Haiku art, haiku craft

Regarding a “How to/not to…” type of article, I am sending by post an extract from “Lee Gurga’s Haiku – A Poet’s Guide” which I hope may indicate the sort of issues that interest me. I suppose I’m talking about the craft of haiku as opposed to the art – Susan King (pers. comm.)

See above for Susan’s request for some How To advice.  Now while I’m more than happy to oblige, it does go somewhat against the grain.  Presence was founded in 1995-96, right in the middle of the period of raging debates within the British Haiku Society about their “Consensus” document, which was one of our few available How To guides in the early years of British haiku.  I made the decision that from the start Presence would be about shared practice not theory.  It would be a forum for gathering together a variety of haiku that held a certain centre of gravity but within which individual contributions could stray great distances from that centre.  In other words, it would be coherent and divergent at the same time – but never divergent to the point of losing coherence.  There would be no guidelines or theoretical pronouncements – readers would find out what worked by the feedback process of reading each others’ contributions, discovering what worked for them, and perhaps bringing those discoveries to bear on their own writing.  Trusting that feedback process has worked wonderfully over the years and we’ve all made great strides together.  Nevertheless, the deliberate absence of guidelines and theory does allow room for insecurities.
Insecurity isn’t a bad thing.  Lee Gurga’s “Guidelines for Editing” in Haiku: A Poet’s Guide address some likely insecurities, and can serve to train the writer along paths of growth likely to bear fruit.  On the face of it, it’s all sound advice from an experienced haiku poet who has earned every right to act as tutor.  So, I wonder why Susan feels the need for another set of guidelines for Presence purposes, and why wouldn’t I just re-hash Lee’s To Do list anyway?

Well, as it happens, my To Do list would look rather different – not because I differ greatly from Lee over the question of what makes a good haiku, but because I tend to differ somewhat over the question of what makes good advice. Spelling out a list of desirables can provide a fairly precise description of the intended end product, but it doesn’t necessarily help the writer to produce it – it restricts the writer with Do and Don’t when what the writer (or any creative artist) needs above all else is absolute total creative freedom.  (OK, not all the products of “total creative freedom” will qualify for inclusion in Presence, but if I were you I wouldn’t be worrying about whether your haiku is suitable for Presence while you haven’t finished writing it. Write it. Then look at it and decide whether it’s finished.  If not, finish it.  Then decide what to do with it, where to file it, or where to send it.)

So, with apologies to Lee, I’m going to take all his “guidelines for editing” one by one, and re-express them from a Presence standpoint.  This might help.  Or it might not.  (The bold text is from Lee’s book, the rest is mine.)

·        Choose a single moment.  Let the moment choose you!

·        Bring out the significance.  In one sense, yes:  ask yourself why you’re writing about these particular things, and home in on that “why”. But in another sense, haiku have no significance.  Is there anything more insignificant than a haiku?

·        Avoid cause and effect.  Yes. Cause and effect is good physics, but it is only physics.  It doesn’t add up to metaphysics.  Haiku is more about the synchronicity of things, and their harmonies (or disharmonies).

·        Suggest the season. The value haiku places on the seasons is one of its most important contributions to art.  Respect that, and work with it.  The seasons are suggestive.  But there are other large-canvas images that are equally suggestive that are not tied to specific seasons: seas, rivers, the night sky, the city, the home, and so on.

·        Provide only what is essential.  This is better dealt with under the next heading …

·        Say what you mean. Yes, but if you really examine this, you might find that it’s essential that you write a novel, or a play, or a short story, or a haibun, or a tanka, or a sequence, or a funny little poem that has no known predecessor and no name.  Don’t, whatever you do, strip out all the interesting stuff until all you’ve got left is a haiku!  And if the essential thing is a haiku, it probably doesn’t have any “meaning”.

·        Follow the order of perception.  Lee’s advice: “Have you re-arranged [the order of images] for effect and risked jumbling the experience for the reader?” This could be helpful and I ought to reflect on it.  But I rather like “jumbling the experience”!

·        Engage the senses. Yes, and all the senses, not just sight, and in new and interesting ways, not clichés.

·        Present clear, specific images.  That’s because a good haiku enlarges your world, and it’s through “images”, i.e. the things that are out there, that we access that larger world. Thoughts and opinions loop back to the smaller world of the self – but they’re not “banned” from haiku, just under suspicion.

·        Use internal comparison.  Surprisingly, no.  Internal comparison can be the making of a good haiku, but don’t force the issue. Haiku are usually constructed from juxtaposed images, but the juxtaposition can be fascinating because it’s unexpected, and you’ll never get there if you only look for what’s apt.

·        Tap the power of suggestion.  This is something else I don’t think you should worry about at the creating/editing stage.  Look at your finished product and ask yourself, “does it tap the power of suggestion?” and if the answer’s yes, that’s the one you submit for publication or a contest. OK, if the answer’s no but a brilliant tweak occurs to you that’s going to make all the difference, use it – but in general I’d say just write what you write and don’t sweat over making it “suggestive”.

·        Choose the best form.  See above under “say what you mean”.  How do you know the best form is a haiku anyway?  Just be aware that there are all sorts of forms, and, in English at least, haiku has no boundaries, so play with it.

