f/k/a . . . the archives

June 3, 2007

too many “tell-ems”: psyku lower haiku quality

Filed under: Haiku or Senryu,viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 6:52 pm

My cranky alter ego Prof. Yabut often tries to be my conscience (as well as an “agent of reality” and assignment editor). He’s been griping lately that there’s a double standard at f/k/a — where we often take lawyers to task for lowering their standards (and taking the name of haiku in vain), but never say a discouraging word about “haijin” (poets who write short-form poetry in the Japanese tradition, such as haiku, senryu, or tanka). Yabut knows that I’ve been grumbling for months about the appearance of “tell-em” haiku in alarming numbers in the very best journals and anthologies. To get him off my back, I’m finally voicing those concerns publicly. I’m looking for catharsis rather than controversy, but your comments and a collegial debate are most welcome.

The precise meaning of the word “haiku” and the contours of the genre will, thankfully, never be fully settled within the haiku community. (A couple years ago, I took a neophyte’s stab at a working definition in the posting “is it or ain’t it haiku?“.) I’m glad, nonetheless, to have discovered haiku at a time when the strident battles over such aspects as the number of syllables and lines required, the need for specific season words [kigo], and its “zen-ness,” had yielded to a fairly clear consensus among those writing haiku in the English language. Many attributes that had been been widely considered necessary for the creation of genuine haiku were rejected. However:

Each poet, editor and reader has, I believe, the absolute right to an opinion on what haiku is (or should be) and on what constitutes the best kinds of haiku. Similarly, as with any literary form disseminated to the public, we all have the right to evaluate poems, collections, schools or publications and offer criticism. After reflecting on its history, or simply out of differences in culture, taste or goals, many individuals and groups have chosen to retain certain structural requirements or subject-matter limitations in defining haiku (e.g., the strict adherence to 17-syllables), despite the recognition that the haijin community has generally rejected the particular restriction. Others are highly reluctant to put any limitation on what is deemed to be haiku, so long as the poem is very short (i.e., “one breath” long).

Thus, I enjoy being freed from a number of proffered “haiku rules” that do not seem apt, workable or essential in my cultural and linguistic context. Nonetheless, I do believe that certain elements of haiku are too essential to discard without either straying from the genre or lowering the quality of a poem as haiku, no matter how much the resulting poem looks like a haiku, no matter who the poet may be, and no matter how interesting, insightful or ingenious it is.

For whatever it is worth (and I do not claim to be a haiku scholar or to be making a scholarly presentation), it is my opinion that the guideline “show them, don’t tell them,” goes to the very heart of the haiku genre (especially in its modern, English-language rendition). The advice to “show them” is essential to the crafting of genuine haiku or — at the very least — it is a key criterion for judging the quality of a poem that purports to be haiku, and a key ingredient in reaching the highest level of haiku excellence. By ignoring the show/tell distinction, haiku poets and editors are lowering the quality of haiku.

Many of our best haiku poets and theorists have espoused the show-don’t-tell principle for writing haiku. See the excerpts culled in our posting haiku’s essence: “show them, don’t tell them (May 30, 2007), which are reproduced at the bottom of this essay. For example:

  1. Randy Brooks has written: “The best haiku capture human perception—moments of being alive conveyed through sensory images. They do not explain nor describe nor provide philosophical or political commentary.”
  2. Lee Gurga urges, “Think in images rather than evaluations. Show, don’t tell, is the haiku way. Haiku approach the subjective through the objective.” (from Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, 2003)
  3. George Swede concluded: “The Haiku Is a Poem which Involves Sense Images; It Does Not Involve Generalizations.”
  4. In his Haiku Handbook, Bill Higginson said: “If a writer captures the images of an experience that produced emotion, then the reader — if comprehending and sympathetic — will have a similar emotion based on experiencing the images provided by the writer. The haiku is the quintessence of this kind of writing.” And,
  5. Jane Reichhold explains: “Your five or six senses are your basic tools for writing haiku. Haiku should come from what you have experienced and not what you think.. . . Haiku do not tell the reader what to think, but show the things that will lead the reader along the path the author’s mind traveled.”

