In his poem “Japan,” former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins revels in the experience of reading a haiku—“the one about the one-ton temple bell / with the moth sleeping on its surface.” He repeats the poem to himself over and over in various parts of the house, even bending down to the dog, whispering the poem “into each of his long white ears.” When he says the poem to himself in the mirror, he explains that he becomes the heavy bell and that “the moth is life with its papery wings.” He nears the end of his 35-line poem by saying that, “later, when I say it to you in the dark, / you are the bell, / and I am the tongue of the bell, ringing you.” We flow along with the poet’s thoughts, going where the haiku takes him. We, too, see the image, the contrast, and may ponder what it means for us.
All good haiku have this open and expansive quality, a capability for resonance that engages the reader. Billy Collins reads Buson’s tsurigane ni tomarite nemuru kochō kana in translation (the word kochō is actually butterfly, not moth) and is able to dwell in the poem for a day, to meditate upon it, to let it enlarge for him. “It feels,” he tells us, “like eating / the same small, perfect grape / again and again.” Because of its brevity, haiku can say only so much. Yet it really does say so much. It does this by relying on implication, on what is not said. No wonder haiku has been called an “unfinished” poem. The reader must finish it, bringing his or her own experience into the picture. The poem itself makes the most of this expectation by focusing on the universal in the particular, and the particular in the universal. A haiku makes us aware of what we already know, but may not know that we know.
But how does haiku do this? And how can understanding the strategies of writing haiku aid you in improving your poetry? No matter what lengths or sorts of poetry you prefer, haiku techniques can help you write better poetry. Here are ten tips for improving all your poetry with haiku.
1. Focus on Concrete Images
Good haiku are concrete and objective. They are not about abstractions such as beauty or ugliness—which are interpretations of the mind—but focus on things themselves that may only happen to be beautiful or ugly, qualities that may even be irrelevant. Haiku have things in them like glossy pebbles that are smooth to the thumb. They do not present subjective interpretations such as how you feel about these things. Haiku have real toads in them. If you don’t like the toads, you are free to jump if you want—without the poet having to tell you how to react. By including such clear images in your writing, as haiku does, you can bring stories and experience to life. By describing things, rather than your reaction to things, you trust these objects to have their own emotional impact. And by choosing certain objects to name or describe, you can begin to shape or direct the emotional response you desire. Here’s a poem of mine that relies on objective imagistic description:
meteor shower . . .
a gentle wave
wets our sandals +
My hope is that this haiku contrasts up and down, fire and water, cosmic and personal, and even offers a sense of the gravitational cause of tides. Moreover, I hope readers will enter into the poem to feel the absorption of watching the meteor shower only to be surprised by the gently rising tide.
T. S. Eliot talked about this technique of detachment as the “objective correlative,” which he defined in a 1919 essay (“Hamlet and His Problems”): “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” Haiku poets rely on objective correlatives all the time, even if they never think about them. Did Buson ponder how we feel about the weight of a temple bell, or the delicateness of a butterfly on its dull or shiny surface? That doesn’t matter. What matters is how these images make us feel, and how we react to them. Buson, like many other masters of haiku in both Japanese and English, has the grace to let the image be itself, and trusts us to react to it however we will.
In an essay titled “Images,” from Twentieth Century Pleasures (Ecco Press), Robert Hass writes that “Images are not quite ideas, they are stiller than that, with less implication outside themselves. And they are not myth, they do not have that explanatory power; they are nearer to pure story. Nor are they always metaphors; they do not say this is that, they say this is.” He also adds later that “It simply presents and by presenting asserts the adequacy and completeness of our experience of the physical world.” That’s exactly what a haiku does. It says, simply, this is, and trusts the image to work in asserting the adequacy, and even joy, of pure existence.
The image, of course, need not be purely visual. As Eliot notes, the objects or situation or events we describe terminate in a sensory experience. This is what haiku focuses on as the “image”—sensory experience. Whatever we see, hear, touch, taste, or smell is ripe as haiku fodder. What we imagine, think, conclude, or feel emotionally quickly begins to interrupt and be inappropriate—we want to produce these results, not start with them. This is an extension of that old writing adage, show, don’t tell. There’s also a fundamental difference between “ice cream is good” (simply a judgment) and “ice cream tastes good” (a sensory focus). Poets are concerned with exactly that difference, especially in haiku, which relies so heavily on the senses. +
Just as sensory impressions make an immediate connection with readers in haiku, so too can they get under our skin in other poetry. It is through the senses that the world enters our bodies, how the future becomes our past, how we experience life in the present moment. Or, as Ezra Pound put it in his “Vorticism” essay (Fortnightly Review, 1914), “In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.” Our five senses tell us we are alive, and make real what we know and feel around us.
Lee Gurga, in his book Haiku: A Poet’s Guide (Modern Haiku Press), reminds readers that haiku “focus on perception rather than invention, so writing them trains poets to become aware of all their senses.” Poetry, because it is a language of the body, can communicate strongly through the senses. As a result, sharpening sensory awareness, as commonly happens with haiku, is a worthwhile goal for any poet.
