Pushing Ahead: Haiku Technique

So I’ve reached the point in this project, inevitable whenever I start learning about something new, when I realize that I know. absolutely. nothing. about what I’m doing. Three weeks ago when I decided suddenly to start this blog, having previously only infrequently written haiku, or really any poetry (you begin to see the depth of my naivete here), I thought (if I thought anything, which I very much doubt), “Haiku! How charming they are! And short! So very short! I could write one of those every day!” Really, I just wanted something to blog about daily, and since I have the attention span of [insert annoying, buzzing insect of your choice here], a three-line poem seemed pretty much perfect for my purposes.

So I blithely started writing the damn things, rapidly became addicted to both seeing and writing in this new compressed way, and started sensing that there might be more to this charming little poetic form than I had suspected. And then, and only then, did I start reading other people’s haiku, and reading about the form, trying to figure out what it was really about.

It didn’t seem too complicated at first. Sure, there were all those competing definitions, but really, they had a lot in common — the general idea being that haiku should express in a handful of syllables some brief but complete moment of passing enlightenment. I was totally down with that. I need more enlightenment anyway. I ran around looking for it and sat with my laptop for hours permutating (sometimes mutilating) words to try to express it. Those first efforts seemed pretty satisfying to me, sort of the way their first few drunken lurches on their own two feet seem pretty satisfying to babies. Haiku! Like walking! Nothing to it!

But just as babies are no longer content to wobble when they observe the rapid and graceful locomotion of their elders, the more I read the haiku of others, the humbler I became. Not just the classical greats, your Basho, your Issa: just scrolling through the latest issue of one of the modern haiku journals or visiting one of my favorite haiku blogs can leave me gaping: How do they do that? How do they contrive to crank the moon roof open and reveal the stars of a newly expanded universe with so few and such elegant motions? Sometimes I wonder if I’m actually writing in the same language as these people, or if they have discovered some kind of sleek, turbocharged English that can perform technical feats undreamt of by those of us who are still running version 1.0.

Clearly I needed some kind of instruction, or inspiration, or possibly a reboot of my brain — was there some kind of drug that would do that, perhaps? Just as I was beginning to consider entering a Zen monastery or selling my soul to the ghost of William Carlos Williams, I discovered a great essay by Jane Reichhold that not only pretty much blew the top of my head off but gave me renewed hope that someday, perhaps around the time I undergo my third hip replacement, I will write a haiku that seems like it actually has something to offer the world.

In this essay, entitled “Haiku Techniques,” Jane, who is one of the great American haiku poets/guides/instructors of the last fifty years, and whose writing on the subject of haiku is almost without exception brave, exciting, enlightening, and reassuring in equal measure, describes the haiku scene of the seventies and eighties, when a lot of emphasis was placed on authenticity and not so much on literary skill:

“[T]here seemed a disinterest in others wanting to study these aspects which I call techniques. Perhaps this is because in the haiku scene there continues to be such a reverence for the haiku moment and such a dislike for what are called ‘desk haiku.’ The definition of a desk haiku is one written from an idea or from simply playing around with words. If you don’t experience an event with all your senses it is not valid haiku material. A ku from your mind was half-dead and unreal. An experienced writer could only smile at such naivetΓ©, but the label of ‘desk haiku’ was the death-knell for a ku declared as such. This fear kept people new to the scene afraid to work with techniques or even the idea that techniques were needed when it came time to write down the elusive haiku moment.”

Jane then goes on to list and describe no less than 23 different techniques she has discovered for writing haiku, the names of some of which seem like they could themselves be lines in haiku — The Technique of Sense-Switching, The Technique of Mixing It Up, The Above As Below Technique. I advise you to go read about them now if you harbor any ambitions at all in the haiku-writing line yourself and have the slightest degree of dissatisfaction with your efforts to date.

