Writing (and Reading) Haiku

On my Facebook page I’ve been posting a “Hump Day Haiku” every Wednesday, a new original haiku I feel like sharing with my FB friends. It started last year after my wife Carol died from metastatic lung cancer, caused by a rare genetic rearrangement. She was an excellent watercolorist who often gifted her art to family and friends. While I can’t draw a stick figure without a ruler, I enjoy writing haiku and decided to honor her practice by gifting my FB friends a new haiku each week.

Haiku are one of the most democratic art forms around. Pretty much everyone I know is familiar with traditional English haiku form (three lines of 5-7-5 syllables respectively) and has probably tried to write at least one at some point. I remember first encountering them in English class, probably late middle school or early junior high, and having to write one as a creative writing assignment. I liked the challenge of trying to write a complete poem in a very short and strict form, and I continued writing them on my own. But I would get frustrated. Sometimes I would write a haiku that seemed finished, but only took 12 syllables, or two lines. Padding the haiku out just to fit the form bugged me. I got less enthusiastic about trying to fit every idea I had into 5-7-5 and drifted away from writing them.

And then, years later, I found out 5-7-5 was not considered a requirement for modern haiku in English. I read haiku anthologies where there were 2-line, even single line haiku. And haiku with less than 17 syllables was very common, although I can’t say I ever encountered one with more than 17 syllables. Contemporary poets have really opened up the form. Here’s just one example of how free modern English haiku can be – by Raymond Roseliep, from Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (Norton, 2013):

he removes his glove
to point out

Given that the accepted form is so much freer, what makes a haiku a haiku? For me, a haiku is often the recording of a moment that transcends that moment – giving me a sort of feeling of “familiar surprise,” of having experienced that exact same thing myself without having ever stopped to think about it before. (There’s a similar quoted definition near the top of Modern Haiku‘s home page.)

I find the biggest trap I can fall into when writing haiku, and it can be a fine line, is when I write what I call a “news report” – it definitely describes a scene, but it doesn’t make that scene resonate on a deeper level. Sometimes it can take as little as one or two more or fewer words or even one less line to turn a news report into a real haiku. It’s an engrossing challenge. I’ve written maybe a half dozen that I’m completely satisfied with. And then I start reading a modern haiku anthology, which is often humbling and inspiring in equal measure.

Some of my favorite haiku lately have been ones I’ve been reading by the amazing Scandinavian poet and Nobel prize winner Tomas Transtromer, a big influence on my own longer-form poetry and someone who is teaching me how far haiku can travel from their classical origins, becoming very Central European in thought and style. There’s an almost Nordic sensibility to some of his haiku, a darker, engimatic feel:

Hear the swish of rain.
To reach right into it I
whisper a secret.

I’ve been writing haiku more regularly again for about a year now, have managed to get just a handful published over my entire lifetime, and I feel I’ve only begun to grasp the possibilities of what I once wrongly considered a restricted form. The more time I spend with haiku, the more fascinating they seem to become.

(Tomas Transtromer’s haiku is from his anthology “The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems”, brilliantly translated by Robin Fulton. Constant surprises sprung, deep universal secrets revealed. Highly recommended.)

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