May 12: 2: When it isn’t working

outside hatchlings cry
in the kitchen, hot tea,
bread and butter

This was another one of those days where I tried repeatedly to write a haiku beginning with a particular line, and mostly failed spectacularly. I don’t even like this one very much.*

I never can figure out what to do when this was happening. Should I give up and move on to another beginning line? Accept that the haiku mojo is just not there today? Stop trying to write so many haiku in the first place, and just wait to experience a Zen moment or something?

Sometimes it seems like the thought I’m trying to express is really too large to fit into a haiku in the first place. That I need to either shrink the thought, or find a new thought, or write a different kind of poem. (But I’m not so hot at the writing regular poems thing. I’ve written about one and a half in my life that I actually might consider showing to another human being.)

The spirit of haiku can be elusive. And when you’re trying to churn out at least one halfway decent one a day, you can get all cranky and anxious when it doesn’t seem to be happening. This is also probably not conducive to attaining haiku enlightenment. Must. Curb. Perfectionist. Tendencies. …

What can help is reading large numbers of the haiku of the great masters — they were mostly all extremely prolific, and frankly, most of their haiku is not particularly memorable. For every brilliant flash of insight from Issa:

o snail

climb Mt. Fuji —

but slowly, slowly!

(Issa, translated by D.T. Suzuki)

there are several more Issa efforts that seem uninspired at best. It’s possible (probable) that they’re a lot better in Japanese, but I have heard Japanese-speaking scholars of haiku say the same thing.

And of course, I am not Issa, nor was meant to be. (Apologies to T.S. Eliot, the thought of whom has suddenly made me realize that “April is the cruelest month” might work as an opening line for a haiku.) I’m the humblest of apprentices, and it’s almost arrogant of me to presume that I’ll be able to write a decent haiku more than once in a blue moon. (Blue moon! Also good haiku material. Okay, starting to feel better now.)

People who write haiku — what’s your working method? Do you frequently rewrite your haiku, or do they mostly come to you whole in a flash of insight, or do you think rewrites are destructive to the haiku spirit? (Or can you just not be bothered?) Do you sit down and say, “I think I’ll write a haiku now,” or is that just the form your thoughts take? Do you have to write a lot of them before you get one you’re relatively satisfied with? Share, please, I’m feeling a little isolated at the moment…

(Later note: I had no sooner published this when I saw an edit that would make it better. So I changed it and published it again. And then immediately saw another edit, which I promptly made. Now I’m feeling slightly more cheerful about the whole thing. But only slightly.)

*And a few days later: Okay, how about:

hatchlings cry
fresh bread

I like that better. Still not great. But way too many words in the first one.

12 thoughts on “May 12: 2: When it isn’t working

  1. I don’t know how much help I can offer as I’m a haiku dilettante (although you’ve set me on something of a haiku binge). But a couple of things come to mind.

    I’ve heard, and, alas, I can’t remember where, the best artists only produce roughly one masterpiece for every 100 works they complete. That was in reference to painting. I’m sure writing has its own ratio.

    Also, you’ve probably heard the phrase “kill your darlings”. That’s something I try to adhere to. Whenever I find myself really struggling to make something work, I look to the line or element I love the most – it’s often the culprit holding everything else back. If I can’t bring myself to kill it, I shelve it and try to use it another day.

    As far as writing haiku, I usually start with the idea or image and then play with the words. I’m very taken by (and new to) the notion of connecting two ideas.

    It might be more zen to write haiku in a flash of inspiration, but I normally let an idea roll around in my head for awhile, then, when it’s about 80 percent complete, I write it down and revise it until I feel it’s ‘good enough’ – whatever that means. I’ll even resort to the thesaurus to find just the right nuance.

    I sure do talk a lot!

    – Steve

    • Thanks for this incredibly thoughtful reply, Steve. And don’t worry, as someone who tends to blather on herself, I appreciate — well, let’s call it thoroughness, shall we? — in others. 🙂

      These are all great ideas and I’ll be keeping them in mind as I write over the next few days/weeks/months.

  2. hi MLA,

    don’t be too hard on yourself, just publish them as it is. you never know how your haiku affects different kind of people reading it. and sometimes, a poem you didn’t expect to be most-read and talked about is a simple effortless poem you have written among the bunch.

    we, writers, sometimes, were critical and conscious of our work. that made the spirit of the moment dies away. we need to have balance in creating and forming our literary pieces. poems, haikus or long forms, have a life of their own to the mind of the readers. let them conclude the meaning that fits best to their circumstances and life experiences.

    all the best to your writing.

  3. i like the first one, it seems the hatchling cries, because they are hungry when they smell about the coffee, bread and butter. i can see so many political and sociological dimensions to the haiku you have written. it’s like a bottle of champagne that bursts with so many meanings.

    great insight.

    • I see what you’re saying, Hames…this might just be one of those poems that doesn’t really want to be a haiku — too much stuff in it. and thanks for the great compliment.

  4. I lean toward the revised version but the first version provides a more complete picture.

    It’s a tough one; there is a lot of idea at work. It’ll probably keep turning in your subconscious. I bet if you give it some time it’ll rewrite itself and be waiting when you revisit it.

  5. Oh wow I love visiting your discussions Mel. I can’t really add anything else to what has already been said. I guess I just wanted to say G’day again. I relate to all the frustration and confusion about a haiku not working. I guess I just keep those ones in a dark drawer to see what happens. Usually returning to see it was the best place for them.

    • Thanks so much for dropping by again, Andrew, especially when things must be a bit busy at your house. 🙂 I hope you’re enjoying the new baby!

      Yes, I think since I wrote this I’ve become a bit calmer about haiku not working — some do and some don’t, and some don’t at first and then later they do if you give them some time to ripen. I have many hundreds of “didn’t work” haiku lying around in my files now and I still go back through them occasionally to see if I can salvage anything from them even if just one phrase, though often, you’re right, on rereading them I just think, “What on earth was *that* all about then?” 🙂

      (Also, I just want to say again how very lovely I thought your birth poem was — I am still thinking about it. It sounds like the birth was a wonderful experience and you did an amazing job of capturing the spirit of an occasion like that. Congratulations again to you and your wife and family.)

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