Where Do Your Haiku Begin?

The following essay first appeared on the Haiku Foundation’s Field Notes forum page on 19 June 2013 (originally written two weeks earlier).

Bashō has said that haiku is what is happening at this place at this moment. I’ve always felt this was a misleading statement, because of course there’s a lot more to it than that. It takes effort to craft the moment into a poem. So not everything happening here and now is really haiku. The process requires sensitivity and selection. For me, haiku most often begin with experience. By being sensitive to what I experience with my five senses, I try to transform selected experience into words. But they also require, I think, a sensitivity to my emotions. My reactions to images and experiences can give the building blocks of sensory experience a context. Sometimes I’ll get a great two lines, and struggle to find a juxtaposition. But with patience I’ll see what I need out the corner or my eye (visually or intellectually), and the poem will snap into place. From experience to words. For me, that’s where haiku begin.

        I’ve written at greater length on this topic in an essay titled “How Do You Write Haiku?” My emphasis is not on the word “how” but on “you.” How do you write haiku? We each have different ways of writing, and they’re surely all valid paths. The most common ways I write haiku include direct experience, memory, imagination, pastiches, from reading, and by other processes, which my essay explores. A postscript adds that it can be effective to think of an idea and then generate poems to fit that idea, or to solve a puzzle or challenge.

        A note on memory. While some writers enjoy writing from direct personal experience, they may forget that memory is part of that experience. It’s not the recency of experience that matters, but the vibrancy. So a haiku of mine might be triggered by hearing a phrase, even at random, and letting myself recall something from memory to write a poem about that. On the National Haiku Writing Month page on Facebook (NaHaiWriMo), a daily writing prompt serves to provoke haiku in exactly this manner. Searching one’s memories is no more manufactured than writing from immediate experience. And we can never write in the moment, anyway. At best, we can write only from the moment. I believe, in this sense, that all haiku are moments of history (see “Haiku as History: The Ultimate Short Story”). I also appreciate the notion that haiku need not be limited to the so-called “haiku moment.”

        A note, too, on authenticity. Whether something “really” happened is not all that important to me, in both what I write and in what I read. It’s inherently unprovable anyway. Instead, what matters to me is whether the poem feels authentic. The truth can feel false. And the false can feel true. I want the true to feel true, first of all, but I also welcome the false if it too can be made to feel true. Yet I also welcome the truth if it can be presented in a way that is clearly false (this is not just the realm of science fiction haiku). These are all effective ways to write haiku. Yatsuka Ishihara is famous in haiku circles for saying to “tell the truth as if it were false.” This is not just a license for hyperbole, but a reminder to present poetic truth. Ultimately, if the poem makes me care about the subject, then I know that I have read a good haiku. Whether it really happened is essentially beside the point. All I need to do is to believe it is true.

        I’ve ended up talking about where haiku end up, haven’t I? That’s not irrelevant, though, because one’s goal can inform one’s process. Many people talk about the value of process in poetry, to the point of rejecting product, or claiming not to care about product. But I think one needs to strike a balance between both process and product, and to think of one’s audience at an appropriate point, if one wishes to share or publish one’s haiku. But where do haiku begin? Well, truth be told, they can begin anywhere. So maybe Bashō was right after all.