Revision, rewriting, editing … stop me when you’ve heard enough

Coming up on six months into this project, I’ve been revisiting some of my earliest posts. This kind of retrospection is always a little scary for us perfectionists. I tend to do it with only one eye open, stealing a quick glance and then looking away, my heart beating faster, trying to ignore the gall-like taste of humiliation in my mouth. (Yeah, OK: too melodramatic. That’s what perfectionism is all about.)

I’m surprised, actually, that I don’t completely hate every haiku I wrote six months ago. My very first post, in fact? I have a secret fondness for it. I keep looking at it trying to figure out how I would change it, but I keep coming up empty. It works for me, if not for anybody else. Beginner’s luck, I guess.

Things go downhill from there for a while, unfortunately. Reading through the month of May, I kept squirming, going, “That’s not the way you do it! I could do it better than that now!” Okay, not much better, necessarily, but … anyway, the temptation became irresistible. I started to rewrite. Not every haiku, just the ones I really couldn’t bear to let stand as they were, and had some clue what to do to make them better.

Then I started to post the rewrites below the originals. I haven’t gotten very far yet. I’d like to work my way along through the months, slowly, leaving a trail of shattered dreams and broken hearts — I mean, revised haiku — in my wake. I’ll update you, every now and then, on what I’ve done.

For right now, these are the posts that have revisions attached to them. Feel free to let me know whether you think I’ve made them any better, or just botched them up irrevocably, or whether they were beyond redemption anyhow. You can tell me how you would change them too, if you want. I’m interested. This haiku stuff has kind of gotten to me…

 

May 1: 2 (Seven Eggs Today)

May 1: 3-4 (Two Spring Haiku)

May 3: 2 (Tea Cooling)


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 naiveté, 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.

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
cooling

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

1986

I wish you’d come see
the cat. She no longer sleeps
on the guest room bed.

This was published in my high school literary magazine, after they rejected (with actual incredulous laughter) the haiku I really liked, which I can no longer find. It featured an upturned teapot, but I can’t remember anything else about it. Just for the record, my English teacher liked it too. I feel I must say this defensively even twenty-four years after the fact. Note to self: raise this issue in next therapy session.

I remember being extremely preoccupied with counting 5-7-5 syllables when I wrote haiku in high school (and for some time beyond). Partly this was because schoolteachers tend to place a lot of emphasis on this “requirement” of haiku (I have a post about this coming up), partly it was because I had then (and still must combat now) a tendency to take rules and limits very, very seriously. I still like writing (informal) sonnets, villanelles, all sorts of poetic forms with set structures: genuine free verse seems worryingly infinite in possibility to me. If I do write free verse, I tend to place some kind of loose metrical constraints on it, just so my choice of words is narrower.

That’s pretty much where I am right now with poetry in general and haiku in particular — not tight, not loose. There are haiku “requirements” I find pleasing and like to work with: the “one-breath” idea; the idea of a “kigo” or seasonal word (but my interpretation of this is looser than the Japanese idea); the idea of a “kireji” or cutting word (but for me this means more like a word that is a hinge that holds the parts of the haiku together, or a strong, vivid word that focuses the haiku’s image); the Zen idea of a fleeting image, a glimpse, something that can be grasped all at once and doesn’t need to be analyzed. Not all my haiku have to have all these elements, but I find it helpful to keep these things in mind when I’m writing haiku, and to the extent that I’m successful in incorporating them into my haiku, the more successful I tend to feel the haiku is.

Of course, modern English haiku don’t have strict syllabic requirements, but sometimes I still like to count 5-7-5, or at least 17, just for fun, or as a challenge to myself. Though I read recently that 12 syllables is more like the ideal for an English haiku (what this is based on I have no idea), so I might play around with that for a while and see how it works.

And then again I might experiment with truly minimalist haiku: two or three words. The interesting thing about my attempting such brevity is that (as you can see from this commentary) my natural tendency is to write long. I think of haiku as a way to force myself to identify the heart of my message, to discard the extraneous verbiage that clutters my arguments and muddies my images.