Haiku (or the best haiku) are “show-ems” not “tell-ems.” A poem is a tell-em if the author gives us an intellectual, emotional, philosophical, or epigrammatical explanation, insight or confession, rather than a depiction or description of something that we can see, smell, taste, touch or feel. Reporting what you can see or hear does not create a “tell-em.” It is stating your intellectual conclusion, or the notion or emotion that fills or crosses your mind, regarding something you are experiencing, that turns a poem into a tell-em.

A “show-em” uses images of things we can experience with our senses. As the lesson “Show Don’t Tell” from In Southsea explains: “An image brings some scene, object or observation alive, and presents it to your imagination, so that you can picture it, or feel as though you experience it.” A haiku show-em usually has two sensory images. A tell-em may include such an image, but it also tacks on the poet’s explanation, reaction or confession, rather than drawing out a similar insight from the reader with the use of another image.

There are many kinds of tell-ems. Unless the poet has made no attempt at all to write a genuine haiku, each tell-em presents one sensory image — often nothing more than a “date stamp” (i.e., the name of a holiday, season, or social or meteorological event) — and then appends an explanation or mental observation. Here are some categories I’ve created to help describe and talk about the tell-em phenomenon in the context of poems structured to look or feel like haiku:

psyku tell the reader directly what’s on the mind or in the psyche of the poet; they state what he or she has concluded, is thinking about, reminded of, or feeling, or what label is being applied, in reaction to the image presented in the other segment of a haiku-like poem. As such, all “tell-ems” are “psyku” and the term applies to the entire poetic genre. [In the author’s opinion, the name psyku is more appropriate than “haiku” or “senryu” for such tell-em poems.]

wryku is a subset of psyku in which a sensory image or “date stamp” is accompanied by a dryly humorous or ironic witticism or insight, or a clever or paradoxical observation or turn of phrase. Were it not for the accompanying sensory image or date stamp, the more aphoristic wryku might be mistaken for an epigraph or a free-verse form of epigram.

sighku and cryku directly proclaim, explain, reveal or confess the poet’s regrets, sorrow, grief, anguish, woe, heartache and heartbreak, self-reproach, disappointment, loss, affliction, grief and sorrow, agony, and other forms of mental distress — often over things said or done (or not said or done), opportunities lost, or skills and traits not possessed.

byku is a form of psyku in which the implied phrase “by the way” can be readily inserted between the poem’s sense image and the tell-em segment. Byku are often failed wryku.

whyku pose philosophical or rhetorical questions that came to the poet’s mind due to a current, remembered or fantasized sensory experience. (As with other forms of psyku, one gets the impression that the “insight” or question actually occured first to the poet, who thereafter discovered a relevant sensory image.)

My reaction to tell-ems is much like that of Cor van den Heuval to the “pissed off poems” of one venerable haijin, in The Haiku Anthology (3rd Ed. 2000): “To me, most of them seem, however admirable, something other than haiku or senryu.” They may in fact constitute wonderful insights into the world, humanity, or the poet’s psyche. A few might belong in a list of the wisest epigrams or wittiest bon mots. Some readers might think they are excellent free verse poems despite their brevity. Nevertheless, psyku do not belong in our finest haiku journals and anthologies as examples of the best haiku or senryu being written in English — even if their authors are among the most respected haijin alive and the poem is structured to look or feel like haiku. Unfortunately, here’s what I found in recent editions of publications that I normally turn to for a quality haiku experience:

  1. The very first poem in big sky: The Red Moon Anthology 2006 is a tell-em, as are at least 25 of the 165 haiku/senryu chosen by its prestigious group of editors as “the finest haiku . . . published around the world in English” in 2006.
  2. Modern Haiku puts “sample haiku & senryu” online for each of its issues. At least six out of the 11 poems selected to represent the Autumn 2006 collection and 3 of the ten shown online from the current Spring 2007 issue are tell-ems.
  3. There are three psyku on the first page of the current edition of Bottle Rockets (#16), and more than a dozen in the first 12 pages.
  4. The current edition of Frogpond (XXX:1, Winter 2007) has about one tell-em for every two pages of haiku or senryu.
  5. Nisqually Delta Review places its Editor’s Choice poems online. Five of the 22 Editor’s Choice poems for the Winter/Spring 2007 edition are tell-ems.
  6. About a third of the three dozen Haiku/Senryu in the February 2007 edition of the Roadrunner Haiku Journal; and ten out out 45 poems in Roadrunner May 2007 edition are psyku.
  7. In general, The Heron’s Nest and Simply Haiku seem to have fewer tell-ems than other leading haiku publications, but their editors have also let full-blown psyku slip through on numerous occasions. For example, the March 2007 Heron’s Nest has three of them on this page.

