How Do You Write Haiku?

First published in Haiku Canada Review 2:2, October 2008. I first wrote this paper around 1995, and delivered a version of it at the May 2001 Haiku Canada weekend in Kingston, Ontario. The poems in this article were originally published in the following magazines and books: Bare Bones, Canadian Writer’s Journal, Dogwood Blossoms, Fig Newtons: Senryu to Go (Press Here, 1993), Frogpond, Haiku Canada Newsletter, Haiku Moment (Tuttle, 1993), Haiku Quarterly, Midwest Haiku Anthology (Brooks Books, 1992), Mirrors, Modern Haiku, Northwest Literary Forum, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, The San Francisco Haiku Anthology (Smythe-Waithe Press, 1992), Timepieces 1995 (Cloverleaf Books, 1994), Tremors (Press Here, 1990), and Woodnotes. Don’t miss the Postscript that appears at the end. Please also read Kathleen Rooney’s 2013 essay from Poetry magazine, “Based on a True Story Or Not,” in which she says that an audience’s refusal to accept made-up poetry seems to be “a catastrophic failure of imagination and empathy.”

 

 
“Writers don’t write from experience, though many are resistant to admit that they don’t. I want to be clear about this. If you write from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.” —Nikki Giovanni

How do you write haiku? Not how do you write haiku, but how do you write haiku? The pleasures and rewards of haiku are many and, as both product and process, haiku can be approached in many ways. We each have unique and personal—and usually valid—ways of writing. And we need not feel overly constrained in how we write haiku, if our goal is to produce poems that connect with readers, whether a friend we send a poem to on a postcard, or thousands of people who might read our haiku in a magazine. Here’s how I write haiku.

Direct Experience

The first and most common way I write haiku is from direct experience. If I’m stopped along a mountain trail, bending to drink from a spring, I might suddenly become aware of my commonplace act by noticing a fallen pine needle in the water.

 

mountain spring—

     in my cupped hand

          pine needles

 

        The poem comes at that moment in the wordless form of immediate experience—sight, sound, taste, smell, feeling. Then I try to express my moment of heightened awareness in words—or perhaps the words come virtually at the same moment as the experience. If I have a notebook with me, I’ll jot down the poem. Some people simply record ideas and impressions, writing and refining their poems later, but I usually compose and revise the poem in my head, then and there, and write it in my notebook as fully polished as I can make it.

 

spawning ground—

the ripple in the creek

becomes a fin

 

        If I’m walking down the street and notice something in its suchness, or if I see something odd or unusual, something common or uncommon in the world around me, I’ll write about that too. Whether in urban or natural settings, it doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing. Not everything is haiku, but almost anything can be haiku.

 

summer heat—

     two squirrels

          meet on a wire

 

        Whatever the source—in the city, in the wild, or sitting at home—if the poem comes to me, I enjoy it. Then I write it out in my notebook, or on any handy piece of paper (I have a few restaurant napkins decorated with haiku!).

 

first cold night—

smell of hot dust

from the vent

 

        Occasionally just part of a haiku arises out of an experience. Or just a line or phrase will sort itself out on its way to becoming a poem. Although I usually write complete poems out of my haiku moments, I’ll still write partial poems if that’s all I get. Writing them down lets me come back to them later. All I need now is a waterproof notebook in my shower!

Memory

Not all haiku happen in my here and now. Sometimes I’ll remember something that happened years ago, or perhaps just a few days ago. A touch, a glance, the motion of an owl. Memories often supply me with strong poems. Since moving away from Manitoba, I have often surprised myself with vivid memories of the prairie. While poems resulting from memory may not be inspired by what is happening in the present moment, they are inspired by my memory that is in the present moment. All memories are moments.

 

empty silo—

     spring wind pops the metal

          in and out

 

        As soon as something happens, it becomes a memory. “Now” is forever disappearing—and appearing. While some people prefer to write haiku only from direct experience in the present moment, I see no reason why my direct experience can’t include something remembered. It is still direct experience. It’s not the recency of a moment that matters, but its vividness. Besides, the moment something happens, it’s history—and really, all haiku are little moments of history.

