A Thought on Haiku

I would like briefly to discuss what seems to me a common and easily correctable fault that I often encounter among the many haiku that I read on Twitter, Google+ and here at WordPress. I appreciate the amateur, hobbyist nature of haiku; I am myself an amateur and a hobbyist. However, even amateurs wish to improve their craft, and I believe that addressing this one issue in composition would lead easily to more vivid and specific poems.

I have in mind what I will call the use of summary lines in haiku. These lines are always abstract, and seem to function as interpolated titles telling the reader in no uncertain terms what the poem is “about.” Take the following examples, which I’ve written to illustrate my point:

holding hands
long into the night
summer love

autumn begins
green and gold leaves
on the trees

I would argue that in these haiku, the lines “summer love” and “autumn begins” add nothing to the pictures created by the other lines. They are abstractions for which one can form no mental image. In each case the line tells us what the poem means; “holding hands long into the night” is “summer love”; when there are “green and gold leaves on the trees,” then “autumn begins.”

When one has only three lines to work with, it seems a shame to waste one of them– effectively, one third of the poem– summarizing the other two. To convey the idea of summer love, it would be more vivid and more interesting to select images that connote this idea while creating a mental picture for the reader. For example:

holding hands
where the fireflies
hang their lanterns

This poem presents a richer, fuller experience than the first while conserving its ideas. Fireflies are traditionally associated with summer, while their lights, like “holding hands” among people, are a form of courtship. Further, to describe the fireflies as “hanging their lanterns” takes us into more interesting territory. This choice of phrase suggests the red lantern of the brothel, or perhaps the paper lanterns of the concubine whom the lord has chosen to visit by night. Summer love is often thought of as a fling; does this choice of language suggest that the relationship is more sexual than romantic? That some form of transaction is taking place?

In any case, I think it’s clear that the revision is superior to the original as a poem. It makes better use of the meager resources of haiku. To those who find themselves wanting to include these summary lines in their haiku, I would recommend holding them back. Let the more abstract idea be the unsaid of your poem, the indwelling spirit of which your poem is the incarnation.

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