The Practical Poet: On the Art of Writing

First published in Frogpond 23:3, Fall 2000, pages 30–33. This essay also appeared online in Haiku Reality 11:18, Spring 2014, where you can also read the Serbian translation. Many of these quotations are from Good Advice on Writing, compiled and edited by William Safire and Leonard Safir (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992). These quotations also appear in On the Art of Writing Haiku. For more quotations on haiku, see also On Haiku.

French impressionist Edgar Degas once said that “Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.” Perhaps the same could be said of haiku.

        When one reads such observations, one cannot help but apply them to one’s own art, be it poetry, ballet, or arthroscopic surgery. Robert Spiess has for years offered an eclectic assortment of quotations with glosses and other comments in his “Speculations” column in Modern Haiku. Haiku poets, who attune themselves to seeing the suchness of things, and also to the “internal comparison” of one thing to another in juxtaposition, are also particular attuned, it seems, to noticing how good advice on any sort of writing might also apply to the art of writing haiku.

        For example, one hallmark of contemporary haiku in English is objectivity—the facts, things, nouns, that make up the bones of haiku. If we see life and nature as a child does, with freshness and wonder, we cannot help but be awestruck and amazed. English novelist Arnold Bennett has this to say about objectivity and seeing freshly: “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.”

        Haiku poets do have a lunacy about them (something to do with so much moon viewing, maybe?); it’s an occupational hazard that seems to come with being passionate about the details of experience and observation. “Caress the detail, the divine detail,” as Vladimir Nabokov once said. Surely haiku poetry is dedicated to such caressing. But there’s a point of overkill. In her quest to be precise and specific, Anita Virgil once wrote a haiku about a particular fungus, identifying it as Cordyceps militaris. What could be more precise than a scientific name? But Eric Amann rejected the poem for publication because, as Anita said (in On My Mind, Press Here, 1989), “when specificity obscures, it is better to speak more simply.” She says she learned the lesson of distinguishing between obscurity and clarity.

        But there’s more to the lesson, I believe, than simply being clear. By being too precise—that is, telling too much—perhaps a haiku leaves nothing to the imagination. Here’s an observation on suggestion from American writer Sarah Orne Jewett: “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.”

        So too of haiku—one benefits from learning what to leave out. Dylan Thomas has a similar thought: “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.” Likewise, Yoshida Kenko, author of Essays in Idleness, has noted that “Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth.” And Mary Higgins Clark comments that, “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.”

        Passages from Henry David Thoreau are frequently quoted in regard to haiku (to that end I particularly recommend Mary Kullberg’s Morning Mist: Through the Seasons with Matsuo Bashō and Henry David Thoreau from Weatherhill, 1993). Here’s Thoreau, on the subject of atmosphere and suggestion: “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.”

        American writer and editor Judith Appelbaum once wrote that “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.” As an “unfinished poem,” haiku depends heavily on the reader, and one of the challenges with haiku is to find that balance between too much suggestion and too much precision.

        Knowing how specific to be in a haiku arises, I think, from reporting experience accurately. Here’s a thought on accuracy and voice, from American novelist and poet John Gardner: “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.”

        French writer André Gide once stated that “The most subtle, the strongest and deepest art—supreme art—is the one that does not at first allow itself to be recognized.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a similar conviction: “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.” Didn’t James W. Hackett say something similar, that haiku is like a finger pointing to the moon, and that if the finger is bejeweled, we would fail to see the moon and see just the finger?

        In a haiku the poet objectively presents certain facts of observation, relying on what T. S. Eliot called the “objective correlative” to convey emotion—that for every emotion, an object can be presented that objectively conveys or represents that emotion. To find such emotional correlatives, the haiku poet begins with astute observation, not just of the world around him, but of himself also. “The first secret of good writing,” wrote American political columnist James J. Kilpatrick, is that “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.”

        Indeed, the crafting of haiku requires discipline. American naturalist Rachel Carson has this to say on the subject: “The discipline of the writer is to learn to be still and listen to what his subject has to tell him.” As French-American historian Jacques Barzun also said, “Simple English is no one’s mother tongue. It has to be worked for.”

        The following are more thoughts on various writerly subjects, each with a connection to haiku.

        David Lambuth, author of The Golden Book On Writing (Penguin Books, 1976), 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.” This is why metaphor and simile so often fail in haiku—they’re indirect detours. Also, how many times have you read a haiku with a convoluted Latinate term (such as “convoluted”) and been deflated because the term was so much more abstract, say, than the beat in your palm of a hummingbird’s heart?

        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.” Likewise, this thought from novelist Jeanette Winterson: “If truth is that which lasts, then art has proved truer than any other human endeavor. What is certain is that pictures and poetry and music are not only marks in time but marks through time, of their own time and ours, not antique or historical, but living as they ever did, exuberantly, untired.”

        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.”

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

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