I wrote over 300 haiku a few years ago. One, two, sometimes three per day. It was always more than simple syllable counting – more than the slapdash, willy-nilly, “anything goes” short form poetry.
I forged ahead through the forests of words visually plucking word twigs, bugs, leaves, and animals I glimpsed living in the woods I lived near (or drove past in order to get to work each morning). Often I’d stare out the window, studying details until a poem leaped from a branch onto my paper.
I’d spend anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour arranging these word snips and images into what seemed to make sense in a 5-7-5 scheme.
I embraced it so much, I got the Japanese characters for “haiku” tattooed on my left fore-arm. Seriously. It’s my only tattoo.
Haiku have rules. I had rules. Rules, I believed, that were what a haiku was “supposed to be” along with my understanding of writing techniques for keeping things “tight” (which included mantras like no redundancies, no adverbs, and be specific).
The constraints for haiku, as I understood them, was as follows:
1. Must be precise imagery
2. Must convey a paradox/contrast (bigness accentuated by smallness)
3. Must have NO people (including personal pronouns)
4. Must be 5-7-5 syllables
5. Must have NO punctuation stops or pauses
6. Must have no title
Each day I’d spend mental energy “looking” for a haiku. I was looking for (and finding) beauty and wonder in the tiniest details from the first daffodil chutes pushing through crusty snow to the apples in a bony-handed orchard that they old trees refused to drop as late as March in a harsh winter.
I found myself, through focusing on these intense singular images, able to travel back to that exact moment when re-reading them later. The more I wrote, the more challenging it became to not repeat previous work – and the struggle between seeking meaning and expressing feeling was sometimes too much to bear, and I’d put a few lines away awhile to come back to with a clearer head and perhaps a riper heart.
Despite occasional setbacks, I felt I had built up a collection worth curating and revising. I had a Tumblr blog with a growing list of followers – over 150 at the peak of posting. I was getting mediocre feedback. Two to three “likes” per poem, with a rare one getting ten or twelve – and those usually had an accompanying photo and/or struck people as “funny”
I stopped posting and deleted the blog because I decided to enter some contests (the first several had guidelines forbidding submission of poems posted online), and part of that process included doing more research on the form, its history, contemporary haiku, and reading “past winners” and collections of new haiku. I paid for membership in the Haiku Society of America, I printed pages and pages of critical essays and theories about haiku.
The more I learned, the less I felt I understood.
The word that comes to mind when I started looking closely at the contemporary craft as well as the history is disenfranchisement. Loads of “winners’ and successfully published and acclaimed traditional and contemporary haiku broke some of the rules I had been constraining myself with for this entire time.
There were loads of haiku with people, and many only expressed sentiment and no imagery at all. Cheap aphorisms. And syllables? Pshaw! So many had the “wrong” number of syllables – and there were many sources that explained that the anglicized phonetics of the haiku simply don’t match the way rhythm is in Japanese.
So, frustrated, I stopped dropping that old bucket down the haiku well. The pulleys have rusted a bit, and the rope has grown threadbare. I lost confidence in what I had written, and I was uncertain if my haiku were anywhere “good enough” for the contemporary scene.
I wrote a few where I had altered my rule to 5-7-5 “or fewer” – and was ok with that because some of the clunkiness of a few of the lines smoothed out. Without the blog posts and the direct audience of a few followers, my motivation went into other projects – and I haven’t written on for months now.
Sure, I’ve written many other things – short stories, essays, 80 pages of a historical novel…and to be honest, I feel the haiku “spirit” in everything I write. And I don’t think I’m done with haiku. I think that my main audience needs to be ME. My rules, my style, my poems – from from my eyes, my ears, my fingers, all my parts, physical or otherwise.
What has made me rethink this? Well, to start, I have this tattoo staring up at me all day, every day. More recently I came across a quote by Paul Valéry:
“A man is a poet if the difficulties inherent in his art provide him with ideas; he is not a poet if they deprive him of ideas.”
So, again, I choose to fight for my art – for my words from the dark caves inside me – my pen the small lantern illuminating the spaces where light doesn’t often go. My caves needn’t be tourist traps.
And so now I Iook out my window for a poem – pick up a pad of paper and one of my favorite pens, and get back to work being a poet.
The snow under the pine tree on the hillside takes me back to a moment three days ago. I finally trapped a red squirrel that had been scratching and chirping in my basement for months, and drove the frightened, fast-breathing tree climber a few miles away to a nice woody spot and trudged through the thigh-deep snow to release it near a grove of dark pine trees surrounded by that morning’s eight inches of lake-effect snow:
Cage door opens –
Red squirrel leaps
Into too-soft snow
Wire prison opens –
Leaping squirrel swallowed
By too-soft snow
I’m not sure I love either one – but I like them both far more than the blank page that was there an hour ago. And, much like that little red squirrel – it feels good to let them free.