·        Suspect every verb.  Some haiku hinge on a brilliantly original verb; many are more quietly expressed; many are verbless.  If you’re going to be suspicious, be on the lookout for cliché – not just everyday cliché but haiku cliché too.  Then again, haiku has a lot of fun with cliché, and if you struck a line through every clichéd haiku, you wouldn’t have many left.

·        Challenge adjectives and adverbs.  Particularly colour, I think.  A well-chosen colour word can be the making of a good haiku, but haiku isn’t painting a picture, or even painting a wall. You’re freeing the imagination to enter a space.  Why oblige the reader to accept your choice of colours when they have the option of their own?

·        Discriminate among articles and pronouns.  OK, for some really easy, basic technical advice at last:  try to balance out your use of “the” and “a/an” – or no article at all – because it’s easier on the eye and ear if you do.  With pronouns it’s a different question: writing a haiku about “I” is fine, nothing wrong with it, but if you find yourself writing many haiku about “I” it might be worth asking whether “I” is sufficiently interesting and are you short of material?

·        Cut unnecessary words.  Yes, no need for padding, but shorter isn’t always better and remember that a word that adds no meaning can still have value for its sound or rhythm.

·        Listen to the sound.  Yes.  YES. YES!!!  Every single time.  That’s the alpha and omega of editing, in my book.  Just roll it around until you like the sound of it, and your job’s done. (My own practice is to write the haiku “in my head”, try out variations, and put nothing on paper until I think it’s finished – it’s much easier to hear the haiku this way than if you try to work it out “on paper”.)

·        Avoid unnecessary punctuation.  No.  That’s just fashion.  Punctuate how you like.  I mean, a haiku that has punctuation bursting out all over the place is going to look a bit odd.  And if the punctuation creates unintended ambiguities, it needs amending.  As for punctuation that appears unnecessary but is preferred by the writer on style grounds:  the writer might be right.

·        Use figurative language sparingly.  In most haiku, figurative language would be a useless distraction. But if you’re going to go for it, jump in with both feet why not?  And don’t forget that all language is figurative and all haiku are, in their totality, figurative language:  this world that you’ve depicted “out there” images something “in here” – and that’s the whole interest of it.

·        Express mood sensitively.  Lee says, “small word changes and seasonal distinctions can alter the mood of the haiku”.  In other words, play with it.

·        Consider propriety.  Well, I should hope we all at all times consider propriety.  But who’s to say what’s proper?  Your haiku should be proper to you, but whether they’ll be proper to your editor is anyone’s guess.

·        Keep it light.  Or darken it up.  Just don’t try too hard.

·        Avoid half a haiku.  In most cases, haiku have two (unequal) halves.
An image likes to have another image to play with.  But there’s always a chance that half a haiku is enough.

·        Create a clear context.  The reader has to have some way into the haiku, but that doesn’t always mean understanding exactly what is going on.  It could mean just grooving on the poetic vibrancy of it.  Unintended ambiguity ought to be cleared up; but that might leave intended ambiguities wherein lie all the interest of the poem.

·        Use fresh images.  Sadly this one probably does help to be thought about consciously.  In the words of Stuart Quine, “Everyone’s entitled to a lost glove haiku,” but the more haiku you read, the more you realise the world doesn’t really need any more lost glove haiku.  So some conscious effort to treat new subjects, or familiar subjects from unfamiliar angles, or with unfamiliar diction, is probably a necessary fact of life if you’re looking to get your haiku published.

·        Break old habits.  Yes, reinvent your haiku; reinvent yourself.  But the process of writing haiku is about learning to see the world anew, so if you follow that, why wouldn’t you learn to see haiku anew too? Maybe one day you’ll break the habit of haiku – but only, I hope, in favour of something equally or more wonderful. Don’t just dump it.

Summary of the argument:

There is no rule that says you have to write haiku.  So how can there be any rule on how to write a haiku?  If you’re moved to put pen to paper, do so.  Never mind how it turns out.  Write something that interests you.  If it goes on for three pages, good.  It might go on for three years.  If it stops at three lines, it might be a haiku.  Don’t worry about it – that’s what editors are for.  And just because this editor doesn’t like it, it doesn’t mean that one won’t.  In the final analysis, as far as the English language is concerned, there isn’t really any such thing as haiku.  That is, not in the sense of form or shape or strict content:  don’t allow any of these things to restrict you. There probably is such a thing as haiku in the sense of a mode, an approach, a way of looking at things – but this can prompt all sorts of poetic writing beyond the confines of three lines. Presence is not a haiku magazine as the world appears to understand haiku.  It is a magazine devoted to showcasing (and thereby workshopping) writing within what, for now, I’m calling the haiku mode.  Everything within it has to have some unifying feature otherwise it’s pointless, and that unifying feature is the-haiku-way-of-looking-at-the-world; but that doesn’t mean that everything in it is a haiku.  You’re in control.  Do what you want.  Play with it. Write twenty haiku a day for twenty days until you feel you’ve got the hang of it – like finger exercises on the piano. Or forget all about haiku for months on end, until one summer night one flutters in through the open window and lands softly on your sleeping brow.

— Martin Lucas