 

visiting mother—

again she finds

my first grey hair

 

        Haiku is written in present tense. The point is for haiku to read as if it takes place in the present moment. But I don’t think that characteristic should be confused with how it is written or what inspired it. The reader can seldom know whether immediate experience actually inspired a poem, or even if it was totally made up. Genuine experience usually lends authenticity to haiku, but genuine experience can also be too amazing and still come off as not authentic. So what matters is the crafting of the poem, and how it comes across to the reader, regardless of whether it “really happened” or not. As Haruo Shirane emphasized in his essay, Beyond the Haiku Moment: Bashō, Buson, and Modern Haiku Myths” (Modern Haiku 31:1, Winter–Spring 2000)“Bashō himself often rewrote his poetry: he would change the gender, the place, the time, the situation. The only thing that mattered was the effectiveness of the poetry, not whether it was faithful to the original experience” (52). At any rate, an experience doesn’t have to have just happened before I write a haiku. Memory is part of the world of which I try to be aware, and all sorts of things will trigger memories that are superb fodder for haiku. I enjoy writing haiku out of my strongest memories.

 

deep in shadow

three generations

counting tree rings

Imagination

I write because words come to me. Sometimes I don’t know where the words come from. Usually they come from the names of things that give me experience. A feather, a pebble, a sun-rimmed cloud. But through my memory and what’s right in front of me swirls my subconscious. Sometimes it seems random, poking words and phrases into my conscious mind. Sometimes what comes to me seems absurd, sometimes rearranged memories, sometimes more real than reality. Fiction is less strange than truth. As Hemingway once said, a storyteller has an obligation to tell a story not necessarily as it did happen, but as it should have happened. Or as John Irving put it, “The correct detail is rarely exactly what happened; the most truthful detail is what could have happened, or what should have.” Though “incomplete,” haiku are little stories. My conscious mind also imagines things, saying, what if? Wherever the words come from, they can result in effective haiku.

 

an old woolen sweater

     taken yarn by yarn

          from the snowbank

 

        When I read someone else’s haiku, I won’t know if it really happened or if someone made it up or not. If the poem is authentic and credible, then that can make it succeed. Why does it matter if it actually happened? How can that be proved anyway? When I write haiku, if something imagined becomes a poem, I try to make it real. Like imaginary gardens with real toads in them. In San Francisco’s Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, I had many very direct and powerful experiences during and after the quake. But my favourite earthquake haiku, the one I think seems to have the most truth, is one I partially imagined (actually inspired, as I recall, by the tipped flagpole atop San Fransisco’s Ferry Building).

 

after the quake

     the weathervane

          pointing to earth

Pastiches

As I’ve already suggested, sometimes what really happened isn’t what I write about. I may be with my girlfriend one autumn evening and suddenly feel the draw of her hand as she quickens her pace towards her favourite coffee shop. As nice as that is, I may choose to write about something similar, something else, although inspired by that moment.

 

spring breeze—

the pull of her hand

as we near the pet store

 

        What makes a poem compelling is the net result. If I wish to evoke childhood, and if spring seems more appropriate for the topic at hand than whatever season it currently happens to be, then that is what I’ll write. After all, Bashō heavily revised his travel diary, the Oku no Hosomichi (“Narrow Road to the Interior”), which included playing with the sequence of events. And Buson’s poem about stepping on his dead wife’s comb was written when his wife was very much alive. Just because something actually happened doesn’t make it a haiku moment—or a haiku. And just because something did happen, it doesn’t mean that I have to stick with that in my poem. To create poetry, including haiku, I am entitled to poetic license (see, I’ve got one right here in my wallet). As a result, some of my poems are pastiches of direct experience, memory, or imagined detail.

 

December dawn—

the shape of the flower bed

under fresh snow

Reading

Poets, I think, are better poets if they are also readers. I love reading, and beside my bed I always manage to have a stack of books that I’m currently devouring—or trying to! And always I have more books waiting on my “to be read next” shelf, which has now become a full bookcase. These could be fiction, self-help, or poetry books, biographies, philosophy, or photography books, textbooks, magazines, books about science, art, travel, children’s literature, or humour. No matter what it is, most reading helps improve my writing. It exposes me to new images, new ideas, new ways of thinking, as well as new words. I can analyze what I read so my writing can improve by figuring out how others do it. Or, more simply, what I read can become part of the tapestry of inspiration, context, or mood for my own writing. Sometimes, the simplest of words might trigger a poem (Richard Hugo has written about the value of the “triggering town” in poetry). Whatever the case, for me reading of all sorts regularly inspires my haiku.

 

downtown rain

the jazzman

plays his sax

 

        Reading haiku sometimes inspires me to write a new poem of my own, such as when I read something I’ve never written about. Ah, yard sales! I’ve never written about yard sales, and off I’ll go trying out the topic in a few exploratory poems, digging into my own storehouse of relevant memories. In such cases, I try to put myself there, wandering through the old cast-offs, smelling the mothballs, relying on my own experiences, walking, talking, inhaling, feeling what’s going on. The results can be good or bad, but seldom better or worse than if I were actually there. A poem results, and what could be better?