I believe the editors of many fine haiku publications are letting us (and haiku as a genre) down — overseeing a lowering in the quality of haiku, both by their choices and by the example that is being set for those who write and read haiku. Since they receive far more haiku than they could ever publish (and in fact usually get 5 to 15 poems from each poet whose work is selected), it’s difficult to understand how the best ones of the bunch so often turn out to be tell-ems. The challenge of haiku — the task in crafting high-quality haiku — is to share an experienced moment of insight by showing not telling. By definition, tell-ems ignore or fail that challenge; as haiku they are second-rate. By analogy, how should or would we judge quality or pick winners, if:

– a writer employs smile, frown and wink emoticons [ :-) or :-( or ;-) ] to signal intended satire, irony, derision or sarcasm?
– a mystery writer gives so many clues that all but the most dim-witted reader will be certain of the perpetrator a few chapters into the book?
– a charades player innovates and “acts out” a word by writing it on a blackboard?

If you prefer sports and competition analogies, what about:

– “creative” soccer players who use their hands to advance a ball up the field?
– an office basketball league that allows 9-foot-high hoops in the Baby Boomer division?
– the track star who emulates the hero in the song “Cut Across Shorty” to arrive first at the finish line?

When a figure skater’s required routine — by choice or happenstance — includes only a double axel, instead of the triple or quadruple versions of the jump, she can’t expect a perfect score from the Olympic judges, no matter the grace, showmanship or creativity of the entire piece. Points are deducted for failing to attempt or achieve the more difficult maneuver, and the reduction will often take the competitor out of medal contention. The same “deduction in points” should be applied by haiku poets in reviewing their own work and by editors in considering a haiku submission, whenever a poem “tells” the author’s insight or epiphany rather than showing it through sensory images. Of course, some readers might balk at using such editorial tough love, offering one or more of the following “ya-buts”:

  1. Definitions are for Sissies and Cretins: I’ve encountered this attitude when discussing the scope of the haiku genre with some scarred veterans of the great Haiku Definition Wars. I can’t hope to change minds, but I can quote from the version of Jim Kacian’s Haiku Primer that premiered at f/k/a in 2005, which says it better than I could: “Definitions are made not to burden us with restrictions, but to make it possible to have at the ready information which will help us know what to look for when considering haiku. . . . [A] definition can be useful and inspiring. It is an arrow, aiming us towards a target, indicating a direction that we may follow. It can be vital. It can inspire. It can open more than it closes.”
  2. The Great Japanese Masters Wrote Tell-Ems: This appears to be true (if Western translators are to be believed), but does not prove that the Masters poets thought of such poems as stand-alone haiku, much less as their best haiku. The finest baseball hitters get on base 30% to 40% of the time, and hit home runs far less often than that. Neither every Hall of Famer’s at-bat, nor every haiku-like poem produced by a grand Master haijin, is a winner or a standard to which we should aspire. I love Issa, but there are a lot of his poems that would and should be rejected by The Heron’s Nest or Modern Haiku. Like Homer, the even the Masters sometimes nod.
  3. You’re Squelching Creativity & Innovation and/or “Haiku has to Evolve to Survive”: See Kacian’s quote in #1 about definitions. Haiku has more than enough potential for growth and creativity within the show-don’t-tell standard. Lowering standards to stimulate creativity and innovation almost never achieves better quality (e.g., consider the nonstandard spelling and grammar allowed in middle school writing classes and the resultant impact on creativity). It can, however, give growth to a new movement or genre. Thus, when Seurat stopped relying on lots of dots, the art world didn’t call his new painting pointillism. And, wedding dancers who refuse to put their left foot in, are no longer doing the Hokey-Pokey (that is what it’s all about).

In his advice on editing haiku, Lee Gurga suggests that poets create only half a haiku when they merely “tack a comment or title onto one sole image” or use one image that simply explains or interprets the other. Haijin often appear to confuse haiku with tanka, combining half a haiku with half a tanka and ending up with a mediocre mutant version of the two. As Jane Reichhold noted in a 1996 essay, unlike haiku “the tanka form allows the addition of your subjective feelings and emotions.” She advises:

“Accept that different poetry forms grew out of different situations and therefore have a built-in stance or spirit or uprightness. Be aware of what you are feeling and chose the proper genre for it.”

