On the Art of Writing Haiku

The following poems of mine are from The Haiku Anthology, edited by Cor van den Heuvel (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999; paperback cover shown). The quotations are from Good Advice on Writing, compiled and edited by William Safire and Leonard Safir (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992). Together, this combination of quotations and poems has not been published previously, but I have used it in a number of my readings, including Seattle’s Bumbershoot arts and music festival. I have more recently combined these quotations and poems into a PowerPoint presentation designed to provoke discussion, not so much about the relationship of the poem to the quotation its paired with, but on the applicability of each quotation to haiku writing, practice, and aesthetics. In addition, many of the these quotations appeared in my essay, “The Practical Poet: On the Art of Writing.” For more quotations on haiku, see also On Haiku.

Arnold Bennett, on objectivity: “Every scene, even the commonest, is wonderful, if only one can detach oneself, casting off all memory of use and custom, and behold it (as it were) for the first time; in its right, authentic colours; without making comparisons. The [writer] should cherish and burnish this faculty of seeing crudely, simply, artlessly, ignorantly; of seeing like a baby or a lunatic, who lives each moment by itself and tarnishes by the present no remembrance of the past.”


landing swallow—

the ship’s chain

dips slightly


Sarah Orne Jewett, on obscurity: “A story should be managed so that it should suggest interesting things to the reader instead of the author’s doing all the thinking for him, and setting it before him in black and white.”


spring breeze through the window . . .

     stains on an apron

     left at the counter


Rachel Carson, on discipline: “The discipline of the writer is to learn to be still and listen to what his subject has to tell him.”


morning bird song—

my paddle slips

into its reflection                                                              + +


John Gardner, on accuracy: “Nothing is sillier than the creative writing teacher’s dictum ‘Write about what you know.’ But whether you’re writing about people or dragons, your personal observation of how things happen in the world—how character reveals itself—can turn a dead scene into a vital one. Get exactly what is there. . . . Getting down what the writer really cares about—setting down what the writer himself notices, as opposed to what any fool might notice—is all that is meant by the originality of the writer’s eye.”


mountain spring—

     in my cupped hand

          pine needles


Vladimir Nabokov, on details: “Caress the detail, the divine detail.”


beach parking lot—

where the car door opened

a small pile of sand


David Lambuth, on the concrete versus the abstract: “Writing too largely in abstract terms is one of the worst and most widespread of literary faults. . . . Never use an abstract term if a concrete one will serve. Appeal directly to your reader’s emotions rather than indirectly through the intermediary of an intellectualizing process.”


low summer sun—

the shadow of an earring

on your cheek


Judith Appelbaum, on experience: “Writing from experience does not, of course, mean [simply] transcribing experience. You have the responsibility to sift and shape your material until it makes sense as a unit and until that unit can be fitted into the context of the reader’s life.”


  after the quake

adding I love you

      to a letter


James J. Kilpatrick, on observation: “The first secret of good writing: We must look intently, and hear intently, and taste intently . . . we must look at everything very hard. Is it the task at hand to describe a snowfall? Very well. We begin by observing that the snow is white. Is it as white as bond paper? White as whipped cream? Is the snow daisy white, or egg-white white, or whitewash white? Let us look very hard. We will see that snow comes in different textures. The light snow that looks like powdered sugar is not the heavy snow that clings like wet cotton. When we write matter-of-factly that Last night it snowed and this morning the fields were white, we have not looked intently.”


fresh snow on the mat—

the shape of welcome

still visible


Dylan Thomas, on poetry: “The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flush, or thunder in.”


after-dinner mints

passed around the table

. . . slow-falling snow


Samuel Taylor Coleridge, on precision: “Words in prose ought to express the intended meaning; if they attract attention to themselves, it is a fault; in the very best styles you read page after page without noticing the medium.”


toll booth lit for Christmas—

from my hand to hers

warm change                                                                   +


William Faulkner, on purpose: “The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.”


spring breeze—

the pull of her hand

as we near the pet store                                                 +


Tom Wolfe, on realism: “Recording of everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, modes of behaving toward children, servants, superiors, inferiors, peers, plus the various looks, glances, poses, styles of walking and other symbolic details that might exist within a scene . . . is not mere embroidery in [writing]. It lies as close to the center of the power of realism as any other device in literature.”


my face dripping . . .

the floppy-foot clown’s

plastic flower


Charlotte Willard, on restraint: “A Japanese emperor once asked a famous artist at his court to paint a four-panel screen of crows in flight. After much thought, the artist finally drew a single crow disappearing off the edge of the fourth panel of the screen. It was a masterpiece of movement. A great Oriental principle of drawing was fulfilled: ‘The idea must be present even where the brush has not passed.’”


after the quake

     the weathervane

          pointing to earth


Henry David Thoreau, on atmosphere: “Sentences, which suggest far more than they say, which have an atmosphere about them, which do not merely report an old, but make a new impression, sentences which suggest as many things and are as durable as a Roman aqueduct: to frame these, that is the art of writing.”


first day of summer

a postman delivers mail

in a safari hat


André Gide, on subtlety: “The most subtle, the strongest and deepest art—supreme art—is the one that does not at first allow itself to be recognized.”


grocery shopping—

pushing my cart faster

through feminine protection


Jacques Barzun, on simplicity: “Simple English is no one’s mother tongue. It has to be worked for.”


reading in bed

     my pulse flickering

     the lightly held bookmark


Nathaniel Hawthorne, on style: “The greatest possible merit of style is, of course, to make the words absolutely disappear into the thought.”


first snow . . .

the children’s hangers

clatter in the closet


E. B. White, also on style: “Place yourself in the background; write in a way that comes naturally; work from a suitable design; write with nouns and verbs; do not overwrite; do not overstate; avoid the use of qualifiers; do not affect a breezy style; use orthodox spelling; do not explain too much; avoid fancy words; do not take shortcuts as the cost of clarity; prefer the standard to the offbeat; make sure the reader knows who is speaking; do not use dialect; revise and rewrite.”


taking invisible tickets

at the foot of the basement stairs—

child’s magic show


Yoshida Kenko, on boredom: “Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth.”


paper route

     knocking a row of icicles

     from the eave



Mary Higgins Clark, on suggestion: “As a writer, you paint strokes and leave suggestions so readers can create their own pictures. That allows you to know someone by a small action and it saves countless pages of explanation.”


home for Christmas:

my childhood desk drawer

empty                                                                              +  +  +  +


And finally, Ludwig Wittgenstein, on silence: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereon one must remain silent.”