Monday, June 22, 2009

writing haiku, Part 2 of 2

What an amazing response to the first haiku seminar and prompt. You’ve all re-inspired me too and once again I find myself making notes for haiku as well as ‘seeing’ fragments of them throughout the day... just like you, Kay.

The second part of the seminar will ask you to think about writing haiku in a different format, but before we move on to that, let’s just recap on some general aspects of writing haiku:

say no more than is absolutely necessary; question the role of every word.
avoid overstatement, decorative language, explanations.
use concrete imagery that is capable of suggesting more than its literal meaning; allow meaning and idea to emerge from the details.
write from your own experience, your insights, observations, memories.

‘Light touch’ is a good expression to keep in mind as an overall guide to writing haiku - with language, punctuation (is it really needed?) and the effects of line-break.

However, you won’t have to worry about line break in this half of the seminar as we’ll be looking at one line haiku, or single sentence haiku.

Take a look at this one by Jim Kacian, a master of the one line haiku:

a last glint of sunlight from each polished headstone

(originally published by White Lotus, Winter 2006)

When I read this haiku the language propels me (albeit gently) from the beginning to the end of the line. There’s no sense of pause within the line and the image, although divided into two parts (sunlight and gravestone) is all of one thing. It’s the kind of scene that we notice in a split second, with no sense of division, no conscious realisation that we’re aware of the sunlight before we notice it glinting against the stone. A moment perfectly captured.

This ‘oneness’ is what makes it, for me, an effective one line haiku.

Now take a look at another one by w.f. owen:

spring rain drips from the still naked tree

This can be read in two parts:

rain drips from the still naked tree

or as a single sentence with ‘spring rain’ as the subject and ‘drips’ as the verb. And it can also be read with a pause after ‘spring rain’, with drips acting as a noun. But the overall image still feels contained within a single theme. There’s no strong juxtaposition that we were exploring in the phrase and fragment structure.

Here’s one of mine that was published on tiny words last year:

all this green forgiving the rain

I enjoyed playing with different pauses in this haiku: after ‘all this’, or ‘all this green’, or even, ‘all this green forgiving’, but I also wanted the reader to have a single experience of rain and spring time, to be submerged in a single experience, so the one line haiku was a better option than splitting into two or three lines that would direct the reader where to pause.

So, to recap on these one line haiku:

propulsion: language that drives you to the end of the line with the single line seeming essential to what the haiku is saying, what it has captured.
multi-reading: pauses that are not marked through punctuation but which can be applied at different points in the line to suggest different meanings and/or relationships.

You’ll notice that I haven’t attempted to interpret or suggest meaning in either Jim Kacian’s or w.f. owen’s haiku. There are things that they suggest to me but I’d prefer you to have your own responses rather than be influenced by mine.

Haiku are quiet poems and it’s true that we can sometimes feel they’re not saying much, or anything at all. That can be due to the way we read them, or the mood we read them in, or even to our expectations of what they should be doing. And sometimes, it’s just a case of a particular haiku not being the poem for us. But there are plenty more haiku that will speak to us.

I hope you enjoy playing with this form and if you can restrict yourself to posting one at a time that will make it easier for me to respond.

Looking forward to reading your work.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

writing haiku - practice

This is an exercise by Timothy Russell.

It's like bootcamp for haiku writers! It takes discipline. It hurts. It's frustrating. But in the end you're glad that you did it : )) Here we go:

This is a training exercise. It helps condition the muscles necessary for making haiku.

Write down what month this is.

Next to the month write another single word that names or indicates some feature of today ... sun, rain, moon, clouds, wind ...

(ME: This will be your fragment e.g. June rain, June sunrise, June haze, June roses... you get the picture.)

Now look out the window, or go outside.

Without thinking too much (or at all, if you can manage) write a short description of any detail you see (any thing and/or any action).

Look in another direction. Write a short description of any detail you see (thing and/or action).

Turn your head and write down another detail.

Do this at least 7 more times.


When you have at least ten (TEN) little descriptive phrases, none of them longer than a single short sentence, please, go to a comfortable spot and choose one of your phrases and write part of it on the line immediately beneath the line you wrote when you first started.

