The Practical Poet: Creating a Haiku Checklist

First published in Frogpond 22:3, Fall 1999, pages 30–33. See also my new Postscript at the end, which quotes haiku-writing checklists from none other than Shiki. For my own list, please see Haiku Checklist. See also Lorraine Ellis Harr’s ISN’Ts of Haiku.

 

In the previous issue of Frogpond I invited readers to share examples of checklists they use to assess the effectiveness of their haiku. I’m pleased to share a selection of the response with you now (most responses are edited and shortened). By asking some of these questions or applying some of these ideas to your haiku, you can improve the quality of your work. And with your own haiku checklist, you can be your own editor first before sending your haiku out for publication.

        Pamela Miller Ness in New York City shared a useful list she uses to teach haiku revision to her students. She begins by asking if the poem is a haiku and offers two definitions of haiku to serve as benchmarks. She quotes the first definition from the Haiku Society of America book A Haiku Path: “a poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which Nature is linked to human nature.” She also quotes R. H. Blyth: “the expression of a temporary enlightenment, in which we see into the life of things.” These are good places to begin. She also asks the following questions:

  1. Are the experience, imagery, and language clear?
  2. Does the experience resonate? Is it more than a picture or a mundane experience? Does it transcend the merely personal?
  3. If a seasonal reference is used, does it augment the experience?
  4. Does the haiku let the reader enter the poem and complete the experience?
  5. Is each word necessary and evocative? Are the nouns and verbs specific? Is each adjective and article necessary?
  6. Are the line breaks effective and are the lines in the most effective order?
  7. Does the haiku have “music”? Consider the positive and negative effects of alliteration, assonance, accent, and internal rhyme.
  8. Does the language and/or experience have an element of surprise? Does the poem evoke an “aha” response in the reader?
  9. Is the image and/or language fresh and unusual?
  10. Does the haiku effectively juxtapose two images?

In addition to Pamela’s question about whether each word is necessary, specific, and evocative, I would also ask whether the language is simple, ordinary, and authentic. If the language is too unusual, the poem may come across as contrived.

        Another response came from Lori Laliberte-Carey in Tucker, Georgia. She notes that her checklist is not so much for sending haiku out to editors, but for assessing haiku that aren’t working quite right. Her “toolbox” for assessing problem haiku includes the following questions by category:

  1. Juxtaposition: Does the poem use a strong, interesting, or credible juxtaposition?
  2. Language: Can better words be used, perhaps with fewer syllables or better meter?
  3. Line placement: Does moving one or all of the lines around improve the clarity or impact of the poem?
  4. Direction: Does the poem move from small to large, big to small, up to down, down to up? And should the direction be changed to improve it?
  5. Focus: Is the poem about one focused moment or a whole afternoon? Is it one poem or many?

I quite like Lori’s question about direction in the poem. Often haiku move from large to small in an attempt to sharpen our focus. However, perhaps moving in another direction can give us fresh insight. In addition, sometimes it’s important to present images in the order they were experienced (first you notice a shadow, and then you turn and see the turkey vulture sweeping down upon you). In other cases you may want to rearrange the sequence of images if the effect is improved without becoming manipulative or contrived.

        Lori also brought my attention to Phil Rubin’s six concise criteria for judging haiku that appeared in a recent issue of South by Southeast:

  1. Does the poem say something it doesn’t tell?
  2. Can I read the poem over and over and get something different from it?
  3. Does the poem use necessary and carefully chosen words?
  4. Do I like the poem’s sound and rhythm?
  5. Does the poem offer a new way of seeing a commonplace thing?
  6. Does the poem provide a natural, though unexpected twist?

Of course, revising a poem so it passes these tests is the tough part. Some poems are best abandoned. But for those poems worth refining, the goal of these lists is to give you something to aim for.

        Charlotte Digregorio of Portland, Oregon, presented two useful lists divided into questions of form and then content. These classifications are a useful reminder that haiku are a concise marriage of both form and content. These divisions may be thought of as the science and art of haiku. Here’s Charlotte’s procedural checklist regarding form:

  1. After I write a haiku, I let it sit for a few days, rereading it to myself periodically. I am then able to tighten the haiku, cutting out extraneous, redundant, or implied words.
  2. I repeat each haiku to myself to determine the best placement of words. For example, sometimes a verb that one would be inclined to put at the end of a line may sound better as the first word of the next line.
  3. In revising my haiku, I choose the best line sequence.

With my own haiku, my habit is to let them sit so I can give them a fresh look after some time has passed. I often let one or even two or more years pass before assessing the poems in my notebooks or considering them for publication. Hopefully, the best haiku will age nicely like a fine wine, or the cream will rise to the top. I also like Charlotte’s suggestion to read each poem aloud. This is an excellent way to assess the lyricism, sound, and rhythm of the poem. Now here’s Charlotte’s checklist regarding content:

  1. Does my haiku appeal to the senses, emotions, and imagination of the reader, based on my daily observations that most people could relate to?
  2. Does my haiku avoid abstractions or explanations? Are the images specific, direct, and concrete?
  3. Does my haiku contain images that reinforce the relatively humble condition of human beings?

