A Writer’s Notebook: (more) haiku

So, as promised, a few haiku:

children laughing on swings
dress heels clacking on cut stone —
the grass grows unnoticed

stone bench hard and cold
exhaust fumes burn through the hot wind —
sunlight in my hair

like dark chocolate
so bitter and sharp — so smooth
smoke drifts in the breeze

I’ve mentioned before how much I love the haiku, regardless how maligned it is among serious modern poets. Yes, its apparent simplicity invites cheap knock-offs and quickly scribbled drafts that aren’t worth much at all. Heck, these haiku I’ve written here aren’t great. I’ve never claimed to be a great poet. But go pick up The Great Enigma, the recent translation of Tomas Transtromer’s poetry, and check the table of contents: the man has at least two lengthy cycles of haiku in that book, and he just won the Nobel Prize. If the form is good enough for him, it should be good enough for us.

I won’t repeat the form — most grade-school kids know it, and as I mentioned last week, I’m having my nine-year-old tutee write haiku, and she gets the form, too. One thing most people get wrong, though, is to focus solely on the form — that old 5-7-5 structure, which actually doesn’t translate well into Western languages anyway because the 5-7-5 rule isn’t about syllables but about sounds, which in Japanese can be composed of more than one syllable. So that rule isn’t the make-or-break requisite for a haiku. What is more important is the subject matter, which is rooted in Taoist philosophy: it is all about natural balance, so you see a lot of playing with pairs of opposites, with nature imagery, and with paradox. You also see a virtual elimination of the poet-as-speaker; in subjugating the ego to the overwhelming beauty of nature, the “I” disappears from the poem.

So when I was teaching haiku to my young tutee, that’s what we focused on. My head wasn’t really in the game this week — I’m not a big fan of the few haiku I tried — but my tutee? She absolutely nailed it! Not every haiku she wrote this last week was brilliant, but a few were excellent, and one utterly blew me away. I don’t have it in front of me, so I can’t quote it exactly — if you find any flaw in this, blame my memory, not her writing — but the best of her dozen or so haiku would, I think, sit perfectly well right alongside that famous frog-in-a-pond haiku by Basho:

rolling back and forth
beside a cold, empty pond —
splash! where is the ball?

That beautiful haiku is by Tiffany, my tutee. Well done!

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

3 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook: (more) haiku

  1. Samuel, I would like to invite your readers over to ‘the zen space’, the home of haiku and related writing. http://thezenspace.wordpress.com

    I have one suggestion, based on the fact that seventeen syllables of English contain 30% more information than seventeen syllables of Japanese: cut down on the syllables used, make it 4-6-4 or 3-5-3. That gives one the challenge of being much more focused.

    Everyone’s posting haiku this morning!


    1. Awesome! Thanks for the link, M! And yeah, I still like the “rules” of syllable counts, because the contraint does interesting things to word choice and rhythm, but the shorter lines are better suited to haiku. I’ve always felt the 3-5-3 count was a bit too sparse, but I like the 4-6-4. 🙂

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