Watch Your Its

Published in Haiku Canada Review 10:2, October 2016, pages 33–34. Originally written in May of 2016, with minor revisions in 2017 and 2018.

Haiku writers sometimes fall into the trap of repeating a subject in the poem by referring to it as “it.” The word usually points to something already said in the poem, resulting in a loss of tightness. A similar problem can occur when we use a pronoun to refer to a person already named in the poem. We might do this for the sake of rhythm (and there may be occasions when “it” works, such as when we use the word to imply a deliberately unnamed subject), but we should be careful with every “it” (and pronoun). For example, you could write:

        fresh snow—
        it keeps piling up
        on the welcome mat

But the redundancy creates a lost opportunity to say more with a stronger juxtaposition. In this case the juxtaposition is poor, being merely grammatical rather than also being imagistic—good juxtapositions in haiku should be both. Here’s how the lost opportunity could be corrected, creating what I suggest would be a much more resonant and richer poem:

        divorce pending—
        snow keeps piling up
        on the welcome mat

It’s amazing what “divorce pending” will resonate with, so it’s my go-to example in workshops when showing how juxtaposition contains a leap and link to whatever it’s paired with. But of course you need to find your own juxtaposition each time. Even while I think this version works very well with “divorce pending,” it might be better with something else, with sensitivity to what needs to be authentic for the experience we’re creating. And just as we should be careful with “it,” we should also watch other words that usually have an antecedent, such as the pronouns “he” or “she” or “they” (or 
“his” or “her” or “their” and so on), to tighten the poem and remove the redundancy of renaming the subject. We should also be wary of these words if there’s no antecedent at all. For example, it can sometimes be a problem if a poem has a “he” or “she” in it where readers would have no idea who the person is (the pronoun “I” is usually much easier to succeed with, because readers can easily assume the “I” to be the poet—or an imagined persona). But many pronouns can be problematic. If it still feels authentic, it can be better to change such references to “mother,” “father,” or something else.
        Meanwhile, consider the following anecdote that appeared in Mondegreens: A Book of Mishearings by J. A. Wines (London: Michael O’Mara Books, 2007, page 47):

A Times reader once wrote to the newspaper to tell of a delightful mondegreen [misheard words, usually song lyrics] perpetrated by the secretary of a renowned physician.
        While the doctor was dictating a paper intended for publication in an important medical journal, she misheard the word “juxtaposition” and bafflingly typed “jockstrap position” instead. Clearly she had things other than dictation on her mind that afternoon . . .

Here’s to effective jockstrap positioning in everyone’s haiku. You can do it better by watching your “its.”