Category: prose

Writer’s block

I’ve been telling people a lot lately that I have writer’s block. Then I come here and look at how much I’ve been posting, and laugh at myself. I don’t have writer’s block. I just don’t want to write my damn term paper.

It’s strange to be living part of my life in this haiku-world of stylized poetics and Zen moments, and the rest of it in the considerably more demanding and less dreamlike state required to cope with graduate school, teenage children, a husband with job stress, iffy finances, a house that would probably not withstand a stringent inspection from the local health department, the pace of 21st-century social networking, and a midlife crisis. As you might imagine, at the moment I’m prioritizing haiku over all these other things in my life. Wouldn’t you?

I think that probably to be the kind of haiku poet I would really like to be (not to mention the kind of human being that I can imagine tolerating, if I weren’t her), I will need to better integrate these two parts of my life, starting soon. Preferably before my term paper is due. After all, examined from a Zen standpoint, isn’t a term paper really just a 20-page haiku?

Okay, maybe not. But you see what I’m saying here. Haiku is life, life is haiku. They flow into and out of each other, they aren’t separate rock pools with their own ecosystems. Time to find the current and travel the whole length of the river…

but after I hand in my term paper, I may grab a low-hanging branch and linger around here a bit more again. And report back on what I saw in my travels.

Rhyme time

The other day I came across a funny (but serious) essay on the subject of rhyme in haiku, with some general discussion of what exactly makes a haiku a haiku: “Can a Haiku Rhyme?“, by Chuck from “Unbecoming Levity.” Chuck’s friend Brian doesn’t like rhyme in haiku, but Chuck (in company with most haiku authorities, if that’s not an oxymoron) doesn’t see why it shouldn’t be allowed:

There’s a reason why Frost chose to say “But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep.” instead of “But I’ve got obligations / And a long way to go before I hit the sack.”

I hadn’t thought much about this subject before, which is interesting because unlike some contemporary poets (and like Chuck), I don’t object to rhyme in poetry. As I think I’ve mentioned before, I have a slight free-verse fear which I can usually only manage to overcome by introducing some element of unfreedom — either meter or rhyme, however loosely construed. (I sometimes express this as, “I can’t decide what word to put here, so I think I’ll pick the one that rhymes with the word at the end of the line before last.” There is a reason I’m not putting these poems up on this blog. Or any other.)

I don’t have these rhyming impulses when I write haiku, though, so I was interested to hear that at least some people do, sometimes. I went looking for more information on the subject, starting with one of the sources Chuck cites: “Rhyming Haiku“, by Charles Trumbull. This is a much dryer consideration of the subject, but it has a lot of nice examples of rhyming haiku, including a comparison of several translations of a Basho haiku with the (I think correct) conclusion that the rhyming translation is the best one:

So still…
into the rocks it pierces
the cicada-shrill
(Basho, translated by Harold Henderson)

Then I remembered that Alexey Andreyev had something to say about rhyming haiku in his essay — not surprising, since modern Russian poetry is much more likely than modern English poetry to rhyme:

Some modern poets tend to claim that rhymes (pace, alliteration, etc.) are “unnatural.” I consider such people immature and LAZY*; and usually I reply that correct spelling is also “unnatural,” not even talking about writing “from left-to-right” which is “unnatural” not only for left-handed people and Arabs but also for the very haiku inventors, ancient Japanese, who wrote their texts “from-top-to-bottom”!

So, my point is that poetry is honest with a fluent language; good eyesight plus a good-working tongue. Thus, if you have keen eyes — fine! If you also speak “the higher language” where rhymes appear as naturally and fluently as correct spelling — it won’t make any harm but only some benefit; and rhymed haiku will be “haiku plus something,” not “haiku minus something”: …[Example:]

night rain–
some lights far away,
some drops on the pane
— Alexey Andreyev

I’ll finish with some thoughtful words from a great essay called “Haiku Rules” by Dr. Gabi Greve. In it Greve considers, and then reconsiders, numerous “rules” about haiku that have been proposed at one time or another. She has mixed feelings about rhyme in haiku:

>Do not use end rhyme.

End rhyme sometimes occurs in English and very often in Japanese haiku. The problem with end rhyme in English is that it has the tendency to ‘close down’ the ku, to finish it off when you really wish to keep the ku open and reverberating in the reader’s mind. Also, our poetry reading habits have conditioned us to grasp the rhyme and think we ‘have’ the poem. Haiku offer so much more, it is a shame to let the rhyme finish the poem.

>Do not use internal rhyme or repeated sounds for their own sake.

Why not? The Japanese do and did it all the time. In fact, they admire poems using this technique skillfully. Why deny the tool for us?

So there you have it. As with so much else in haiku: four poets, four opinions. What’s mine?

rhyme or
not-rhyme —
a moment in time

*Editorial comment: Check out Andreyev’s use of all-caps throughout his essay. It’s so heartfelt it kills me.

