Why You Can’t Write Haiku, Part 3

Continuing with misconceptions about haiku:

4. “They are easy to write.” As with any poetic form, it’s easier to write bad ones than good ones. Because they are short, haiku appear easy to write, but they are not. A respectable haiku requires proportionally more effort than any other form of writing, including other poetic forms, advertising copy, and political slogans.

Many Western teachers have their students write haiku because a haiku of sorts can be created in a minute or two. Operating under the theory that a short bad poem is better than a long, bad poem, teachers thus provide an opportunity for students to produce a poem in a single class session–not the best poem, most likely, but not the very worst, either.

Blank verse (including haiku) can only get so bad, whereas there seems to be no limit to how bad rhymed, metered poems can get. The latter have additional dimensions of awfulness. Good traditional poetry is difficult to teach and difficult to write, possibly the primary reason it has gone out of fashion in academic circles. Haiku spare the teacher and take little class time. It should also be said that many student haiku are not bad. Some are excellent. But haiku are not really easy to write. Some Japanese haiku teachers won’t let their students publish anything until they’ve worked on their poems for years.

5. “They have no punctuation.” It is perfectly all right to punctuate American haiku. Bear in mind, though, that the rhythm of the ideal haiku parallels breathing, as stated above. This means that punctuation would often be inappropriate in the last line if the writer is attempting to adhere to that guideline.

Because of the importance of the final line, there is an implicit exclamation point at the end of every haiku. It is never included, though, leaving the power of the words and imagery to create the emphasis. Aside from that, it is occasionally necessary to punctuate a haiku for clarity or for brevity, if the writer is running out of syllables.

Some Japanese haiku, after translation, have a semicolon or colon placed between lines to indicate where the content changes from the general to the specific or vice versa. See Part 1.

6. “They are nature poems.” Nature is perhaps the best source of inspiration for haiku, but it is not the only source. The emphasis on nature in haiku is largely due to the influence of Bashô, the dominant personality of the form. Traditionally, therefore, the subject matter is usually nature, the earth, or the seasons.

In practice, though, haiku have been written about almost everything. Many of the earliest were just as vulgar as limericks. Humans are part of nature, despite what we have been told lately, and so are fair game for haiku. It just seems that the haiku that last are on eternal themes, including nature. A haiku written about this year’s celebrity will be nonsensical in 10 years and incomprehensible in 100.

James Hackett1 suggests seeking inspiration for haiku by studying natural objects close up, observing the fine details, sort of a Georgia O’Keeffe approach.

1James Hackett, “The Way of Haiku,” Japan Publications, Inc., Tokyo, 1969

Next time, some exploration of what is true about haiku.

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One Response to Why You Can’t Write Haiku, Part 3

  1. Pingback: Why You Can’t Write Haiku, Part 2 | jguentherauthor

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