Haiku Lessons 1 – Clutter and Credibility

July 2002 issue

WHCschools – Hibiscus Petals School

Ferris Gilli, Instructor/Editor (US)

CLUTTER & CREDIBILITY – Trust between Reader and Poet


One thing that helps us in our efforts to write simple, focused, uncluttered haiku is trust in our readers’ intelligence and their accumulated knowledge. We can expect them to know that a body of water on a bright day reflects sunlight, drifting clouds, and other things; that lemons are normally yellow, healthy lawns are green, winter wind is cold, that even winter sunlight can sometimes be warm, dogs bark, cats purr, and so on.

What is wrong with this haiku (besides its being a single sentence and a
linear statement)?

warmed by the sun
kids pile hot woolen coats
next to playground toys

A successful haiku does not need to *explain* an action or effect to readers. Giving readers credit for knowing as much as I do about the effects of sun and exercise, even in winter, I can remove the clutter of unnecessary adjectives that are overloading the verse with excessive and redundant kigo. The poem needs sharper focus, and exchanging a more specific noun for the playground toys will help. The freed-up space can be used for a setting or another independent image—a separate topic to create juxtaposition and stronger resonance. I can accomplish this by looking back to find something else meaningful in my experience that can be included:

Christmas Day
a pile of shed coats
next to the jungle gym

I know you knew I would get around to juxtaposition sooner or later.

This version of another real experience does not show readers anything new:

nasty smell
rotten peaches
in a red bowl

IF there is a real need to inform readers of the cause (or explanation) of an occurrence, then both cause and effect should be in one part of the haiku as an independent image, with an entirely separate image in the other part. In that way, one can still achieve juxtaposition and resonance.

The rotten peaches explain the nasty smell. There is only one image (topic) or situation, that of the malodorous peaches in a red bowl. So there’s no depth to it. It’s only part of a haiku, not a whole one. And just how important is that red bowl? By drawing on my memory of that experience, I can introduce something more meaningful:

ex-lover’s phone call–
the cloying smell
of rotten peaches

Isn’t that more interesting? This next version wastes space and misses the opportunity for resonance:

in the kitchen
the moldy smell
of rotten peaches

If I remove “in the kitchen,” is the meaning of the haiku harmed? No. Since one might expect to find fruit in the kitchen, the location doesn’t bring anything to the haiku. That first line is only unnecessary information, taking up space that could be used for another independent image. Like this:

end of the affair
the moldy smell
of rotten peaches

This next one has the same flaw — the first line doesn’t carry its own weight:

after dinner
the drone of a wasp
above rotten peaches

There is very little there to evoke an emotional response from readers. Including this from the experience should have a more meaningful effect:

his latest lie–
the drone of a wasp
above rotten peaches

Now this:

bright sun
light fills
the peach orchard

It’s all the same thing, and cause and effect as well: the sun is bright, therefore (sun)light fills the orchard. “Sun” and “light” are redundant. It is a one-part haiku. It can even be written as a single scene, in one sentence:

Bright sun(light) fills the peach orchard.

I believe that the haiku, currently simply a linear statement, can be much improved by the addition of another, independent part. There was something else present during my experience that continues to be very meaningful for me:

Mama’s song
morning sun fills
the peach orchard

Adding another image or topic that is independent from the rest of the verse makes it more interesting, and invites readers to share the author’s insight and emotions or to make a discovery of their own.

Although the classic construction is dominant in my own haiku writing and teaching, I do not mean for you to think that I believe it is the exact structure we should use for every haiku we write forever and ever; however, it is very important that beginners understand why the classic construction is so often advocated, and to be able to write haiku in that form.

We have to start somewhere to solve a haiku problem, or to write a haiku from scratch. The classic construction is traditional, tried and true, with sound reasoning behind its success. Of course, every haiku “moment” is different, and we should choose the poem’s structure carefully. If we do choose the classic form, then we are likely to recognize the main part of our experience, and we’ll also get some independent elements in there, which will work toward creating a
meaningful, resonant haiku.


When I say “credibility” here, I am not referring to the honesty of an author: Did he REALLY teach Pygmies how to skin an antelope? Is she REALLY developing a cold vaccine in her spare time? Instead, I am talking about semantics, construction, and how something that works in prose may not work for haiku purposes — in other words, may not be entirely credible. I’ll look for examples from my own files.

deserted beach
the girl jumps over
each little wave

Well, now. Deserted? I don’t think so. There’s that little girl, not to mention whoever observed and wrote the haiku. And does she really jump over each and every wave?

deserted beach
a herring gull hovers
over picnic trash

Umm, empty of humans maybe. Sure, someone may be looking at an empty beach through binoculars from a mile away. But “deserted” is such a strong word with definite connotations of abandonment and forsaking, perhaps it’s not the best adjective to use for a beach that is simply not populated with humans at the moment.

lonely night–
again she starts to empty
the empty trash can

If “she” is alone, who is there observing “her”? If this poem is about my experience being alone, not someone else’s experience, then in this instance, it would be better to write in first person. “Lonely  night–/again I start to empty/the empty trash can”

Enough talking trash. How about this:

daylight moon–
a coal miner hums Strauss
deep within the earth

While I find it perfectly plausible that a coal miner hums a waltz tune, I question the notion of his seeing the daylight moon at the same time he is deep inside the earth. Let’s say the author is not the coal miner, and is on the earth’s surface, looking at the moon. Can he/she really hear the humming that is way, way down in the coal mine?

On the other hand, this IS credible:

approaching storm
she stares in silence
at the fallen cake

Sure, this is an inside scene, but it’s certainly possible to be aware of changes in the weather while inside a building: windows, open doors, dropping or rising temperature, sounds of wind and thunder, etc.

More food for thought:

red plums
afraid of being swatted
the bees move aside

Now it looks like plums have emotions, and the author is a mind reader — not only of insects, but of fruit as well! This is the actual observation, and more plausible:

red plums
her steady hand slips
between the bees

(Ferris Gilli; The Heron’s Nest, Vol II: Nov 2000)

How about this?

gossiping at noon–
a small frog climbs
into the laundry tub

I don’t think so . . . unless it’s Kermit! This is a case in which the context of one line spills over into the next line, attaching itself to the subject and/or action of that line. This can occur IN SPITE OF PUNCTUATION indicating a break, as it does here. Adding punctuation does not always correct the problem. However, with a bit of rewriting, the flaw will come out in the wash:

back-fence gossip
a small frog climbs
into the laundry tub

Can you think of other examples that push the credibility boundaries? Sometimes haiku that are meant to be serious get a laugh because of the spill-over effect, or because the combination of two images or actions in the same haiku are just not believable; when this happens, the effectiveness of the real meaning of the poem is lost for the reader. Having once perceived a serious haiku to be hilarious or just not credible, it is often then difficult for the reader to ever take it seriously.

I propose an exercise in demonstrating what NOT to do when writing haiku. It will be fun and perhaps a source of learning to post some of our haiku that we now realize stretch credibility. As long as we keep in mind that we are demonstrating a technique that is TO BE AVOIDED, we can even make up examples, just for fun.

This entry was posted in Haiku, Lessons, Vol 2-2 July 2002 and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Haiku Lessons 1 – Clutter and Credibility

  1. Pingback: How to Learn Haiku « Word Skies

  2. Pingback: Haiku Demystified – How to Write Haiku – Cafe Haiku

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