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. See also the three postscripts at the end.

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.”

Postscript #1

Not every “it” needs to be explained. And sometimes the power of a haiku lies in whether its “it” is not explained at all. Here’s an example:

it could be nothing

it could be something

winter darkness

This poem by Peggy Heinrich won first place in the 2013 Francine Porad Award sponsored by Haiku Northwest. We can easily imagine various possibilities for what “it” is, and this ambiguity is exactly what engages us as readers. Contest judge Ce Rosenow said “The pronoun ‘it’ doesn’t lock the reader into whatever it is that holds the writer’s attention (a significant other’s unusual behavior possibly signaling infidelity, a physical symptom perhaps signaling a serious medical condition, the list goes on). Instead, the reader can enter into the poem through whatever it is that holds, or has held, the poet’s attention in this same way.” Another possibility is that “it” is the winter darkness, but that option adds further resonance to the poem because the poem is open-ended enough that we cannot be certain. Although this poem does not specify what its “it” is, it has still watched its its. So if you do want to leave an “it” unspecified, this is how to do it.

—21 December 2018

Postscript #2

Another variation of the “its” issue is uses of “their” that might be redundant if they restate a previously introduced subject. For example, in Joyce Walker Currier’s Paper Ships (Winchester Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2017, page 36), I read this:

moonlit waves . . .

their echoes lie stranded

in these small pebbles

I enjoy the poem but can’t help but think the “their,” which repeats a reference to the moonlit waves, could be tightened into two lines, giving the poem the opportunity for a stronger juxtaposition. Perhaps as follows:

[new first line]—

the echoes of moonlit waves

stranded in pebbles

One could play around with “the echo” and “lie stranded” instead, but I believe the other changes are helpful, though perhaps a matter of taste, including the omission of “these” (all haiku are about “this” or “these,” so one could argue that such terms most often don’t need to be stated) and perhaps “small” (all pebbles are small, and it may have seemed necessary to add “small” only to help the rhythm of the original version). These are details the poet can sort out, but the most important suggestion is to watch any poem’s “their” construction. For me, in this case at least, it’s an opportunity for revision, but what do you think? Is something lost in the poem’s rhythm and music? Even if so, finding a pleasing way to remove “their” seems to be a good idea in this poem and perhaps others like it. Of course, the core image of Joyce’s poem remains as beautiful as ever.

—4 October 2019

Postscript #3

Here’s how to use an “it” effectively in haiku:

loon call

I let it sting


Julie Schwerin, from Kingfisher #5, April 2022, page 73

We may first wonder if the “it” is the loon call, and then realize “it” must be something else. Indeed, the “it” could easily be an actual bee sting, yet even that sting isn’t enough to distract the poet from the loon call’s beauty. Or the “it” could be a metaphorical “sting” of some kind, such as the sting of an argument or any other kind of metaphorical shock. Rather than being a redundant repetition of a previously mentioned subject, here the “it” is usefully ambiguous in pointing to multiple meanings other than the loon call.

—9 June 2022