I want to write a whole series of posts about Abigail Freedman’s The Haiku Apprentice, which I just finished and found enlightening and thought-provoking in so many ways. But for right now I’ll just submit for your perusal a quotation by Barthes from the book’s foreword (written by Michael Dylan Welch, a wonderful haiku poet and essayist — you should check out his amazing website, Graceguts):
“Haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we ourselves can write such things easily.”
— Roland Barthes
If this blog had a motto, that would probably be it. I started out (way back in May!) with pretty much utter ignorance of what haiku was, other than “a more-or-less seventeen-syllable, three-line poem that originated in Japan.” I decided to write them because they were short, and I have a short attention span. That’s it. That was my thought process. Yeah…I admit it. I thought it would be easy.
My state of blissful ignorance did not last long, of course. As everyone who writes haiku quickly finds, writing haiku — writing it well — is much, much (much) harder than it looks. I suppose, really, this is true of all writing, probably all artistic endeavor — how many of us have also been convinced that we could write the Great American Novel, if only, you know, we could think of something to write about, and then, um, write it well? Yeah. How’s that working out for you?
I do think, though, that with haiku it’s probably much easier to deceive yourself not only that you could write haiku well, but that you are writing it well. After all, don’t you have some nice images in your haiku? Doesn’t it sound pretty when you read it? Isn’t it kind of, you know, deep and meaningful? And it’s — let’s see — fourteen syllables, which is about the right amount. So why doesn’t anyone seem to like it but you (and maybe a few of your best friends)?
The antidote to this confusion probably lies in reading good haiku — really, really good haiku. Really, really good haiku are not just pretty poems — actually, they may not be (quite frequently aren’t) pretty at all. They don’t just have an interesting image or two, or some memorable phrases, or a nice sentiment. They don’t make you smile for a second and then slip out of your mind, leaving no lasting impression.
Really good haiku are like tiny earthquakes, or miniature bombs that explode in your brain. They change everything, permanently, even if only in some minute way that you may not be able to perceive or describe clearly. They leave you breathless for half a second (sometimes more). They make you realize that you’ve been blind, all your life, to some profound reality. When you read a really, really good haiku, it makes you feel like scraping all the nice-enough haiku that you’ve ever read (which for me includes about one percent of the ones I’ve written, the others not even rising to nice-enough status) straight off the plate into the garbage. Why eat Kraft macaroni and cheese when a three-star chef has lovingly concocted an exquisite dish for you?
It’s hard to know where to tell people to look to find really, really good haiku, because in my experience, even the best haiku poets mostly did/do not write haiku of only, or even mostly, that quality, and even the best journals don’t publish haiku of only, or even mostly, that quality. Of course, I suppose it depends on how picky you are — I am notoriously picky, about just about everything, but especially literature. (Or maybe it’s not pickiness, maybe I’m just not perceptive enough to see the value of the vast majority of haiku that just make me shrug and go, “Eh.”) This is why I’m not going to give any examples of my favorite haiku here — you have to decide for yourself what kind of haiku make your brain explode.
Probably the most important thing is to read lots and lots of haiku, in all the most reputable places you can find — I have lists of links to high-quality journals and classic haiku poets in my sidebar, for starters — and notice your reactions. Which ones bore you, which ones do you think are pretty good, which excite you immeasurably? What do you think is the reason for the difference?
Do you notice some of the same names recurring as the authors of your favorites? Go and read more by those poets, and start sorting out which of their haiku work for you and which don’t. If you determine that they belong to some particular haiku movement or school, read more haiku by other poets in that movement. Are those kind of haiku more likely to speak to you than others? Or does it not matter?
Write down your favorite haiku. Read them over and over. Think about what it is about them that you love. Go ahead, shamelessly imitate them. (You might not want to submit the imitations for publication, but it’s a useful exercise.) Then when you’re done imitating, what you need to do is to start writing like yourself again. Only, you know, better …
In my experience, most of these well-meaning measures serve mostly to convince you that the haiku you’ve been writing are, um, pretty bad. (Apologies to any great haiku writers who are reading this, although I wish you would stop and go write more haiku instead.) They won’t necessarily (although they might, you never know) make the ones you write in the future significantly better. Or not right away. But it’s useful information to have, that your haiku are not all that great. And in a way it’s inspiring, and challenging — when you’re functioning at a pretty low level, there are so very many ways to improve!
Okay, I did it again — started out with the intention to share a sentence with you and ended up writing a whole glob of verbiage that most of you, and justifiably so, won’t read. Run along now, and read something more interesting.
Don’t forget to write.