Write the rest of your chosen phrase on the line beneath that one.

(ME: And this will be your two line phrase.)

Skip a line.

Write down the same month and same detail of today you used on the first line.

Write part of one of the remaining phrases on the next line.

Write the rest of that phrase on the following line.

Do this until you run out of phrases.

This is only an exercise, not a test. Do not pass any judgements on yourself, on your performance, or on what you have written. Do the best you can.

November trees
shadows stretching all the way
across the lawn

November trees
a white car speeding along
the river road

Put this sheet of paper with at least ten (TEN) little balls of words out of sight. You do not need to think about them at all for a while.

Tomorrow, repeat this exercise. Completely. Don't think.


The day after tomorrow, repeat this exercise. Don't think.

On the fourth day, after you complete your exercise, take out the first sheet and read it several times (three or four is enough), and put it away.

On the fifth day, read the second sheet.

In one week, a single week, just seven days, you will have taught yourself more about haiku than it's possible for anyone else to teach you.


(ME: You can do it! Really.)

Monday, June 08, 2009

writing haiku, Part 1 of 2

Something different for June: a two part seminar on a poetic genre that’s not that popular in the UK, and is often dismissed as rather lightweight. My own interest in haiku writing began a few years ago and I hope to share some of my enthusiasm with you.

Most people think of haiku as: a short poem arranged in three lines of five, seven and five syllables that has something to do with nature.

These perceptions of haiku come from certain characteristics of classical Japanese haiku that were translated into English during the 19th century. Let’s take a look at those elements:

three lines
The three lines echo the structure of traditional Japanese haiku that were written in three parts, although in Japanese these tended to be written in one vertical line. This was obviously impractical in English… so the three horizontal lines served, and still serve, as an alternative. However, there are contemporary haiku writers who write one, two and four line haiku, although let’s not step too far ahead of ourselves at this point.

The Japanese language does not have syllables that compare to English language syllables. They have ‘on’, which are closer to our idea of sounds. For example, the word haiku in Japanese has three sounds: ha/i/ku, all of which have an equal amount of weight. So when English translators took Japanese haiku, they counted the ‘sounds’ in a haiku, (some of which were not even words as we know them, but the equivalent ‘sound’ for English punctuation, like a dash or a pause or an exclamation), realised they were composed of 17 sounds, and they subsequently made the translated haiku extend to 17 English syllables. Because of this imposed syllable count, and the 19th style of language, quite a lot of these translated haiku, can feel overstated and too wordy.

A poem, regardless of its form, is a piece of writing where every word has to earn its place. In such an economic form as haiku surplus words really do draw attention to themselves and contemporary practitioners have adopted the idea of ‘free verse’ haiku that will more often than not be less than 17 syllables, sometimes as few as 6. That’s not to say that there aren’t some good haiku around that do have 17 syllables. But that’s because they need that amount of syllables to effectively say what they’re saying and not because of an insistence on the syllable count regardless of content.

More specifically, traditional haiku contain a ‘seasonal’ reference or a kigo. In Japan where haiku is still written and read by millions of people, haiku are still expected to contain ‘seasonal’ references. These references are often multi-layered and contain suggestions of Japanese life, customs and history.

No such expectation is required of English language haiku, although you will find seasonal references in many as a matter of course. Some haiku poets do insist that it isn’t a haiku without a seasonal reference, however, if haiku are written out of our life experience, (the present moment or from memory), then reflections of the season, from icicles to lambs, from barbecues to autumn leaves, will inevitably find their way in.

writing haiku
Martin Lucas, in his book Stepping Stones, an anthology of haiku with commentaries, talks about English language haiku being a completely different animal to Japanese haiku. And I’m inclined to agree with him. And while it is obviously beneficial to study the history of any form, I do feel that reading and examining contemporary English language haiku is more helpful if that’s what you want to write.

The art of writing haiku is centred on simplicity:
+ Saying no more than is absolutely necessary.
+ Using language that does not rely on special effects.
+ Not imposing judgement but letting the reader come to their own conclusion.