Haiku discipline

Another excerpt from an essay that is worth reading in its entirety.

I have been having a lot of conversations lately about what the “rules” of haiku are. Part of the problem of defining haiku in English is that the form was imported from another language with a very different structure and another country with a very different culture, so the Japanese “rules” don’t entirely work here. For this reason, we are somewhat free to make up our own.

My “rules,” as you can probably tell, change from day to day. But yes, I like the discipline of shaping the language in a very specific, stylized way to fit my thoughts.

“Writing haiku is a discipline and if you are interested in haiku you are seeking more discipline in your life. Go for it. Make rules for yourself and follow them exactly, or break them completely, outgrow them and find new ones. We are all students and no one “really” knows how to write a haiku. That, however, does not stop us from trying…”

— Jane Reichhold, Another Attempt To Define Haiku

(Written for and first posted on the Shiki International Haiku Salon, April 16, 1996)

“there is no need to stuff it with more syllables”

Alexey Andreyev, a Russian poet, wrote a great essay several years ago called “The Definition of Haiku“. You should read the whole thing, but here are some excerpts that I’ve spent a while thinking about the last few days.

“When poets write or translate haiku into their language they try to save haiku spirit, and somehow imitate the Japanese form (the length of the lines, the breaks) — but at the same time they take into account the common patterns of their own language so that it sounds natural. This way most of Russian translations of classic Japanese haiku have about 20 syllables; on the other hand, a haiku in English, according to W. Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook, is better when it’s about 12 syllables…[T]here is no need to stuff it with more syllables.”

I mentioned this 12-syllable thing the other day. 12 still seems pretty arbitrary to me, but I will agree that the haiku I really like usually seem to have significantly less than 17 syllables. 17 syllables — that’s a lot in English for one breath, one fleeting thought. When I revise my haiku it’s usually to pare the syllable count back to minimum. All those extraneous verbs, articles, pronouns! They seem embarrassing when I look at my first effort, the same way all those extraneous adverbs and adjectives embarrass me when I look at my rough drafts of my prose.

(One interesting tangent on this subject is that I was a Russian major in college, and Russian famously has no articles at all, doesn’t have the verb “to be” in the present tense, and can often do without pronouns due to its heavily inflected verb forms. True, it has a lot of long words — maybe this accounts for their feeling that they need 20 syllables to do a good haiku — but in other ways it’s a pretty minimalist sort of language. I found that studying Russian was a good thing for my English prose style — you quickly learn how few words are really necessary to say what you want.)

Another quote:

“Every haiku is a sort of little picture, an interesting image. Two main ideas about these images:

A) They come from direct experience; certain bright moments of life you managed to catch with your ‘internal camera’: wonders, strange coincidences, funny situations, sceneries that resonate with your current ‘soul state’ or even change, shock you suddenly, giving you a moment of sadness or another sensation YOU COULDN’T EVEN NAME.

B) This image, being written down, should evoke certain deep feelings in readers, too; this is really difficult — not only to present the experience in words but to do it in such a way that it could be effectively reflected in someone’s mind.

The art of haiku (as I see it) is a dance on the sharp blade between these (A) and (B): you can write about what you saw but it won’t grab your reader as you write merely ‘there are leaves on the tree’ — extreme (A); on the other hand, going to the extreme (B), you can make up a fancy abstract construction but it’ll be too far from the immediate perception; this artificial fake will be visible and will impress no one.”

This A/B distinction interests me, since I’ve been surfing around the Web the last few weeks reading other people’s haiku and have noticed that the ones I don’t really like (don’t worry, I’m not going to cite any examples) are usually too heavy on either the A or the B. Either they’re very concrete, just straightforward images that may be pretty but aren’t really connected to anything and don’t evoke any particular thought or emotion; or they’re very abstract, grandiose declarations about the poet’s state of mind or life philosophy or opinions about the universe. It’s the ones that connect — only connect! — the concrete and the abstract that I end up catching my breath over. I try to keep this connection in mind when I write haiku. Some days I’m more successful than others.

Andreyev again:

“Imagine yourself walking by the river and seeing an unfinished bridge: maybe, just a half of the bridge from one side to the middle of the river, or some pillars stuck in the bottom, or even ruins — an old cement block on one side and a similar one on the other. Anyway, there’s no bridge, no connection now, you can’t reach the other side of the river — yet you can finish the bridge in your mind and say exactly where it starts and ends. That is the way the unfinished links in haiku work…”

Well, this is an image I’ll be thinking about for a long time, that’s all I have to say. Writing haiku so that the bridge is imaginable but not actually there — that’s a goal I can get behind.

(By the way, I have discovered lots of Andreyev’s Russian haiku on the Web and want to try to translate some of them soon. They’re excellent — though interestingly, most of them seem to have not only fewer than 20 but fewer than 17 syllables. Apparently Andreyev is not defeated by the notorious polysyllabicism of the Russian language.)


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.