Until recently, I had been under the impression that haiku is of a similar status, regarding entertainment and literary merit, as the “jokes” you find on the fold of Laffy Taffy wrappers. The apparent lack of voice, placid nature references, and nearly dogmatic adherence to the three-line, 5-7-5 formula rendered the little form the poetic equivalent to a single, unsalted peanut. In other words, they were just flat-out boring as hell and making them wasn’t much better. As one of the many serial-numbered students plodding my way through the American education system, the letter-grade-enforced exercise of haiku writing did little to spice up the practice of learning to count syllables. It wasn’t until years after I had been introduced to haiku via a ten-point worksheet that I happened across a boxy little collection of the poems by Jack Kerouac while on a Hunter S. Thompsonesque trip to Joshua Tree, California.
Go ahead, drill me for loving the beat king of naive sophistication himself. I’m a creative writing major and I bought the collection on the spot to prove it. The poems were charming, to say the least, but what struck me most and, I suspect broke the previous hard-water bias I had towards the form was the introduction. “‘The haiku,” Kerouac wrote, “was invented and developed over hundreds of years in Japan to be a complete poem in seventeen syllables and to pack a whole vision of life into three short lines.’” To give an idea of what is meant by a “whole vision of life,” one of Kerouac’s signature images in the haiku is of a lone animate entity in a vast empty space. For instance,
on the cliffside
nodding at the canyon
First off, you may have noticed this haiku does not follow the traditional syllable count. If your deviation from formal structure senses are tingling, I hope they’re tingling pleasantly. Since the English language has fewer syllables per word than Japanese, each word can say significantly more. So, the modern haiku tradition pioneered by writers like Williams and Pound was brought to life by the beats, and is still going strong today after its abandonment of the formality of tradition to optimize the English expression. In this poem by Kerouac, the reader is given a sympathetic sense of what it means to be an individual surrounded by an immensity beyond comprehension. The language is concise but very dense, and its simplicity demonstrates how symbolic implication can inform the beauty of an image.
While reading, I began to realize that there is more to the haiku than the Western assembly-line curriculum would have you believe. The skills necessary to craft such comprehensive, meaningful, and dense imagery are fundamental to almost every other genre of writing. In the following paragraph, I discuss three reasons why the haiku is a practice worth adopting by anyone pursuing good writing.
Going the same way
Exchanging looks with the driver
of the hearse
Haiku writing hones a sense of completeness of thought, form, and theme. A Haiku is a “complete poem in three short lines,” as Kerouac would say. This is a subtle element, but consider the typical amount of revision necessary to craft a poem that says exactly what is intended, and you begin to realize the importance of understanding how to achieve this with such a small amount of language. Consider Picasso’s The Bull below.
Here, the artist began with a detailed illustration of the bull and worked it down to its most essential parts; the result is a graceful, petroglyphic sort of image that communicates an optimal understanding of the subject. This flips the creative process from starting in a place where the essence of a piece is understood, to starting in a place where the essence is hidden amid a good deal of detail. Similarly, the poem, “In a station of the metro,” by Ezra Pound was reduced from thirty lines to just fourteen essential words:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
It is interesting to notice that the same principles that apply to the craft of works as large as novels, such as narrative tension and symbolic imagery, are reflected in the little and accessible form of the haiku. In the Clausen poem above, the information “of the hearse” is withheld until the end of the poem to give context that adds additional layers of depth to all the prior information. This completes the poem's theme while simultaneously wrapping up the central image. The importance of being able to render a subject in its essence is that it clarifies the necessity of additional detail and shows how such detail will impact and change the totality of the piece.
However, alone the image does not successfully convey the “completeness” achieved in the poem. If, he had written “The hearse driver and I made eye contact,” the image would fundamentally be the same but the emotional meaning would go flat due to a total lack of tension. All the difference is in the special attention paid to the precise structure of the language. This is the second reason haiku is such a valuable practice.
My dead brother
hearing his laugh
in my laugh
In order to write successful haiku, you have to pay intimate attention to the economy of language. Something easily overlooked, but painfully obvious, is that all writing, from novels on down to haiku, is constructed of individual words. In the introduction to the Kerouac collection, Ginsberg is quoted discussing how the sentences of The Dharma Bums are constructed with the essence of haiku. The way the words carry meaning is completely precise, in other words, and perhaps a bit ironically, not redundant.
“To make two bold statements: There’s nothing sentimental about a machine: A poem is a small ( or large) machine made out of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant.”
Unless deliberate, the more an idea is put forth the less powerful it becomes. This is especially obvious when nothing is added to an idea to develop the tension or theme of a piece. In poetry, where the weight of meaning often rests on individual words, redundancy can easily be hidden if careful consideration is not given to the connotation of the words chosen. For instance, if Virgilio had included information regarding his emotional state in the poem above, the complexity of emotion delivered between joy and sorrow would be lost and there would be an obvious redundancy in mentioning an emotional response to the loss of the brother.
Leaving my loneliness inside her
In this one-line haiku by George Swede, power is achieved by withholding the object, “her” until the final word. This allows the central tension to be suspended as long as possible. Very little is necessary to achieve this powerful impact. Also, notice how the language of the haiku does not imply a value judgment about the subject or circumstance but instead creates a space for the reader to find their own experience. The ability to communicate experience, be it literal or fictional, is fundamental to the writing process and is the third characteristic of haiku practice.
To write haiku, you have to be present and attentive to what is. Whether you are present to the moment at hand or a moment in your imagination, the practice of haiku helps you to hold, see, and write that moment in its essence. In this sense, the form can be vitally important to the writing process. In the introduction to the Kerouac collection, Ed White is quoted suggesting, “Why don’t you sketch in the streets like a painter but with words?” Sound like Picasso’s Bull? The form requires the author to sit with their subject until all extraneous information has been erased away. Practicing haiku can provide vital insight into those “poetry moments” where you intuit the presence of the poetic but aren’t quite sure how to make manifest in writing the sense you have for it. The practice can hone some of the most fundamental elements of the craft, from economy of language and precision of imagery, to knowledge on how to eloquently render a subject in its totality. So, forget counting syllables on your fingers and give the form a shot!