 

after the verdict

      the arsonist

            lights up

 

        Many good haiku can be triggered by reading—whether I’m reading haiku, longer poetry, fiction, or nonfiction. Sometimes the mood of an extended piece, the subject of a line of text, or just a single arresting word can be my muse. I’ll put down my book and reach for that old haiku notebook once again. If something makes me think, why can’t it make me think of a haiku? Or a senryu?

 

at his favourite deli

the bald man finds a hair

in his soup

Other Processes

I also write haiku in other ways. Sometimes I’m just in a “writing mood.” But I’m at home, with no waterfall to hike to, no beach to skip stones from, no busy market to wander through squeezing fruit—apparently with nothing seasonal or in nature to supply me with new haiku moments to write about. And maybe nothing’s coming to mind from memory or imagination. In such cases I might pick up one of R. H. Blyth’s books and randomly read a haiku translation. Okay, there’s one about a wine shop. Maybe I could write a wine-shop poem, or a haiku about some other kind of business. And by free association or direct connection to the topic, I might write a haiku, trying to base it on my own experience, but initiated by chance and randomness . . . sort of a John Cage approach to haiku.

 

moonlit surf . . .

your nipple hardens

against my tongue

 

        Another book I like to pick up is one called 14,000 Things To Be Happy About. It’s simply a list of, yes, 14,000 things that author Barbara Ann Kipfer is happy about. For me it’s another chance inspiration tool. Most of the book’s entries are things or events—and practically every one could be made into a haiku. In a few moments of scanning its pages (or any book like it—even a dictionary can work), my eyes might rest on “lettuce,” “commuters,” “playing tennis,” or “windowsills.” If the first word I see doesn’t help me think of a good haiku, maybe the next one will. Nature guidebooks can also work the same way, serving as inspiration as I write—even if I’m at home in my bedroom—about newts and nuthatches, orioles and elderberries.

 

summer moonlight—

     the potter’s wheel

          slows

 

        I’ve also tried sharing topics with haiku friends. How about we each write an oasis poem? Or a haiku about bad breath or mugwort or stethoscopes? Not only can it be fun, but lively and fresh poetry can result. If I flip open Blyth or some other translator and read about cherry blossoms, that’s not likely to inspire me. Some topics have been written about so much, and, “like Gillette razor blades,” to quote Cummings, “have been used and reused to the mystical moment of dullness.” So why not sometimes play the random game, and test my spontaneity and intuition? Haiku is, after all, “playful verse.”

 

empty field

a hay rack

collecting tumbleweeds

 

        When I’m done with the fun, eventually I ask myself, did it work? Is this poem any good? Even though I might have made it up, is it believable? Do I believe it? Will others believe it? Is it credible? Or, conversely, is the poem still too plain, too dull? Is it just a pretty picture, or does it reverberate with multiple levels of meaning? Does it have a ring of authenticity? Does this poem really make me care? These are questions worth asking of all one’s haiku.

 

a withered apple

caught in an old spine rake

. . . blossoms fall

 

        Some people ascribe assiduously to the haiku religion that all of their poems have to be inspired by direct and immediate experience only. Folks are welcome to do that—whatever floats your boat, as they say. In fact, direct experience is one of the best means of haiku inspiration possible, and it’s typically the most common for me. But it’s not the only haiku religion out there, and we need not limit ourselves to that. Certainly the Japanese never constrained themselves to writing only about the present moment. A vast case in point, as a precursor to haiku, is all the seasonal verses in renga and renku that were never written in the current season when the work was written—and indeed, part of the art of linked verse is projecting oneself empathetically to different times and places to “taste all of life.” Even today, Japanese poets write individual haiku ahead of the season, in anticipation of the next haiku meeting. This is not predominant, necessarily, but it is certainly permitted, and even if you don’t care what the Japanese do, or feel any obligation to follow their example, there’s much value in being able to write haiku using a variety of inspirations rather than being artificially and arbitrarily limited to direct and immediate personal experience only. Each haiku poem is about a “now,” but that’s different from “now” being the only way a haiku can be inspired. Quite simply, the “now” in the poem need not be the “now” of when the poem was written.

meteor shower . . .

a gentle wave

wets our sandals

 

 Many Ways of Writing

Haiku can be written in many ways. Some of mine are playful, some are highly spiritual. Some of my approaches may be better than others—direct experience is usually at the core of most of them. You may have your own ways to write. And each of us might be attracted to one process but not another. Or we may use different processes at different times. Yet in the end, if we seek publication or to make a poetic connection with at least one other reader, it all comes down to the poetry, the product. As the writer, it helps to put yourself in the reader’s shoes, to presume you don’t know what you know about the poem, and to see what the poem itself says on its own. Does it work for you, as the reader? Does it make you catch your breath? Does the poem engage you, grab your emotions, make you feel more sharply aware? Do you see what the poet saw, feel what the poet felt? Is your universe larger for having read the poem? Are you now awake in a new and resonating way? If so, it doesn’t matter how the poem came to be.

