March 5: The 5-7-5 Project

So as you all know (right? right?) the Haiku Foundation is running a haiku contest right now called HaikuNow. The deadline is March 31 and you are all going to enter (waves Jedi hand). I’m planning on entering myself, and here is where my story for today starts.

There are three categories in the contest: Traditional, Contemporary, and Innovative. I want to enter all three categories, because hey, why not. It’s probably best to go to the site for the explanation of what all these categories consist of, but suffice it to say, probably the majority of haiku you see here (mine and other people’s) fall into the Contemporary category, a few into the Innovative category, and practically none into the Traditional category, because the Traditional category requires that the haiku be three lines, 5-7-5 syllables. Yes! Isn’t that cool and retro!

On seeing this in the rules, I thought, “Wow. 5-7-5. Can I even do that? I mean, you know, without sounding like an idiot?” Whenever I’ve tried writing 5-7-5 in the past , they’ve ended up stilted and wordy, and that’s usually what I think about most 5-7-5 efforts by other people as well. I don’t think 5-7-5 works well most of the time for English haiku, for whatever reason. Unnecessary words and unnatural syntax seem to be almost inevitable.

But I’m always up for a challenge. So I devised this little project for myself about a week ago to try to ensure that by March 31 I would have a 5-7-5 haiku whose guts I didn’t hate. I decided to write one every day. Okay, that doesn’t sound like much of a project. But I also decided to then rewrite it in the way that I would write it if I were addressing the subject in my usual haiku style (whatever that is — if you’ve figured it out please let me know because I don’t have a clue).

I’m hoping that this exercise will help me figure out, not just how to write 5-7-5 better, but also a few other things I’ve been wondering about haiku, like whether maybe most people (including me) are in fact writing them too short these days, and what kind of information and words it is necessary or optimal to have in haiku, and … I don’t know. Some other stuff I don’t remember right now. It’s been a long day.

So just for fun … here’s one of my attempts at 5-7-5 and Not 5-7-5. You’re welcome to join me in this project if you want, for the month or just for a day or two or whatever. Let me know what your thoughts are.

_____________________

three humpbacks breaching
three blue hills in the distance
that seem to rise, rise —

.

whale watch
on shore
blue hills breach

.

.

Pseudohaiku: Search strings

what dives
in the water
red as a cardinal

 

 

 

usual syllables
haiku
for venus

 

 

 

haiku monastery
seen because flowers
have gone

 

 

folding knives
and pockets
in france

 

 

 

antique geisha screenprint
missing
left hands

____________________

It’s the end of a long, draining week. I thought we (at least we here in the U.S.) could all use some entertainment, and an opportunity to take ourselves not quite as seriously as usual.

So: The thing all these haiku have in common is that, clearly, they are not haiku. They are some of the eccentric search strings that have led people to this page from Google. I like to entertain myself by trying to imagine what was going through people’s minds when they entered these searches, and by what tortured logic the search engine directed them here in a vain attempt to fulfill their information needs.

I have a large collection of other search strings, most of which do not lend themselves so easily to being converted to pseudohaiku. Some of them are quite beautiful, though. Some are thought-provoking, probably in a way their author did not intend. Some I’m thinking of using as writing prompts in the future. (“Poems about bad wolves”? Yeah, I would read a poem about bad wolves.)

Here are a few of them. Enjoy. And take a few deep breaths this weekend.

the dragonfly land on you will they bite me or sting me

garden, fog, crescent moon, and stars

full moon and sleepless nights

haiku dragon shy rock

poems about bad wolves

why are the dragonflies red

why was the moon red last night

meaning of seeing a red dragonfly

“anxiety” “rustling leaves” “simile”

snowboarding villanelles

caterpillar incense cedar sphinx

Oh please/ like THIS/ is a haiku? (May 24: 1-12)

So the last few days got kind of heavy and I was starting to feel like I never wanted to see another haiku as long as I lived. Instant panic: I can’t be burning out already! Something must be done!

Well…what is the best thing to do when you start taking yourself way, way too seriously? Start acting incredibly silly, of course. Stand on your head. Do a funny dance. Write bad haiku.

Okay, maybe not bad, exactly. But…weird. Different. Not…haiku-like.

Oh! That reminds me of this thing I bookmarked the other day and vowed to come back to when I got a minute!

” ‘Haiku-like haiku aren’t particularly bad. But haiku that don’t seem haiku-like at all—nowadays that’s the kind I’m after.’

—Santoka (trans. Burton Watson)

“…The relatively narrow (and necessarily hybrid) basis of the tradition of haiku in English, with its emphasis on the here and now, can only take us so far; thus many published haiku seem ‘thin.’ Perhaps what’s needed is less striving to perfect the ‘same,’ more writing against the grain.”

–Philip Rowland,  The Problem

Yeah, Philip (and Santoka), I know what you mean. Read and write enough haiku, and eventually even the good ones start seeming like parodies of themselves. All that nature! All those tiny exquisite details! All those lower-case letters! All that lack of punctuation! All those moments of enlightenment!

What if for one day I tossed out all those precious little haiku rules (as represented in italics below), and tried to write haiku that seemed un-haiku-like, and yet somehow preserved the spirit of haiku (whatever the hell that is)?

I think it would make me feel better. Though it might make you feel worse.

*

“Use concrete images.” And, “Don’t make direct references to emotion.” (You know, “Show, don’t tell.”) Also, “Slang is so unattractive.”


1.

Yeah,
I’m sad.
Also happy.

*

“Three lines (or even one) are nicer than two. Or four. Five is right out.” Also, “Metaphors are kind of tacky.” Also, “Cliches? Don’t even get me started.”


2.
This cup of tea
isn’t everyone’s.

3.
Where I left the
balloon I bought
for your birthday:
On cloud nine

4.
Swimming
against the current:
Fish
passes me
like I’m standing still

*

“Don’t shout.” Also, “Don’t swear.”


5.

WHAT THE HELL
IS A FROG
DOING IN THAT TREE?

*

“If seventeenth-century technology was good enough for Basho, it’s good enough for us.” Also, “Write in the present tense. Not the past. Or the future.”


6.

My email vanished
before I hit “Send.”
Will Facebook reject me too?

*

“Please don’t be vulgar.” Also, metaphors, cliches, yadda yadda yadda.


7.

No pot to piss in
when I need to piss.
Which I do.

8.

My nose
in your armpit:
your long walk.

*

“Try to make at least a little bit of sense.” Also, “Minimize your syllables.”


9.

Sticky tape, sticky buns
Fine reticulations of burnt toast
Mud sponging over black shoes

10.

where it (oh who am I kidding anyway)
stopped (my stomach is growling, when did I have lunch)
Haiku (there is as much in the future as there is in the past)

*

Rhyme should be used judiciously. If at all.”’


11.

In bed tonight
I know you’re right.
Just turn out the light.

*

“No entitlements.”


12.

The Box

I opened it up.
There you were,
turned into packing peanuts.




“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.)

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.