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HAIKU TIPS FOR BEGINNERS

by Elizabeth St Jacques ©1999, 200l


Many years ago, when coming across several haiku in an amateur poetry journal, I immediately fell in love with their brevity and beauty.  So, of course, I churned out a few and shipped them off to the editor. She liked them and would publish them, but they were not haiku. They weren’t? Could she help me understand why they weren’t, please?  Sadly, she reported she was unable to explain, thus, my “how-to” search began. 

During the ensuing years, a few kind editors helped to revise my better efforts and published those revisions, but I still didn’t fully understand the form. Eventually, an editor sent an extremely long list of rules with complicated instructions that left me staggering under their weight. My blazing fire to learn about haiku sizzled out. Yet, the lure toward haiku continued to grow with every haiku I read, and amazingly, some of my off-and-on efforts were published “as is.”  But I was like a blind woman … I needed someone to help guide me through the misty valleys of haiku.

In 1988, I found the Haiku Society of America and Haiku Canada and read every word they sent my way. Through these organizations, I “met” and corresponded with knowledgeable haiku poets whose advice helped me as well. Eventually, I began to see the light. Books by successful western haiku poets helped even more until, finally, I became more confident in submitting my work. Fortunately, much of my haiku earned publication as well as awards. Wow!

Those early struggling years are relived each time a newcomer asks for help in understanding how to write haiku. While I do not propose to know all the answers, the following points, including examples of my own work, may be of some assistance in learning the basics:

1) most important: a haiku focuses on a moment that is happening right    now. When writing from a memory, set it in the present tense so that readers may share the immediacy of the moment.

after the funeral
urgently watering
her african violets
2) a haiku that opens with a setting or mood gives the reader a sense of place & time. It is most desirable when the season (kigo) is implied. That is, instead of writing “Spring” try using an image, such as a flower or an activity associated with that time of year.
wedge of sound
rests my broom
            geese heading north
3) often a haiku has a pivotal point whereby line 2 unites with the first line as well as line 3. Yet, the “shift” remains distinct, therefore, dividing the haiku into two separate parts -- this being most important in haiku. 
woodshaving curl
in winter light
grandfather’s violin
4) haiku should be tightly written. Use only those words necessary for clarity and smoothness. Haiku often work best without verbs, but if a verb is included, check to see if it is absolutely necessary. One verb per haiku is usually quite sufficient. Nevertheless, I have been guilty of using two verbs in some of my work, as seen in the second haiku below: 
   in new deep snow
beneath the apple tree
      a perfect hole

 lone wolf howls . . .
      below dark cliffs
      bison shift as one

5) while it's fine to begin a haiku with a capital letter (although most modern haiku use lower case), to capitalize the beginning of every line brings each line to an abrupt stop. (A successful haiku allows the reader to linger in thought.) Please, never capitalize all letters: a haiku does not shout or scream at the reader. 

6) avoid all but necessary adjectives and adverbs (let the reader think, imagine for him or herself). In other words, keep it simple and honest to the vision – no cute or flowery images. Save metaphors and similes for other poetry. That said though, sometimes you will see a metaphor in successful haiku, but beginners should avoid poetics until they have a great deal of published credits in highly respected journals and websites. 

in the heart
of the peach
still life
7) a successful haiku SUGGESTS rather than tells. However, a haiku that does not contain a kigo (season word) - and which some refer to as “senryu” - often gives a statement that is humorous. Keep in mind that haiku with a season word can be humorous as well; the difference is that it suggests rather than making a statement.
the priest
blesses the prisoner's child --
twice

duck pond --
behind a bush
slingshots at the ready

8) each line should offer a distinct image and end strongly. That is, avoid ending a line with a weak word, such as a preposition, conjunction, article, etc.

9) a haiku that has more than one "ing" word can sometimes sound/read more like a jingle, so be careful not to overdo. 

10) haiku do not have rhyming words. Save rhyme for other poetry forms that allow them.

11) an appealing technique is to complement or contrast images in line 1 and 3 via color, scent, mood, or whatever.

heat wave
broadcasting more of it
crickets

from the barn
  the running child
    a scent of new hay

12) finally, rarely does a haiku require a title. With careful revision, almost always all the necessary information can be worked into the haiku itself. (See HAIKU TITLES? )

By studying and exercising these basic principles, you may find your haiku path a bit smoother. May the spirit of haiku be ever with you, and may each haiku you write find a loving and beautiful home. 

- all haiku from my collections, “echoes all strung out” and “Dance of Light”

(a shorter version of this article appeared in Black Creek Review, May 1999. Revised and expanded April 2001.)

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