3. Control Objectivity and Subjectivity
Haiku focus on objective images in the here and now. But what is objective? What is subjective? The best haiku tend to be objective, partly because the objective description (of the thing, the noun) works well to bring about emotional response when we trust the image to do so. As William J. Higginson explains in The Haiku Handbook (Kodansha), “words that are too concerned with how I respond prevent you from responding freely to the object or event that caused my response.” Thus, it’s helpful for us to draw back, to be aware of when “we” (the self, the ego) intrude too much in our poetic descriptions. It’s a sort of poetic graciousness, where the poet is a good host for the reader’s emotional reactions, enabling them to flower where they will.
4. Distinguish Between Description and Inference
One thing we can do in our poetry is to realize where we are being subjective, where we are being objective, and why. A related skill is to learn the difference between description and inference. Scientists, who typically seek objective proof, are cautioned against inference in drawing certain conclusions, for inference can be subjective. Description, as is common in haiku, dwells on actual observation—the concrete and objective. Description may imply certain things, but implication is not the same as inference. The poet, if writing about his or her own inferences, runs the risk of deflating his or her poems by not allowing the reader to draw conclusions. The poet may imply something. The reader may infer. It’s effective for the poet to imply, and central to the enjoyment of poetry, particularly haiku, for the reader to infer, to figure something out based on hints in the poem. But this enjoyment starts with the reader “holding back,” and haiku provides a fine example of how to do that. Inference dwells on logic or intuition rather than direct observation. The haiku may present the premises of a syllogism, but never the conclusion. The reader provides the intuitive conclusion, and this sort of collaboration is what a good haiku seeks.
As a result, the poet can add energy and strength to his or her writing by converging on what is actually observed rather than what he or she infers. If you smell a rose scent, you can infer that a rose is nearby, but if you want to describe this, the subtlety of describing just the scent is typically more powerful than just naming the rose. And then you let the reader figure out just as you do that a rose is around the corner, or perhaps figure out something less obvious than that. A rose may always be a rose, but saying only that you smell the rose may make it more immediate and profound than naming it. By being aware of what you really do perceive, as opposed to infer, you can tap into the perceptions you have and rely on those in your poetry so that the reader, too, may make the same leaping inferences that you do.
In The Haiku Apprentice (Stone Bridge Press), Abigail Friedman writes about her experience as an American diplomat learning how to write haiku in Japan. In haiku, she learned to describe things as they are, and discovered that this was an extension of her professional life as a diplomat, observing and reporting on the North Korean nuclear threat and that country’s human rights issues. Her job was to describe events in North Korea as they were, not as she interpreted them, and once she realized that this restraint also applied to haiku, she was able to plumb the deepest of haiku’s strengths. Or, as she put it herself, “The more I accepted the world around me as it was and just described what I saw, the more authentic my haiku.”
5. Seek Immediacy and Accessibility
A good haiku often captures or produces a moment of epiphany—a moment of realization, understanding, or suchness. One way haiku crystallizes epiphanies is by being immediate and accessible, avoiding artifice. The poem happens now, in the present tense, and focuses on the common and the simple. Yet somehow the ordinary becomes extraordinary, because the effect of the poem is transcendent. Yet it begins with something as immediate and everyday as a nail clipping getting lost in the carpet. Whether haiku can mean something larger or not is a matter of debate. Roland Barthes, in The Empire of Signs (Hill and Wang), said that haiku signifies only itself, the thing as it is. This may be true, and there is certainly value in seeing and respecting the thing itself. As poet David Ignatow has said, “I should be content to look at a mountain for what it is and not as a comment on my life.” Ultimately, by focusing on the objects of existence, haiku engages the possibility of representational and numinous transcendence. This may be why haiku are often described as having an “aha” moment. Life is full of penetrating moments, and haiku notices them and seeks to freeze the instant, not coldly or lifelessly, but with the profound immediacy of a lightning flash.
In poetry, there’s a place for the erudite and challenging (or what Owen Barfield calls “strangeness”), but if it’s too obscure or difficult, it can alienate. Jack Kerouac said that haiku should be as simple as porridge. What he meant is that it dwells in the ordinary, the everyday—in other words, the immediate and accessible. A haiku using a common Anglo-Saxon word rather than a Latinate one, such as “dog” rather than “canine,” becomes more primal, more universal. This is how the ordinary has strength, and part of how haiku celebrating the ordinary—using ordinary rather than elaborate language—somehow becomes extraordinary.
6. Control Formal Devices
As Ezra Pound once wrote, “I believe in an ‘absolute rhythm’ . . . in poetry which corresponds to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed.” In longer poetry, sometimes such a rhythm might be metrical, but in a poem as short as a haiku, metrical form and other devices quickly overpower the poem. This is why haiku never have titles, almost never rhyme, alliterate only occasionally, and tend to minimize or eliminate metaphor, simile, and other poetic tricks. Some of these devices point to the poem or the maker’s cleverness rather than to a sensory perception or an intuitive physical experience. In The Way of Haiku (Japan Publications), James W. Hackett has given good advice on this topic: “A haiku,” he said, “is a like finger pointing at the moon, and if the hand is bejeweled, we no longer see the moon.” A longer poem has room for a wider range of devices than haiku, of course, but it’s worth noting the limitations of these devices, and how they can be signs of themselves rather than signs for a transcendent reader experience.