        This is how I write haiku. No doubt, poems come to you in many additional ways. How do you write haiku?
 
 

Postscript 

 

In Daily Notes on Poetry & Related Matters [the content has unfortunately been removed, and this link redirects to unrelated text], Bob Grumman responded to the preceding essay, saying that it typifies why mainstream haiku is “moribund.” How could that be? The processes I write about have been among the primary means of writing haiku for centuries in Japan, and for nearly a hundred years in English—and continue to be used by nearly all haiku poets writing today, including Bob Grumman. I’m not sure if he thinks I’m a “solitextual poet” (as he hints at in his response), or what that means in particular, but he says he has a problem, among solitextual poets, with their “(apparent) indifference to technique.” Well, pardon me, isn’t my essay about technique? Not all possible techniques, to be sure, but many of them? Okay, maybe he wasn’t referring to me or my essay with that harrumph, but I know plenty of poets who would fall into his solitextual bucket who bow deeply to technique. (Ever the poetics taxonomist, Grumman defines “solitextual” poetry as poetry that is “solely textual” as opposed to graphical.)

        I also intended my essay as a rebuke against those haiku poets who think that haiku should be written only out of direct and immediate personal experience. Bob Grumman is not one of these poets, fortunately. Writing out of direct personal experience is often very effective for me, as I mention, but too many haiku poets stop there, and I think their poetry is worse off because of it. I recently came across this comment in an interview with Penny Harter (in Haiku Canada Review 1:1, February 2007, page 17): “I do not believe that all haiku must be written from immediate experience in the present tense. One may certainly use memories and even imagined material in a haiku, as long as the end result is a haiku that seems immediate.” Like me, she is deliberately trying to counter a trait common to the objective realism school of haiku where certain poets think too narrowly about this particular technique—a good one, but not the only one.

        Also, my essay was not intended to be an exhaustive or exclusive list of recommended approaches, so I’m glad he mentioned one of his favourite ways of composing haiku: “coming up with a technique with potential, then trying to find the right words and/or subject matter for it” (read his essay for examples). I too have done this repeatedly, such as using a set phrase over and over in multiple haiku, exploring the idea of deliberately starting each haiku with a preposition, ending a particular line with a verb, writing individual and sequenced haiku as acrostics, and so on, in whatever various ways have occured to me. As any sonnet or villanelle writer will tell you, the form itself (or any other arbitrary restriction) pushes you to rethink an idea to fit the form, and this can lead to fresh ideas, fresh phrases. So too with haiku, if one chooses to approach it that way. Perhaps I should have mentioned this approach as an additional and valuable way to write haiku, so I’m grateful that he observed this omission. In the meantime, I think of Mark Strand, who wrote of both formal and “formless” poetry in The Weather of Words (New York: Knopf, 2000, page 69): “I believe that all poetry is formal in that it exists within limits, limits that are either inherited by tradition or limits that language itself imposes.” Or that the poet imposes, I might add. Whether defined by tradition in the past or by the poet in the present, it’s what we do within limits that gives any poetry its art.

        Indeed, poets have no end of tricks to try, and I’d say to go for it, provided either that the “trick” isn’t evident in the finished poem or that the trick is so obvious that people know that’s the game you’re playing. Nothing half-baked. Of course, like everything, if you value the finished product (which is one of the points of my essay), you always need to winnow the chaff from the grain. I’m not personally enamored with the idea of counting syllables or words or beats, or phonemes, for that matter, but If that inspires someone else’s haiku, then I’m all for it. Robert Spiess, for example, in his haiku book Noddy (Modern Haiku Press, 1997; see my review), explored a great number of varieties of haiku in set syllabic (usually symmetrical) patterns—other than 5-7-5. At any rate, Grumman’s poetic proclivities include a graphical approach in addition to imagistic and experiential approaches, and I certainly welcome it, but imagistic and experiential approaches to writing haiku are far from moribund.

—14, 24 October 2009