Dipping Your Toe into the Haiku Pond

In February of 2012, I received a haiku book manuscript, with no prior query or any prior connection to its author, asking me to write an introduction. The following letter, redacted to hide the poet’s identity, is admittedly harsh, but I hope it contains valuable insights into the nature of haiku, emphasizes the disconnect between popular perceptions of “haiku” and the literary reality, and offers practical steps to take to combat haiku misinformation. The poet in question changed the title of the book when it was later self-published to remove any claim that it contained haiku, which I think was a wise move. Ultimately, I feel sorry for poets like this—not for their work, but because they have laboured under such misunderstanding, through little fault of their own. As long as haiku continues to be widely mistaught in North American school systems, at every age level (which, alas, continues to be the case), there will continue to be victims of haiku misunderstanding like the following.

Dear _______,

Thank you for your kind words about my haiku. I am also flattered that you would like me to write an introduction for your book. However, I must decline. The main reason is that your poems depart so greatly from every possible definition of literary haiku that I could not even begin to endorse a single one of them. What you have written seems to cling only to the most superficial understanding of haiku merely as anything written in 5-7-5 syllables—an understanding that is not only superficial but misguided, a fact that many dozens of literary theorists, scholars, translators, and linguists have stated and demonstrated, as have the great majority of leading haiku poets. Your haiku are a victim, I’m sorry to say, of how haiku has been widely mistaught in North American schools for too many years. Indeed, even as a “discipline,” counting syllables is utterly superficial, like doing a paint-by-numbers painting, especially when it’s at the expense of other haiku strategies, such as the kigo and kireji and employing primarily objective sensory imagery, all of which are far greater disciplines—that is, far harder to do successfully—than the syllable counting that seems to be your main target, if not the only one. Furthermore, 5-7-5 isn’t really the problem. Rather, the problem is the content and manner of your poems, and their general lack of other necessary targets. As Roland Barthes once said, “Haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property, that we always suppose we can write such things easily.”
        You no doubt feel you have countered my objections in your introduction, but I can only say that what you have written in your introduction and especially in the poems themselves, though well-meaning, fails on too many counts for me to begin to iterate, especially in the context of literary haiku and its traditions in Japanese and English. Are you a member of the Haiku Society of America and do you read its journal Frogpond? Do you subscribe to Modern Haiku? Can you name three other literary haiku journals published in English, let alone ten? Have you published your haiku in any of these journals? Have you published a hundred of your poems there? A thousand? Have you written a thousand haiku to select just ten of them for publication, as so many of the leading haiku poets have done? If not, then you are not ready to publish a book of your haiku. Do you not detect any difference between what you have written and the poems that appear in such leading online haiku journals like The Heron’s Nest, or in Cor van den Heuvel’s haiku anthology, since you say you’ve read that? Are you even familiar with any of these haiku journals I’ve mentioned, let alone know them deeply? If you were, I feel that your own attempts at haiku would be radically better and more informed.
        I know these are hard words to hear, and you must surely seethe with disagreement, but they are words that I feel you need to hear if you truly want to pursue haiku as a literary art. I would suggest that you read and study Japanese and English-language haiku for thirteen years, not merely thirteen months, before attempting to publish a book of your haiku. I myself was mistaught haiku and wrote it very badly (all of it 5-7-5, although that wasn’t why it was so bad) for a dozen years before I began to discover and learn the more important targets and larger literary and historical context that informs this poetry. I am sorry to say that I do not consider a single one of your poems to be effective haiku or senryu, and nearly all of them are not even haiku or senryu at all (nor can any of them be kyoka, which is a five-line form, not three). Instead, they are merely short poems or statements that fit a 5-7-5 syllable pattern—which by itself does not a haiku make. You have not blazed any new trails here at all, despite your claim, but have revisited very old trails that countless others have explored—and rejected.
        Remember that haiku is not a form, but a genre, and form is only one aspect of this sort of poetry—and the form must be different in English than in Japanese because of how the languages differ (you hint at this in your introduction, but do not seem to really understand it). The fundamental flaw with aiming only at 5-7-5 in English is that they don’t even count syllables in Japanese, which is why equating their 17 sounds to syllables has been so damaging to the proper understanding of haiku in English (100 yen does not equal 100 dollars). How many syllables in the word “haiku” itself? We all know that it has two. But did you know that in Japanese it’s counted as THREE? Not syllables, mind you, since that’s not what they’re counting. This is important to learn to help you get over the urban myth of 5-7-5 in English-language haiku. It was a lesson I had to learn, and practically all of the poets in Cor’s anthology had to learn also—to learn the much harder discipline of real haiku. Now it’s your turn.
        You may find my response to you to be harsh, but please consider it to be “tough love”—because I sense in you a desire to truly understand haiku better. Be careful not to try to take the easy path—there is no easy path. Haiku as a literary art form has loftier heights than that. Haiku is addictive and intoxicating (it is to me too), and I have seen many people in your position who dive in enthusiastically, and are not patient enough with their own learning to understand it sufficiently. I would like to invite you to do the following, if you haven’t already done so:

  1. Join the Haiku Society of America (you’ll get the journal Frogpond and the newsletter Ripples, among other benefits). Also try to get involved with one of the local haiku groups that meets periodically in the _______ area (let me know if you need help making a connection).
  2. Subscribe to Modern Haiku and at least three other literary haiku journals (I could suggest more).
  3. Read all of the essays linked to from the Further Reading page on my website, or at least read “Becoming a Haiku Poet”—and tell me what you think.
  4. Read “Why ‘No 5-7-5’” on my NaHaiWriMo website.
  5. Read or reread William J. Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook and Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology and see if you can find even a single poem among its pages that resembles one of yours—and figure out why they’re mostly different. There are many other books I could also recommend, like Lee Gurga’s Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, plus many translations from the Japanese.
These five suggestions are only a start. You have dipped your toe into “haiku,” but you need a deeper immersion. Indeed, you have not properly dipped your toe into the haiku pond, but seemingly a fetid cesspool of haiku misinformation (thanks to misguided school teachers, I’m afraid). So I feel it is my obligation to invite you into the clearer waters of literary haiku. Your readers, and especially you, will be better off for it, even if the passage to get there, like this letter, may feel very uncomfortable. Anything less and you will not be aiming at haiku, but simply a superficial misunderstanding of haiku.
        I am always happy to mentor anyone interested in literary haiku, so do let me know if I can answer further questions or suggest further reading or offer other advice. You may not feel like it at all, or not for a while, especially when you have invested so much effort into your current book, but perhaps you will be more interested later. I hope so.
        I will conclude with one of my own haiku:

                meteor shower . . .
                a gentle wave
                wets our sandals

        With best wishes for your poetry,

        Michael Dylan Welch