VOLUME 2: ISSUE 1
From a Haiku Editor’s Desk
Reflections From Behind The Novice’s Eye-Shade
Despite working in education, I do not consider myself an academic. My teaching style is based upon a basic knowledge of my subjects, awareness of the needs of the students and the hope that more often than not, there will be a little wind in my sails.
Since these principles have served me well in my job, it seems to make sense to use them in my hobbies. While there is a place for those with great knowledge about the history and development of haiku, tanka and related forms, these are not things that I have spent any great time worrying about. While this may leave me as the village idiot as far as history and tradition goes, it does serve as a useful way to spot the Emperor’s new clothes.
However far I have come down the haiku path, an open mind and a willingness to make mistakes has always helped me on the way. One of my many mistakes has been to try, from time to time, to formulate a list of rules for successful haiku. These can be found buried deep in the archives of various mailing lists around the web.
What becomes clear when one attempts this exercise is that those who know far more about Japanese poetry than I do can always produce the haiku evidence (usually in the form of the work of Japanese masters) to contradict the stated rule. And every day, I thank them. However, I have persevered with my attempts to draw up some guidelines that might be of use to those beginning to write haiku.
I find this form of advice particularly useful when trying to knock the poetic sensibilities out of mainstream poets who try to write haiku. What follows is based upon my own few steps as a writer of short forms, my attempts to give feedback to other writers, a few short months behind the associate editors’ eye-shade and things I have ripped off from other people. Just don’t take them as gospel.
Forget About Formats
All of us beginners write short verse, as opposed to poetry. Whether it is haiku, senryu, tanka shouldn’t really matter to the beginner. If your attempt has got one syllable, it is probably too short and twenty syllables is probably too long. Above all, don’t worry about 5-7-5. It might be what your Chamber’s or Webster’s says, but life’s too short to lose any sleep over it. Remember that it is your moment that matters.
If You Are In It, Get Out Of It
Take a look at what you have written. If you can see yourself in there loving, hating, longing, regretting and worst of all judging, it is even money your attempt isn’t going to work. So as my metalwork teacher often commented, “Morden, get out of it!”
Ask Yourself “So What?”
It is important to think if your moment is important to anyone apart from yourself. While you might be cringing with embarrassment at the thought of the over-long Christmas kiss with your colleague, does anyone else give a kipper?
No Cheap Tricks*
There are a range of devices that haiku writers use to attempt to draw the reader into their little world. So by writing haiku about haiku or haijin, reworking the Basho “frogpond” haiku or by making references to Buddha’s, mah jong, wind chimes or prayer mats, the author can hoodwink the reader into thinking they have produced something mystical and therefore of worth.
There are various subjects that have been done to death in haiku and have become clichés as a result. Regular exposure to haiku magazines and mailing lists helps the writer to get a feel for those topics that appear repeatedly. My personal dislikes centre around herons generally, shadows meeting themselves, anything abandoned and the range of Eastern mystical themes mentioned above. I also have a big problem with cat haiku, though my fellow eye-shade wearer disagrees. So try something new — it might just work.
Vivé La Difference!
One of the great strengths of haiku is its’ ability to cross cultural borders. Readers of classical Japanese haiku begin to understand the importance of the seasonal references in classical works. Cultural and political boundaries begin can be removed and the common human experiences are shared. This can only lead to a greater feeling of community and humanity amongst poets around the world. For this reason, I think local season words are important in the positive celebration of our regional identities. While some readers may not understand particular words or the nuances behind them, the beauty of the internet is that many people now have easy access to a medium that can answer their questions. A few minutes searching can quickly reveal the meanings to words in Croatian, Innu or Welsh and give pictures of the wild flowers of New Zealand. We have the tools to understand, should we wish to use them.
Many of the best haiku work because the author has chosen to juxtapose two seemingly unconnected scenes in a way which compliments both. I believe that another point in favour of season words is that they offer an ideal opportunity to compare and contrast aspects of the haiku moment. Since Spring offers the chance of rebirth and Autumn brings decay and melancholia, the seasons provide the beginner with an chance to counterpoint the scenes that they find around them.
Go Easy On The Verbs
Most novice haiku authors are guilty of too many verbs within their haiku. Since a moment is just that, one verb should usually suffice. In rare instances, two verbs can work, as can no verbs at all. And if you have three verbs in there, you should go back to the drawing board.
Humour and Irony
My Friday evenings are spent watching two TV programmes that I find very amusing. The wife, however, can’t stand them. One man’s Benny Hill is another woman’s Seinfeld. As a result, attempting to write humorous haiku is very difficult and not recommended for the beginner. More often, budding haijin come up with Alanis Morrisette “ironic” moments masquerading under the guise of senryu. So you will be doing editors and their readers a favour by sparing them the details of your shoelace snapping just as you miss the bus for your job interview.
Everyone Needs An Editor
The short time that I have spent as an assistant editor, has strengthened my view that we all benefit immeasurably from constructive criticism of our work. Where this becomes more difficult is in finding people that we trust and respect sufficiently to enable us enter into a balanced, two-way dialogue. The range of haiku magazines and on-line resources is such that no-one starting to write haiku should be short of places to go for advice. Here again, it is essential to read the magazines and websites you are submitting to before you send work off. This gives you a better idea of what the editor will publish and if you are unsure, ask. In my experience of the haiku world, editors are only too willing to point those looking in the right direction. It requires a leap of faith, but it is worth it.
Learn All The Rules, Then Throw The Rule Book Away
Most arts have some maxim along the lines of the one above. We have to get an understanding of the mechanics of what we are doing before we are able to do it effectively. Following some or all of the suggestions above should start you on your haiku journey. But if any art is to progress, rules have to be broken and moulds thrown away. You will not have to look far to find examples of short poetry that transcend all of the suggestions made above — and that is how it should be. And as Basho reputedly taught:
“Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old poets, seek what they sought.”
Enjoy your walk!
Associate Editor – Snapshots
* I’ll confess to pinching this from advice that the late, great Raymond Carver gave to short story writers. It is all the more relevant as I believe haiku authors have more in common with short story writers than they do with poets.
** So named for the Alanis Morrisette song, “Ironic” which recounts a series of so-called ironic moments.
*** translated by Haas R (1994) in The Essential Haiku Ecco Press