The best way to learn about haiku is to read them. And then to write them. And one of the most accessible approaches with which to begin writing haiku is ‘phrase and fragment’ structure – or more simply put, a short bit and a longer bit.

Example 1

snowy night
sometimes you can’t be
quiet enough

John Stevenson
quiet enough

In this haiku the first line contains the fragment and the last two lines contain the phrase. The fragment is an image, and a seasonal reference to winter. The phrase is a statement.

I find it difficult to write really effective haiku that juxtapose image and statement as there’s always the danger that the statement will be too didactic, or that it will direct the reader too much towards the poet’s way of ‘seeing’ things rather than letting the reader come to his/her own conclusions and insights. The use of the 2nd person here is a good choice, I think, as it encapsulates both the poet speaking to himself, and the ‘universal’ you. In addition, the poet has captured a moment that many of us will be able to respond to. This haiku, for me, produces the ‘ah!’ of recognition, but it took this poet’s articulation of the moment to make my response fully conscious.

Example 2

family court
the lawyer’s tie lolls
against his gut

Sharon Dean

Again, the fragment precedes the phrase, yet this haiku has no seasonal reference in it and focuses on a particular aspect of the human experience. It would be easy to dismiss this haiku as purely ‘description’ but a slow and careful reading reveals its subtlety.

The expression in the first line – family court – is very familiar, but it is only when it’s isolated in a piece of art, like this, that we ‘see’ it clearly and begin to think about the conflict it contains. Family should be about love and nurture, shouldn’t it? But a court is a place of battle and dispute. With these ideas in our minds the juxtaposed image of the lawyer becomes even more distasteful: the lolling tie, combined with the soft consonants in lawyer, suggests inactivity, ineffectualness, and the further idea that the only real winners in situations like this are the lawyers.

Example 3

sprinkling her ashes
on rocks at low tide
the long walk back

This is one of mine, written for my mother-in-law. This begins with the phrase in the first two lines and ends with the fragment. There’s no strong seasonal reference but, for me, ‘low tide’ connects the human and natural worlds here, both physically and emotionally, and gives the haiku a sense of place for the reader to experience. And I consciously chose the three long syllables in the last line to underpin the emotion of the haiku.

And finally, a few other things to consider when writing haiku:
+ No titles - the haiku shouldn’t need any kind of introduction.
+ A very light touch with any ‘effects’, e.g. line break, figurative language.
+ The suggestiveness of your language – work with concrete images that are significant not just descriptive.

So, how about attempting a few haiku of your own using the phrase and fragment construction, and juxtaposing either two images, or an image and a statement? I’ll choose a selection to comment on, although if you’d rather nor receive any feedback on anything you post then please let me know.

The second part of writing haiku will appear later in the month.

Happy haiku-ing!


Sunday, June 07, 2009

May Prize Poem

My two shortlisted poems for May were by Eileen Carney Hulme and Alyss Dye, both with the title of 'Life Waits Inside Us'.

One of the things I love about reading poetry is being surprised by the language or startled by an image. The damp stars in Eileen’s poem did that for me; I don’t think I’ve ever read about stars in this way.

Alice’s poem has more straightforward imagery yet it's equally as suggestive, and her use of contrast in the following lines is subtle and moving: Life is work and a day off work./ It‘s the funeral tea.

After reading both of these poems several times, I’ve decided to choose Alyss’s poem for the quiet way it reassures me that life does wait inside us, even at times when we can’t make ourselves believe it.

Congratulations, Alyss. Can you email me with your address, please?

The first of June’s prompts will follow in a couple of days.


Life waits inside us

Life waits inside us for a ribbon to be cut.
In May, we walk round the corner
and it’s there –
ice-cream chimes,
warm pavement,
a man resting on a garden wall
with his face turned to the sun.

Life is the lottery ticket.
It is tea and toast in the recovery room.
A mistake corrected.

Life is work and a day off work.
It‘s the funeral tea.
After weeks of sleepless nights
it surprises us,
like a baby’s first smile.

Alyss Dye