Haiku Lessons part 1

May 2001

Hibiscus Petals

WHCschools Traditional Western Haiku School
Ferris Gilli, Instructor

Introduction: 

The Hibiscus School of Western traditional haiku, which has been active since January 2001, offers poets a solid grounding in the basic guidelines for writing English haiku.  The lessons consist of lectures by the instructor or a guest speaker, and may include exercises that involve haiku submissions from class members.  Through discussion and exercises, poets explore the reasoning behind the guidelines.  At regular intervals, students are encouraged to submit haiku in order to receive feedback and constructive criticism.  From time to time, respected and well-known guest speakers will offer special lectures or instruction, and these occasions may include class participation and kukai.

During the course of lessons, the Hibiscus School explores the following topics:

  • Definition of haiku
  • Essential qualities of haiku
  • Things to avoid: “The Do Not’s of Haiku Writing”
  • Breaking the “rules”
  • Haiku construction
  • Grammatical issues
  • Issues of StyleThe essential qualities of haiku are listed in Lesson One:
  • Focus
  • Conciseness (clarity, brevity)
  • Effective juxtaposition
  • Resonance
  • Immediacy
  • Natural syntax
  • Common language
  • Balance of humanity and nature
  • Sense of mood
  • Sense of season; kigo
  • Concrete imageryThe following is excerpted from the lecture in Lesson One:

Part I  Focus in Haiku

Lack of focus is a frequent problem for beginning haiku writers, and it’s only natural that it would be.  It is very frustrating trying to pack all the wonderful parts of a haiku moment into a tiny, three-line poem.

Imagine this:  It is a beautiful, sunny day, and I’m inside sewing on a button.  Suddenly there comes a loud boom that shakes the windows. Startled, I stab myself with the needle, as the cat bolts from the table to hide under the bed, knocking over my glass of tea in the process.  In the meantime the phone starts ringing, but I ignore it to go and look out the window at the blue sky.  Aha!  There is the vapor trail of the jet plane that made the sonic boom. And there is a butterfly, visiting my patio plants.  Then, BOOM! Another jet wrecks the silence, and there is the butterfly, gently drifting among the blooms.  Finally I answer the phone and am soon describing the events to my daughter, while the forgotten, spilt tea soaks into the carpet.

There is no way on earth to get all that into a haiku, nor should I attempt it.  If I do, the result will be a cluttered, jumbly mess which will effectively disguise the insight, the truth of my moment:

loud boom, stabbed by needle
startled cat spills tea incessant phone
peaceful butterfly long vapor trails

Wow, what a conflicting plethora of subjects and actions for readers to wade through, and a surfeit of descriptive words thrown in for good measure!

What is the central focus?

There is juxtaposition here all right, all in a tangle.  Where is the central juxtaposition? Haiku is a very small form, too brief for us to include a multitude of impressions, descriptions, and images.  We must focus on one main thing.  Too many images blur the focus. Two ways of focusing are from large to small, or small to large; wide to narrow, narrow to wide.  Often the setting is where the action occurs, or the setting may be an image that is bigger (not more important, but vaster) than another action in the moment– this will be the large element in the haiku.

So, this is carved out from that hodgepodge of ingredients I first offered:

sonic boom
a yellow butterfly
drifts among bluebells

Ferris Gilli  frogpond xxiii:2


An exercise involving student participation follows the lecture in Lesson One.  In the second lesson, the instructor offers her views on truth in haiku:

Truth is an essential element of haiku.  But just what kind of truth?  Shasei (the term from Masaoka Shiki) is sketching from life, or the direct, individual observation of the world around us. In other words, when I write haiku based on the notion of shasei, I write from my experience.  Another kind of truth also goes into the haiku. I witness a scene or situation and am struck by a truth there of the images and their interaction.  I write a haiku about it.  I have written the haiku based on my experience, and ideally, readers will find more than one layer of truth in the poem.

A poet does not have to know the word shasei to write from experience.  Most of us instinctively write haiku from experience.  We don’t have to be fluent in Japanese to be able to write haiku, but I firmly believe that everyone who is serious about learning to write it should study its history and how it came to the Western world.  I won’t be teaching history here, as there are others far more qualified than I whom you should seek for that.  There are many books and web sites that teach the history of haiku, and we are blessed to have Susumu’s school of traditional Japanese haiku right next door.

Some people believe that every single word should be an actual, literal part of a haiku moment.  But at least one of the old Masters believed that if he could experience it in his heart, in his dreams, in his mind, then it was real enough for haiku. There is no black-and-white rule for the means with which we bring experience and truth to haiku.  I believe that to write from experience does not mean that we must always present the exact images that we observe in a haiku moment.  It is more important that we share our insight or sudden realization in a way that connects emotionally with readers, than that we never change one hair of the factual images present in one moment.

Even when writing from experience, we may sometimes have to find the right settings for many of those haiku moments, or find the right images to juxtapose with them—and sometimes those settings or images were not present at the precise time of our discovery.  Just as we may carve away one or more images that were present at the time, in order to focus, we may also import an image from another memory into a haiku, to help us illuminate our truths.

To suggest that a haiku poet should write about truths instead of facts is putting it too simply and can be confusing.  When I say that I want to write the truth of the moment, I mean that I want to write MORE than just the facts, more than just a list of pretty or interesting images—I want to share with readers the truth that I discovered.  For example, in this haiku,

wartime grave–
scrubbing away lichen
to find the name

the facts (images) are these: there is an implied gravestone for a person who died during a war; there is lichen on the gravestone; the lichen has obscured the name on the gravestone; the author (or someone else) is scrubbing away the lichen; the person is doing this in order to be able to read the name beneath the lichen.  But just to write three lines of facts is not what haiku is about; haiku is about a deeper truth.

The deeper truths in this haiku are that life goes on; that nature is constant.  Everywhere we look, we can see life continuing, see the promise of life, even in a graveyard.  The grass grows, the birds sing, insects go about their business, seasons come and go in the graveyard.  And in this haiku, the living lichen covers the names of the dead, names that are carved in stone.  So we see that even such a lowly thing as a fungus can be a symbol of life.

The second lesson in the Hibiscus School presents a lecture on juxtaposition in haiku, with illustrative poems:

Part 2

Part 3

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This entry was posted in Article Series, Haiku, Lessons, Vol 1-1 May 2001 and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Haiku Lessons part 1

  1. Pingback: Rohini Gupta's Blog

  2. Pingback: How to Learn Haiku « Word Skies

  3. john Donne says:

    I share the views of focus, truth and experience

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