Like senryu, tell-ems need a name of their own — perhaps “psyku” — to distinguish them from haiku. Acknowledging tell-ems as a separate haikai category would signal that they aim to serve a different function than haiku or senryu, offering a different challenge to the poet, and a evoking a different kind of interaction with the reader. [As with senryu, it’s difficult to delineate the precise boundary between haiku and psyku; although some poems are clearly tell-ems, a few will be quite hard to classify.] At the very least, following such examples as “post-Modern Art,” “PeeWee Football,” and “Junior Scrabble,” tell-ems need an adjectival modifier when they are presented in circumstances where the audience expects to find genuine haiku. The name or modifier would signal that the poet and the editor know the difference, which would edify and mollify many readers.

When I turn to a “haiku publication”, I’m not looking for bon mots, aphorisms, or tiny confessional poems that happen to be written by haijin. The more of them I find, the less I enjoy the haiku experience or want to return to that publication. At best, tell-ems make me appreciate the art and craft of creating genuine, high-quality haiku. That effect could also be achieved, however, by throwing in a few of the oft-ridiculed pseudo and parody haiku, many of which — let’s face it — are difficult to distinguish in principle from psyku. My preference is to avoid the agita and keep both pseudo-haiku and psyku out of our preeminent haiku publications.

Crafting the right juxtaposition of sensory images to evince the insight the haiku poet wants to share is not always easy, even for the best haijin. That’s actually my point: doing it right can be difficult, requiring special skills, creativity and focused effort. Taking the shortcut of direct explanation makes the poem — however else it might succeed — a second-rate haiku. The temptation to take the easier route may be great, but we need to heed Jim Kacian’s warning in his Haiku Primer:

“But there are some things which do not constitute haiku content: they are not about the poet, what the poet feels about or how he interprets the content of his poem. These are the greatest dangers to writing good haiku, the urge to interpret, to think logically, to draw conclusions: to interpose our selves and our words between the experience and the reader. It takes faith to let the images of our moment stand on their own, and to let the reader come to these images and intuit his own understanding. But this is exactly what we must do. Because, at the last resort, it is not the content of haiku which is essential to us: it is the growth in feeling, perception and connectedness which the content permits us to experience. And so we must not interfere with the things which allow us this growth. In the end, we are best advised to let things speak for themselves, and they will speak well for us.” (emphasis added)

Lawyers and judges worry about slippery slopes — about setting a precedent or adopting a principle that leads to increasingly undesirable future corollaries, decisions or results. Poets and editors should, too. Equating tell-ems with the best haiku, by accepting psyku into our leading haiku publications, appears to be the kind of unwise choice that could readily lead to an avalanche of junk poetry masquerading as haiku.

Their rapid spread over the past few years indicates how insidious and tempting tell-ems can be for Westerners weaned on highly subjective and increasingly confessional literature and culture.

If only to spare themselves the pain of reviewing the ever-rising flood of wryku and sighku by the less talented among us, editors should draw the line and exclude (or segregate) tell-ems. They shouldn’t be shy about returning a poem to its author with a note saying “nice idea with good potential; please see if you can convert this psyku into a genuine haiku by substituting a sensory image for your explanatory phrase.” If it happens often enough, haijin will submit fewer tell-ems and produce better poetry — and our journals will contain noticeably better haiku.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

AfterWords: For many reasons, I did not want to use this Essay to point at particular poems that I consider to be tell-ems, or to mention their authors (many of whom are not only friends of mine but among the finest haiku poets I know). If you need some examples of tell-ems (and aren’t willing to cull through recent periodicals to test your hunting and evaluation skills), here are a bunch that I wrote myself over the past couple of years. Some even fooled an editor or two and made it into publication.

For each, I should have asked myself: How can I replace the remark, obervation, explanation, confession, etc. with a sensory image that might bring the reader to have a similar “insight” or mental state? If unable to find a suitable subsitute, I should probably have concluded that a) I might not have the skill or focus needed right now to make this a top-notch haiku, or b) the topic might be ill-suited for the haiku genre.

