The Practical Poet: Be Your Own Editor

First published in Frogpond 22:2, Summer 1999. Don’t miss the new postscript I’ve added at the end.

 

One of the best pieces of poetic advice I ever received was something I read in Poet’s Market a decade ago. It appeared there in a profile of Elizabeth Searle Lamb when she was editor of Frogpond. “Be your own editor,” she said. It may be easy to read her advice and move on, but if you take her words to heart, especially when considering which of your haiku you want to send out for publication, you can not only improve your chances of publication, but improve your poetry as well.

        Once you have begun to read the haiku masters and write haiku, the next step for the practical poet is often to share your poetry. Some people feel a sense of accomplishment at seeing their names in print. Others find such delight in the haiku moments that moved them in the first place that they can’t help but share their moments of awareness in haiku—and publication is one good way to do that. Whatever the motive, getting your poems into print can be very rewarding.

        But publication isn’t the only motive for assessing your haiku. When reviewing your work, the first question to ask yourself is who you’re writing for. If you’re writing purely for yourself, then you can apply (or not apply) whatever guidelines you like to your poems—you need only please yourself. If you’ve written a poem for a specific person, you surely want to cast the poem in such a way that it has maximum impact for the intended recipient—you want to please a specific reader. But if you’re writing for a broader audience, then applying a broader set of rules or guidelines will clarify the haiku moment and help make the poem unambiguous, thereby making it accessible to more readers. You don’t want to try to please everyone, though, for in trying too hard your poem may become flat and lifeless. Instead, the key to successful haiku lies in finding the right balance between disparate demands on the poetic experience. Writing and applying a preflight checklist can help you find that balance.

        The difficulty with considering the broadest audience is in casting the poem so it has the greatest desired effect for many readers, which often means trusting your intuition. But over the years certain techniques and characteristics have shown themselves to be effective in communicating the haiku moment. The poem’s effect can range from subtle to stunning, but it should never seem contrived, and never abandon authenticity. Being your own editor doesn’t mean starting your own magazine and featuring lots of your own haiku. It means to think through what’s important to you in haiku, and what is likely to matter to your readers (consciously and subconsciously) in terms of form, content, and technique. Being your own editor means vigorously applying your preflight checklist to each poem you might send out for publication. You can thereby winnow down the number of poems you send out. This will increase the quality of your work, and editors will appreciate not receiving a dozen nearly identical poems all about a fallen swallow’s nest along with the lazy request that the editor pick the best one. Being your own editor means for you to pick the best one.

        My own preflight checklist for haiku has developed over the years through much reading, much writing, and best of all, much discussion with other poets. Other writers have created effective haiku checklists in the past, including James W. Hackett, Anita Virgil, and Lorraine Ellis Harr. Hackett’s list appears in his own books and in Harold G. Henderson’s Haiku in English (Tuttle, 1967, pages 60 through 62). The books of R. H. Blyth and William Higginson and others contain similarly helpful advice. Sometimes you just want to experience life and write about its suchness (perhaps being your own editor is not for everyone—and there’s a time for applying the checklist, and a time for just enjoying the flight), but the practical poet, if he or she is seeking publication, may want to take the time to vigorously assess his or her work. It’s as simple a necessity as buying stamps for all your self-addressed envelopes, but a task that’s too easily neglected.

        It would be possible at this point to present my own preflight checklist for assessing my haiku. However, I think most haiku poets would benefit from creating their own checklist, and I’d like to invite you to do that now. Rather than present just my own personal guidelines for writing haiku, I would like to present yours. I’ll compile the best guidelines I receive (I encourage brevity and concision, as in haiku) and will share them in the next issue of Frogpond. You might write a complete checklist of ten or twenty questions (nothing too long, please), or you might wish to share only one or two favorite comments or questions regarding your haiku assessment process. You could address such topics as form, content, freshness and originality, line breaks and punctuation, juxtaposition, tense, nature and season words, appropriate images, rhetorical devices, detachment and objectivity, natural language, intuition and emotion, showing rather than telling, and a number of other topics—or come up with your own categories of what you think matters in haiku and ways to assess them. What’s the best haiku advice you’ve received?

        I suspect that I won’t be able to present everything I receive, and that I may need to edit some of the guidelines to make the entire list as cohesive and as practical as possible, but I’ll do my best to include as much as I can. Don’t hesitate to send me a postcard, a longer letter, or email. Please send your checklists (or individual checklist suggestions) to me at [address removed], Foster City, CA 94404 USA, or email them to me at welchm@aol.com. To be considered for the next issue of Frogpond, I’ll need to receive your response by [date removed]. Thanks for your participation, and I look forward to presenting your preflight checklist items for assessing haiku. Writing such a list, I hope, will help us all be our own haiku editors.
 
 

Postscript

Some readers may object to my reference to ambiguity in the preceding essay, that “applying a broader set of rules or guidelines will clarify the haiku moment and help make the poem unambiguous.” Ambiguity comes in two stripes, however. One is of a sort where the reader becomes more confused—not good. That’s the kind of ambiguity that I suggest needs to be controlled, in situations where the meaning of your poem is too private, or too confined to a particular audience even when you attempt to share the poem with a broader audience. The other sort of ambiguity is what I like to call “perpetrated ambiguity,” which relies on double meanings or other compressions to suggest overtones or more than one perspective. Learning the difference between these two types of ambiguities can make a significant difference in haiku.

        Of course, as the preceding essay mentions, ambiguity can vary depending on the intended audience. A double meaning may work wonderfully for some people and not for others, who may simply get less from the poem, or perhaps nothing at all. Certain cultural references will make no sense to many other cultures, or even age groups, whereas other references or allusions will easily deepen or enliven the poem. The art of writing haiku includes learning your potential audiences, and developing a broad cultural, linguistic, geographical, and literary awareness. Reading widely will help, especially reading widely in haiku.

        When writing haiku, when you let yourself go and see what comes, it’s often valuable to trust ambiguities that appear spontaneously in your writing. You may not even understand what you yourself wrote, or perhaps not at first. Your subconscious mind, however, may be making connections that are indeed often worth trusting. The “strange” in poetry, as I’ve written elsewhere, is something that challenges us to move out of our comfort zone and perhaps learn something, or feel something outside our usual realm of experience. When you read an experienced writer, it’s important for you to move to where the writer is, rather than the other way around. But there comes a point where even this sort of ambiguity or strangeness goes too far and will fail to connect with readers. If you’re writing for yourself, then that failure is no failure at all. But if you’re sharing your poems with others, you do at least want to try your best to communicate. To do so as well as you can, you want to find the best balance in each poem between too much ambiguity and too little.

—14 December 2011