Let’s All Write Haiku!

by Paul Mathers

This is perhaps one of the more familiar forms to those who went through High School English. It’s an old story, but I’ll tell it again, of the high school teacher instructing children to write lines of 5/7/5 to teach poetic form composition. And, indeed, I will go so far as to say I believe this to be a useful practice. It shows children, who might not otherwise ever be called upon to compose such a thing, what it is like to compose poetry in a form.Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of true educational content being excised from schools today.

However, I do feel compelled to mention two of the possible problems with the practice. One is that the form is not considered so strict in any serious poetic circle. Ron Padgett calls it “a genre (type) of poetry. That is, along with its typical form, the haiku has characteristic content and a certain style of language. Of the three- form, content, and language- form is least important.” He later goes so far as to say that the way to write one, formwise, is “three lines with the first and last a bit shorter than the middle.” Simple as that. Simple as that?

Well, the second issue is the importance of the content and language. I firmly believe that style can (and must) be taught (and, as far as I can tell from contemporary American schools, isn’t). This led flip, glib, cheeky high-school-aged-Paul to write haiku for his class like:

“Cool winter breeze

As I bite into a York

Peppermint Patty.”

or

“A girl passes by

in cut-off blue jean shorts.

What was I saying?”

Current-me wants to slap high-school-aged-me on the wrists with a ruler over these. These are very nearly in the prescribed form (high-school-Paul was also not disciplined at counting), but certainly deviant from content and tone. Padgett quotes one unnamed expert (maybe it’s Padgett pretending to be someone else!) saying haiku is a “poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which nature is linked to human nature.” So I took a stab. It seems like haiku is either something that will come with great labor and hand-wringing, or it will come completely naturally. I struggled for many days to write my first three (by the way, the quotation marks I’ve added simply for the sake of further denoting the individual haiku. My western eye, at least, wants to read them together as a single poem):

“Beside a pile of leaves

the wind blows more down

to clog the gutters.”

 

“In bath water

hairs on legs drift slowly

back and forth.”

 

“Rough winds

blow leaves down around neat raked

leaf piles.”

All of which I felt were decent enough to post on the blog without total embarrassment, but they still feel labored to me. In the first I am trying to pair euphonious words. In the second, the final line is superfluous, simply there for the sake of there being a final line. In the third, completely unintentionally and I didn’t even notice until I typed it here, I quote Shakespeare.

Yesterday I was off from work and, being Thanksgiving, it was a quiet morning of staying out of my wife’s way as she prepared the meal. I took my journal outside and just observed my yard with a quiet mind:

“Sparrows

flock leaf pile, pecking,

singing.”

 

“Cherry sapling.

Two leaves left for

five months.”

 

“Still pool

broken by pine needles

and wind.”

 

“Oak leaves

yellow, ivy remains

green.”

 

“Old trees

branches all point

windward.”

I feel these are far better (although I still have mixed feelings about breaking the thought into two lines for the sake of there being three lines. I feel as if they should be three separate lines. It’s a learning process).

To write a haiku, I would recommend taking pen and journal out into the wild and using the form to “take snapshots.”

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