology (Norton), Cor van den Heuvel gives some relief by stating that “extreme variations of climate in the United States make it impossible to put a codified ‘season word’ into every American haiku”.

Instead, many would say that there are two features that characterise a haiku: the first is the intense focus on pure description — there is no room for embellishment, nor even use of metaphor; the second is the frequent contrasting of two images around a cut, or kire, what Jim Kacian has described as “that lightening stroke across narrative” (Modern Haiku, 42.1). This is how we solve the paradox of a poetic form that is (purely) descriptive yet moves the reader into imagination. A haiku presents the bare essence of a moment and then hands the power of interpretation to the reader. It is the ultimate, minimalist example of how to serve a reader, to respect his or her imagination. Here are but three examples:

morning surf
a dog fills the sky
with seagulls

Jim Boyd

rain in gusts
below the deadhead

John Wills

second husband
painting the fence
the same green

Carol Montgomery      

Notice the perfect detail, the minimal movement (verbs are a rarity in these examples), the contrasting images and the kire in each (end of first, second and first lines, respectively). Now ask yourself this: can you imagine, and can you feel and sense, so much more than the actual words themselves? I would argue yes, and all this in less than 11 syllables!

Today’s poetry is reaching out and trying to be “more available”. It is entering the lives of people who could not express themselves before, or could not believe that they could be moved by the words of another. Like other art forms, it continues to move into new arenas, and it is even being used within companies and organisations to “open up the right brain”, to unlock innovative forces, to allow otherwise linear thinkers to see laterally and empathise with the unknown. As someone who worked for many years as a business executive, I can attest to this power. But I am also aware that conveying a vision or message to people is hard and, that no matter how tempting it is to tell the story, real empathy and engagement comes when the recipient — the employee, the reader of poetry — is moved and is given the opportunity to imagine and soar. This is what great poetry does. This is the essence of haiku.

Editor’s note: This article was published originally in Haibun Today, 12:3, September 2018 and appears here with the author’s permission (it can also be seen on contemporary haibun online).

Lew Watts is the haibun co-editor of Frogpond and the author of Tick-Tock (Snapshot Press, 2019, a free e-book), a haibun collection that received an Honorable Mention in the Haiku Society of America’s 2020 Merit Book Awards. His publications include the novel Marcel Malone and the poetry collection Lessons for Tangueros. Born in Wales, Lew now lives in Chicago. He has his own website.