Can you think of ways to craft a genuine haiku winner out of some of the following haiku-looking verses?

a favorite tree
reflected in the river -
made me look again

visiting mom and dad –
faces and refrains
gettin’ old

even lovelier
naked
backyard elm

the stale air
of an old man’s home –
opening my front door

sleepless night
she won’t stop
leaving me alone

waking, the agnostic asks
who dried the dishes
and hung that sun?

leaving her place –
a hug
you’d give a friend

fallen blossoms
soon
just another tree

the river’s back
within its banks –
her disappointment

March snow
wanting more
not wanting more

I’m not embarrassed to have written the above verses. Some are pretty interesting and got a smile or two from friends. But, I am in retrospect a bit disappointed in myself for not taking the time to make them real haiku — or, really good haiku. These days, I would not submit any of them in their current form to a haiku journal. Also, I now pledge that I shall no longer (unless under some form of deadline or topical duress) post such poems to this website, whether written by myself or our Honored Guests.

______________________________________________________

- Excerpts on Haiku and The Show Don’t Tell Rule (originally posted as haiku’s essence: “show them, don’t tell them”, f/k/a, May 30, 2007) -

Randy Brooks wrote the following in his essay What Is Haiku?:

“The best haiku capture human perception—moments of being alive conveyed through sensory images. They do not explain nor describe nor provide philosophical or political commentary.”

Lee Gurga’s article “Writing and Revising Haiku” (Haiku World, June 2003, which is a chapter from Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, 2003) says:

“Write about whatever you experience. This includes what is going on inside you as well as what is going on around you. Senses include what you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch as well as what stimulates your mind. You can write about what you are experiencing at the moment or memories of past experiences may trigger other images.”

“Think in images rather than evaluations. Show, don’t tell, is the haiku way. Haiku approach the subjective through the objective.”

Avoid half a haiku. Can you identify two full images in your haiku? Maybe the haiku is merely a single image chopped into three lines? Have you tacked a comment or title onto one sole image? Have you come up with a great image, then merely added a ‘date-stamp’ to serve as your second image? Is your haiku an equation, with one line nothing more than the sum of the other two — i.e., a + b = c? Does one image simply explain or interpret the other?”

Gurga ends his section of “guidelines for editing haiku with words of caution: “Finally, please remember that haiku is

- About discovery, not invention

- About what is essential, not what is entertaining

- About sharing, not persuading

- About showing, not showing off

In addition, while discussing types of perception, Gurga says (at 93) “We must distinguish between finding things in nature and projecting our feelings onto the world.” He notes that “Michael McClintock has coined the term ’subjective realism’ to characterize haiku that go beyond the simple recording of experiences. The poet’s response to the scene is neither objective nor subjective but involves a third type of perception.” After giving a few examples of haiku that display subjective realism, Gurga muses (diplomatically):

“When we record our subjective responses in haiku, are we being receptive or merely projecting our wishful thinking? Are we being sensitive or merely presumptuous? The search for answers to these questions can engage poets for a lifetime.”

Christopher Herold offers “some qualities we find essential to haiku,” at The Heron’s Nest, including:

“Implication through objective presentation, not explanation: appeal to intuition, not intellect.”

William J. Higginson, in The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share and Teach Haiku (1985) said:

“When we compose a haiku we are saying, ‘It is hard to tell you how I am feeling. Perhaps if I share with you the event that made me aware of these feelings, you will have similar feelings of your own’.”

“. . . We know that we cannot share our feelings with others unless we share the causes of those feelings with them. . . Stating the feelings alone builds walls; stating the causes of the feelings builds paths.”

“In the rest of this book the word ‘image’ means words which name objects or actions that cause sensations from which we form mental images, or the mental images themselves.”

“If a writer captures the images of an experience that produced emotion, then the reader — if comprehending and sympathetic — will have a similar emotion based on experiencing the images provided by the writer. The haiku is the quintessence of this kind of writing.”

Jim Kacian’s “First Thoughts: A Haiku Primer(as presented first at f/k/a), offers many insights. It states:

“Typically, a poet who chooses haiku to express his moment strives to place his reader directly at the scene, not so that he may tell of the experience, but so that the reader may experience it directly for himself. The attentive reader will find all the input to recreate the moment–a setting, the conditions of the moment, the senses fired, the action, the entire packet of information–so that, through the act of close imagining, the reader may actually relive the moment, and arrive at the realization himself. The poet’s reality is mapped onto the reader’s, like an overlay, and when there is a sufficient overlap, the experience is shared.”