Here Charlotte takes a moment to consider the audience of her poem, and whether typical readers will find experience in common in what she writes. And by asking if the poem reflects human existence with humility, she asks if the poem produces a feeling of awe in the reader as he or she considers human experience in the grand context of nature.

        Another list I’d like to share with you is one prepared by Christopher Herold of Port Townsend, Washington. This list appears on the website for Christopher’s new online haiku journal, The Heron’s Nest. The following are qualities that Christopher finds essential to haiku:

  1. Present moment magnified (immediacy of emotion).
  2. Interpentrating the source of inspiration (no space between observer and observed).
  3. Simple, uncomplicated images.
  4. Common language.
  5. Finding the extraordinary in “ordinary” things.
  6. Implication through objective presentation, not explanation; appeal to intuition, not intellect.
  7. Human presence is fine if presented as an archetypal, harmonious part of nature (human nature should blend in with the rest of nature rather than dominate the forefront).
  8. Humor is fine if in keeping with karumi (lightness)—nothing overly clever, cynical, comic, or raucous.
  9. Musical sensitivity to language (effective use of rhythm and lyricism).
  10. Feeling of a particular place with the cycle of the seasons.

Thank you to everyone who responded to my request for haiku checklists. I hope the ideas presented here will be a help to you as you assess your haiku, and refine your haiku perception. As you can see, the lists include significant overlap. These areas of repetition are perhaps the most important aspects we should consider in revising our haiku.

        As I mentioned in the previous installment of this column, several others have written valuable haiku checklists, including Lorraine Ellis Harr with her “Isn’ts of Haiku” and Jane Reichhold with her list of “Haiku Rules that have Come and Gone.” One list that I find particularly useful is by James W. Hackett (you can find it in each of his books as well as in Harold G. Henderson’s Haiku in English). He emphasizes the importance of interpenetration, as does Christopher (learn of the pine from the pine, as Bashō said). My favorite item from Hackett’s list is to remember that “lifefulness, not beauty, is the real quality of haiku.” Haiku can indeed be about the beauty of nature, but I feel they should also contain a reverence for existence whether beautiful or not. An oak leaf riddled with holes from a ravenous insect is just as valuable as a haiku image as the freshly unfurled ferns of spring—and so are leaves in the intermediate stages of existence in the cycle from birth to death. The world is filled with lifefulness, and it is our challenge as haiku poets to observe and record the breadth of experience around us. It is our challenge to see life in its suchness and present carefully juxtaposed image-moments that give us and each reader instants of empathy. I hope creating your own haiku checklist will help you see the lifefulness of all experience.
 

Postscript

In his book An Introduction to Haiku (New York: Doubleday, 1958), Harold G. Henderson presents a haiku checklist by none other than Shiki. Here are what Henderson calls “the chief points in his advice to beginners” (160–161):

 

Be natural.

Don’t bother about old rules of grammar and special points like spelling, kireji, etc.

Read the old authors, remembering that in them you will find good and bad poems mixed.

Notice that commonplace haiku are not direct, but artificially twisted out of shape.

Write to please yourself. If your writings do not please yourself, how can you expect them to please anybody else?

 

Henderson then notes that “all this advice is simply ‘Be natural’ repeated in a number of different ways” (161). For more advanced students of haiku, Henderson reports that Shiki offered this advice (161–162):

 

Remember perspective. Large things are large, but small things are also large if seen close up.

Delicacy should be studied, but it cannot be applied to human affairs in seventeen syllables. It can be applied to natural objects.

Haiku are not logical propositions, and no process of reasoning should show on the surface.

Keep the words tight: put in nothing useless.

Cut down as much as possible on adverbs, verbs, and “postpositions.”

Use both imaginary pictures and real ones, but prefer the real ones. If you use imaginary pictures you will get both good and bad haiku, but the good ones will be very rare. If you use real pictures, it is still difficult to get very good haiku, but it is comparatively easy to get second-class ones, which will keep some value even after the lapse of years.

 

Henderson then presents Shiki’s advice to poets in “the third class, those who are already haiku masters,” advice that he says “is perhaps more interesting for what it does not say than for what it does” (162):

 

Read, whenever you can, all worth-while books on haiku; think over their good and bad points.

Know all kinds of haiku, but have your own style.

Gather new material directly; do not take it from old haiku.

Know something about other literature also.

Know at least something about all art.

 

In a way, the best advice for writing haiku is the advice we give ourselves. As we read and write, and read and write yet more, we are bound to improve into the haiku art by noticing subtleties and internalizing what we learn. This, I believe, is what Bashō meant when he said to “learn the rules and then forget them.” What haiku poets are after is simply poetic truth. As Henderson reminds us, in quoting Onitsura, “Outside of truth, there is no poetry” (73). Ultimately, Henderson proclaims, “Haiku may be of many kinds, grave or gay, deep or shallow, religious, satirical, sad, humorous, or charming; but all haiku worthy of the name are records of high moments—higher, at least, than the surrounding plain. And in the hands of a master a haiku can be the concentrated essence of pure poetry” (2). We should all be so fortunate to find that purity as we internalize our own haiku checklists, forget them as thoroughly as possible, and seek, as Bashō did, what the masters sought. 

—27 September 2010