I plan to try them all. Maybe one a day, or maybe not. This is a project ideally suited to a completist, perfectionist, basically uptight academician who likes to analyze things to death but who nevertheless harbors a secret desire to write the kind of poetry that makes people gasp and pant a little, hands to their heart, when they read it. I don’t mean that I think that just working my way through Jane’s techniques will enable me to attain that goal, I just mean that I think that this project is a way of declaring, to myself as much as anybody else, that the goal is worthy.

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11 thoughts on “Pushing Ahead: Haiku Technique

  1. My advice is don’t over-think them. Let them happen. And forget the 5-7-5, that’s for Japanese. If something happens that makes you notice it more than usual, it’s haiku material. Condense it down to its essence.

    But that’s just me.

    LOVE your blog.

    Pearl

    • and I love yours. πŸ™‚ Thanks for all the great comments and support, it’s good to know this all means something to someone besides myself.

      and I may put this: “If something happens that makes you notice it more than usual, it’s haiku material. Condense it down to its essence.” on my mantelpiece with the other definitions. πŸ™‚

  2. Hmm. This is really interesting.

    The idea that there might be *techniques* – let alone 23 of them – for writing haiku came as a surprise to me.

    I agree with pearlnelson that you should just ‘let them happen’.

    For me it’s a question of slipping into a certain kind of mood. It’s a bit like looking at one of those ‘magic eye’ stereograms. Trying to see the 3D image doesn’t really help; it’s only when you stop trying and relax that the target pops into view.

    Essentially it’s the same as when you solve a cryptic crossword clue: the answer just comes into your head. The mechanism that produces the answer isn’t a conscious one.

    I find that when I get into the right kind of state, the haiku write themselves. Sometimes several in succession.

    And once you know what the haiku writing mood *feels* like, it’s that bit easier to recapture it next time.

    Afterwards I switch into critical mode and ditch a fair proportion of poems I have written. My subconscious mind doesn’t get it right all the time. Of those that remain, maybe I strike out a superfluous word or two. But that’s all the editing I do.

    Even the idea of noticing haiku material and condensing it down seems to me like taking a roundabout route.

    Obviously, different things will work for different people. Maybe systematically trying out different techniques will be helpful for you. But I think a lot of people overwork their initial inspiration and end up turning something fresh and authentic into something that sounds stiff and mannered.

    • Brian–thanks for such a long, thoughtful comment. I really like your haiku and I love hearing about how other people work.

      I do understand what you mean about not overworking your material — sometimes that first flash of insight is the freshest. What I’m finding, though, is that working through these techniques is helping me to *see* things better and be more likely to have that flash of inspiration. My first efforts tend to be simple descriptions of things I’ve seen or feelings I’ve had; nice, but nothing special. Making the effort to figure out or imagine how things connect, or compare, or contrast, to me is making my observational muscles stronger.

      And revision is part of the way I work anyway — most of the things I publish here are third or fourth efforts at least, and you probably wouldn’t want to read their first iteration. πŸ™‚ Occasionally I do get something that’s great first try, and then I hope I know enough to let well enough alone. Maybe I should publish a set of revisions sometime and let people vote on which version they like best, to see how it compares with my own opinion. πŸ™‚

      Glad you stopped by, hope to hear more from you. πŸ™‚

  3. Thanks for dropping by and commenting on my Tanka a lullaby posted in my Random Twitter Stories site. I did an happy dance when I saw that you mention Jane Reichhold as I use her book Writing and Enjoying Haiku all the time. I did so with the poem you stopped by on, for example. From the earlier discussion I tend to favour a mixture of looking at one of the 23 techniques and jumping off from this to try and capture an image of a moment. Or a image or moment emerges and then I look for the technique that best expresses it. Any form of writing that stays with that first imaginative zing, stays partly polished. The poets and writers who say this that you read is the truth don’t show you the drafts in their mind or those on the blotter. For me revision and a time to reflect so knowing when to let it go is part of the craft of writing as well.

    • Thanks for your comment! I love hearing about how other people write haiku. It seems everyone has a different approach. I am definitely a big Jane Reichhold devotee, though. Have you read her essay “Haiku Rules That Have Come and Gone”? I may start a series based on that after I finish off the techniques. πŸ™‚

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