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Writing Haiku
By Alistair Scott

 
 
Haiku are modest little poems. You are not going to make your fortune with them. But, don't dismiss them as something school kids write. They have other benefits. Composing haiku is excellent practice in close observation, clear thinking, and tight writing-- all essential skills for a writer in any genre.
 
Traditionally, haiku are three-line poems, the first and last lines containing five syllables, and the middle line with seven. There is no need for rhyme or punctuation, and some of the more minimalist haijin (haiku writers) even consider a title superfluous. Furthermore, this traditional 5-7-5 form is no longer considered sacrosanct. So, what could be easier than writing haiku?
 
Beware! Despite the minimal “rules,” or maybe because of them, creating genuinely good haiku is difficult. And-- a health warning-- getting them exactly right can be addictive.
 
The principal difficulty is capturing the haiku “spirit.” Do not tinker with ideas or ideals. Haiku should arise from genuine feeling and should be written without being aphoristic, didactic or judgmental. A Japanese master of haiku, Buson, wrote:
 
                 the cold is piercing -
                 in the bedroom, I have stepped
                 on my dead wife’s comb
 
There is no specific mention of sorrow or loss here. It is a traditional haiku which takes a moment, an incident or a scene, observes it with clarity and sets it down with the minimum of fuss. Two images are placed side by side, without comment, giving the reader the opportunity to compare, reflect, and share an emotional experience.
 
Haiku are often presented as instants in time, frequently using the present tense to give a sense of immediacy, of the reader actually being there.
 
                 a single poppy
                 blowing in a field of wheat -
                 your face in the crowd
 
Is this an statement of love? Another emotion? Or something else altogether? Individualism? That is for the reader to decide. Haiku is one of the purest expressions of the well-known writers’ aphorism, “Show, don’t tell.”
 
Because haiku are so short, you may feel that the ideal wording has to come immediately. But this is rarely the case. As in all other genres, haiku can benefit from rewriting.
 
For example, in your first draft you may have conjunctions such as “because.” Cut conjunctions in order to leave open the possibility of different interpretations. Similarly, adjectives and adverbs should be ruthlessly sliced out. In short, avoid giving descriptions or making connections that readers can easily imagine for themselves.
 
Another problem in composing haiku is that, if you are working closely with a syllable count-- the 5-7-5 form-- it is all too easy to allow a line to end with short “make-weight” words such as “a,” “the,” “to” or “of.” Take time and thought in your re-writing to get rid of such endings. Your haiku will be stronger for it.
 
On the other hand, take care not to over-edit. You should strive to preserve the original perception, the “haiku moment,” however much the poem is re-worked.
 
             thunderheads billow
             a worm dries stiff on the soil
             raindrops puff the dust
 
Haiku are modest poems, finding inspiration in everyday (though not always “nice”) scenes. When writing them, use ordinary words and straightforward syntax. (Once again, this advice is good practice in any form of writing.) Avoid stylistic and consciously “poetic” features, such as word inversions. Brevity is essential. As Robert Browning said, “Less is more.”
 
But being brief is not everything and brevity alone does not make a haiku.
 
Traditionally, haiku have included a “season” word (known as kigo) or a seasonal activity (kidai). This gives the impression that they are nature poems. But everything changes and the haiku form is no exception:
 
             foreign tribes cower
             behind coils of razor wire -
             eagles wheel above
 
Above all, what really makes a good haiku is the “cutting” (kireji), which is equivalent to the caesura of English poetry. This “cut” often comes at the end of the first or second line and may be marked by a dash. Aficionados claim that the “cut” haiku is always superior to one that reads like a sentence. There is a pleasant and Zen-like sense of “balance despite imbalance” when two lines are pitted against one, as in this haiku by the acknowledged master, Basho:
 
            now the swinging bridge
            is quieted with creepers -
            like our tendrilled life
 
Finally, one of the most enduring principles established by Basho is that of lightness (karumi). This does not mean that haiku should be flippant. Instead, the haiku poet aspires to present all aspects of life, both happy and sad, in a thoughtful, engaging yet detached manner. Furthermore, haiku should not be demanding intellectually. They should produce instant meaning and impact.
 
So, why not become a haijin? But remember the “health warning.” Writing these short poems can be addictive ...
 
            stuck in jammed traffic
            he mouths words and drums fingers -
            composing haiku
 
===================
 
TEN TIPS FOR WRITING HAIKU
 
1. Purists insist on the 5-7-5 form. Modern haiku is more open.
 
2. No titles are needed.
 
3. Keep punctuation to essentials.
 
4. Make no judgments or overt comments.
 
5. Avoid qualifiers.
 
6. Take care with line endings.
 
7. Do not “over-write.”
 
8. Keep it light.
 
9. Use two images and “cut” your haiku.
 
10. Beware of haiku “addiction.”
 
========================
 
HAIKU RESOURCES
 
Though you may not make your fortune with haiku you can still have them published, and even get paid for them-- or win prizes. Here are some resources to investigate:
 
Simply Haiku
An E-Journal of Haiku and Related Forms published six times per year online only. The archives are a permanent feature of the web site.
http://www.poetrylives.com/SimplyHaiku/SHpages/submissions.html
 
Acorn
A small biannual journal dedicated to publishing the best of contemporary English-language haiku. In particular, it showcases the individual poem and the ability of haiku to reveal the extraordinary moments found in everyday life.
http://home.earthlink.net/~missias/Acorn.html
 
Guardian newspaper weekly competition
Win £20-worth of books in this weekly haiku competition run by a UK daily paper. Just encapsulate news events in a haiku.
http://books.guardian.co.uk/games/haiku/0,5917,124810,00.html
 
Haikutalk
A forum for news and views on haiku and related genres.
http://www.nhi.clara.net/hklinks.htm
 

Alistair Scott is a freelance writer/editor and Editor-in-Chief at StoryPlus (www.storyplus.com), an on-line children's publishing company based in Lausanne, Switzerland. He has had articles, essays, fiction and poetry published and broadcast world-wide, and ten of his children's books are to be published in June 2005 by the China Children's Publishing House. He writes the monthly Markets Column for the European Edition of Worldwide Freelance Writer newsletter and is available for editorial work and manuscript critiquing. You can contact him at writer1@bluewin.ch.

 

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