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   LOOKING AT HAIKU 


        by Elizabeth St Jacques 1998





A common complaint of novice haiku poets is,
"Most of my haiku are rejected. What am I doing
wrong?" As newcomers soon discover, haiku may
seem easy to write, but there is a lot more than 
meets the eye.

To understand haiku, the beginner must be aware of
the basic rules. Because haiku deals with a moment
that is presently happening, it is best written in 
the present tense. A haiku also contains a seasonal 
word (a kigo), that implies the season rather 
than stating it outright . 

For example, instead of saying "Springtime," the 
reader will get a sense of Spring through the 
image of dandelions, a robin, melting snow or 
whatever.  In other words, let the reader think, 
use his/her imagination -- participate in the
experience. 

Reader participation. Since haiku leaves so much 
to the imagination, readers draw upon their own 
experiences to relate to a haiku. What one reader 
sees in a haiku may be entirely different 
from the next. Therefore, when someone reads your 
haiku and finds a different vision, try not to 
explain the vision you intended. The greatest 
compliment a haiku poet can receive is for a reader 
to discover their own experience through it. 
Undoubtedly, this is what makes haiku unique 
and exciting.

While some excellent three-line 5-7-5 haiku are 
being written today, it's not uncommon to read 
one, two, four and even five line haiku, all of 
which have fewer than the traditional seventeen 
syllable count. Brevity is essential, so the 
tighter you write, the better.

When writing haiku, set aside the usual poetic 
devices.For many beginners, this seems to be 
most troublesome as they incorrectly assume, 
because haiku relates to nature, the poem should 
be flowery, poetic, and contain a philosophical  
summation.  

You are probably shaking your head by now and 
mumbling, "I've seen metaphor in published 
haiku!" You are quite right;  metaphor 
has found its way into haiku -- even in ancient 
haiku by Japanese masters. But, in my opinion, 
metaphor that works best is subtle. Usually only 
haiku poets with a great deal of experience can 
pull it off. So those of you who are just beginning 
to write haiku would be wise to learn the basics 
and collect a long list of credible publishing 
credits before experimenting with metaphor in 
your work.

Beginners often better understand the mechanisms 
of haiku by seeing what another reader 
discovers. Therefore,let's look at a haiku by 
H.F. Noyes:

                 blue irises
                 one finger tall --
                 the morning sky

Immediately, one feels the relaxed mood of this poem, the
solitude of a clear morning sky, its blue serving as a 
backdrop for the more pronounced blue of the irises. Blue 
suggests tranquillity, peace of mind. And because the 
flowers are only "one finger tall" the reader realizes 
he/she is looking at them from a distance -- perhaps 
stretched out on his/her stomach on the cool grass.

It is an unhurried time, nothing more pressing than to 
discover these beautiful flowers standing beneath a new 
morning sky. Is it before the work hour?  Perhaps the 
observer is an early riser with the distinct purpose to 
enjoy and attune himself to nature before the bustle of 
daily chores. Or is it a day off when he can explore small 
wonders at leisure?

There is also a child-like quality to this poem, a purity 
of thought that enables the observer to notice "one finger 
tall" irises. Imagine! These majestic flowers that often 
dominate a garden or tower above other flowers in a field 
have, by the observer's position, shrunk to "one finger tall." 
This viewpoint tells me that all things are at the mercy of 
the observer, being as tall or small as the eye (or mind)
registers. Therefore, I am reminded that all is not as it 
appears; there are other dimensions to everything -- 
IF I take the time and interest to seek them out.

On the other hand, from the point of view of the irises: 
they are content as they are, as is the morning 
sky. Now I ask myself: am I content with and within 
myself? If not, is it because of my own expectations 
or because of what others expect of me?

Let's look now at the structure of this haiku. As you 
will note, this haiku has only twelve syllables. To 
tighten (or lengthen) it would destroy the sharp pure 
image that the author presents. Insofar as arrangement, 
the first line balances perfectly with line three. 
Although "blue" is not mentioned in the final lines, 
one automatically thinks of  a blue sky, probably paler 
in intensity than that of the flowers. Therefore, the 
deep blue versus pale blue serves not only as a color 
contrast but as a spiritual one as well. Between these 
lines, the "one finger tall" is the human element. 
Is it really coincidental that the poet chose to place 
this line between two images of nature where humans/
beasts/birds naturally dwell in the order of existence?

As shown, there is much more depth to haiku than the eye 
initially realizes. A great deal of thought goes not only 
into line arrangement and word choice, but in the 
presentation of a lean image (the pure image) 
that permits the reader to fill in the spaces via 
personal experience and imagination.

Of course, there is much more to learn about haiku but if 
you apply these basic rules, your haiku are sure to improve. 
Also, by reading and studying haiku by respected haiku 
poets, your own work will benefit.

Finally, if you want to write haiku that will be appreciated 
and remembered, live haiku every waking hour. When out 
for a walk getting groceries, taking a shower -- everyday, 
common occurrences -- fine-tune yourself to capture a 
haiku moment and free it through your unique vision.

Haiku may be small, simple, and insignificant in all 
physical appearances, but remember, we once thought 
that about the humble bee . . . .




This article is a revised and expanded version of the original 
that first appeared in Writer's Journal, 1990.


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