Kacian explains: “Haiku is a poetic form, and does hold some things in common with other poetry. However, it has developed, over its 400 and more years of practice, techniques specific to itself, a sense of how language best works within it, and several theories of poetics. We will examine these elements which make haiku unique among all the poetic forms of the world.
. . . . [W]e will want to acquire an understanding of what haiku has been, but also what it is becoming, and what it might look like in the future.” As for definitions:

“Definitions are made not to burden us with restrictions, but to make it possible to have at the ready information which will help us know what to look for when considering haiku.

” . . . On the other hand, a definition can be useful and inspiring. It is an arrow, aiming us towards a target, indicating a direction that we may follow. It can be vital. It can inspire. It can open more than it closes.”

“A haiku is a poem . . . which records an experience . . . Haiku always begin with an experience. . . .

“[W]hile haiku may explore interior space, they are not by nature personal. Haiku are not poems we write about ourselves, not another form of confessional poetry; in fact, they are moments when the poet loses his own self-consciousness because of an identification with his subject.”

. . . “So, finally, what is the content of haiku? Haiku are about all the things we encounter in the world each day, and what they tell us about the world, and ourselves. They contain some reference to nature, but nature in the broadest sense. And they are about the present moment, the moment in which we are capable of experiencing new revelations.”

“But there are some things which do not constitute haiku content: they are not about the poet, what the poet feels about or how he interprets the content of his poem. These are the greatest dangers to writing good haiku, the urge to interpret, to think logically, to draw conclusions: to interpose our selves and our words between the experience and the reader. It takes faith to let the images of our moment stand on their own, and to let the reader come to these images and intuit his own understanding. But this is exactly what we must do. Because, at the last resort, it is not the content of haiku which is essential to us: it is the growth in feeling, perception and connectedness which the content permits us to experience. And so we must not interfere with the things which allow us this growth. In the end, we are best advised to let things speak for themselves, and they will speak well for us.”

David G. Lanoue offers many insights About Haiku at his Haiku of Kobayashi Issa website, including:

How should it be read? Issa, a master of the form, invites his readers to partake not of abstract ideas but of experience—palpable, wondrous encounters with life: a swallow flying out the nose of a great bronze Buddha, cows moo-mooing in thick autumn mist, a butterfly resting on a dog curled to sleep. One does not read such poetry in a greedy rush to understand a theme, a point, or a concept. Rather, we do best by Issa if we open ourselves to each haiku with the same non-grasping attention we might pay to a bird warbling in a tree. After all, the poet insists, birdsong is haiku:

like warbling pure haiku
mountain
cuckoo

Like a bird twittering one-breath improvisations deep in the summer cedars on some shady, fathomless Japanese mountainside, Issa creates vivid, non-intellectual expressions of life on a living planet. The haiku moment awaits the reader who patiently allows words on the page to register as deeply felt reality.

Jane Reichhold, in Writing and Enjoying Haiku (2002), said:

  1. “Your five or six senses are your basic tools for writing haiku. Haiku should come from what you have experienced and not what you think.”
  2. “[I]nstead of presenting the idea of a thing or using the concepts of what something means to us, the author simply presents the thing as it is.”
  3. “Haiku do not tell the reader what to think, but show the things that will lead the reader along the path the author’s mind traveled.”

In her 1996 essay “Another Attempt To Define Haiku,” Reichhold explains: “By being concrete — using only images of things we can see, smell, taste, touch or feel — the haiku writer avoids those traps of Western poetry: abstract ideas such as love, hate, sadness, desire, honor, glory, of which we have had enough. Haiku demands you use your bodily senses instead of your intellect. Forget what you have been taught; write of what you experience with your body. Check your haiku. See if you can draw a picture (at least in your mind) as result of reading each line.” She also describes “the real challenge of haiku”:

To express an image or two so well that the reader “sees” them in his/her mind and then! you add another image that demands a leap or twist so the two previous images are seen in a new relationship (maybe even your metaphor, if you are lucky). An additional twist is to have images plus leap which reveal some deep philosophical truth or ideal without having to speak of it. Poetry is written vision. You have to show new ways of seeing things to be a real poet.

She notes that the tanka form “allows the addition of your subjective feelings and emotions. Accept that different poetry forms grew out of different situations and therefore have a built-in stance or spirit or uprightness. Be aware of what you are feeling and chose the proper genre for it.” Reichhold concludes:

“Writing haiku is a discipline and if you are interested in haiku you are seeking more discipline in your life. Go for it. Make rules for yourself and follow them exactly, or break them completely, outgrow them and find new ones. We are all students and no one ‘really’ knows how to write a haiku. That, however, does not stop us from trying…”

George Swede’s “Towards a Definition of English-language Haiku” (originally published in Global Haiku: Twenty-Five Poets World-Wide, edited by George Swede and Randy Brooks, Mosaic Press, 2000), states: “There is as yet no complete unanimity among American poets (or editors) as to what constitutes a haiku in English—how it differs from other poems which may be equally short. In other words, haiku in English are still in their infancy.” Nonethless, “haiku involves a number of compositional guidelines with which an aspiring haiku poet must become thoroughly acquainted.” While “This does not mean that all the guidelines have to be slavishly obeyed . . . there are a number that are essential—the brain, heart and lungs of the haiku’s existence.” Swede concludes that “Only Five Criteria Remain Essential”, including:

The Haiku Is a Poem which Involves Sense Images; It Does Not Involve Generalizations: This characteristic is also essential, but because it follows inevitably from criterion four, many definitions do not bother to mention it. Nevertheless, from my experience giving writing workshops, I have found that stating this criterion outright seems to provide a necessary focus for many students.

. . . “Readers require definite objects juxtaposed in a believable manner otherwise they cannot extrapolate effectively from the depicted event to their own existence.” . . .

Charles Trumbull, judging the Scorpion Prize for Roadrunner Haiku Journal’s Vol. 6:1, said:

“So many haiku that I read these days fall short of realizing the full potential of the genre because they concentrate on elaborating a single striking image. The way a haiku gains depth and resonance is through the interaction of two images. It is this dynamic that is so often missing.”

Cor van den Heuval said in The Haiku Anthology (3rd Ed. 2000): “A haiku is a short poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which Nature is linked to human nature. . . . The poem is refined into a touchstone of suggestiveness.”

Naomi Wakan offers the following advice in her book Haiku: One Breath Poetry (1993):

“If, however, you just describe what you see and not what you think or feel, you will find that there is nothing separating you and the [subject].”

“A haiku poet looks at the subject that has caught their interest with great concentration and focuses on the reality that he or she sees.”

. . . “if you put a description of what your senses are telling you into haiku form, you will have written a haiku.

. . . .

Michael Dylan Welch gives this explanation at Haiku Begin (April 2003): “The most important characteristic of haiku is how it conveys, through implication and suggestion, a moment of keen perception and perhaps insight into nature or human nature. Haiku does not state this insight, however, but implies it.” In his Ten Tips for Writing Haiku, Michael includes:

4. Write about common, everyday events in nature and in human life; choose events that give you a moment of understanding or realization about the truth of things around you—but don’t explain them.

6. Create an emotional response in the reader by presenting what caused your emotion rather than the emotion itself.

Kathy Lippard Cobb offers ten Helpful Hints for writing haiku at Shadowpoetry. Here is the last one:

10) Show don’t tell. This is confusing to many writers. It certainly was to me. We all know that the English language, or ANY language, TELLS. I have never heard of a “story shower.”

However, what it means to show don’t tell, is that instead of saying that you are sad, lonely, or that you love someone, try to show it.

Instead of telling your emotions, show it by using concrete imagery.

In Southsea offers materials for teaching haiku, including a lesson plan called Show Don’t Tell, which notes: “Poetry works through images, not explanations. Let us identify images and explanations. . . . You know what explanations are. Here is a working definition of ‘images:’ An image brings some scene, object or observation alive, and presents it to your imagination, so that you can picture it, or feel as though you experience it.” . . .

The image SHOWS, and the explanation TELLS.

All forms of imaginative literature, including drama and film, follow the same principle, which can be summed up in the slogan, “Show, don’t tell.” . . .

Poetry also works through images. In the case of haiku, the images are not “imaginative” in the sense of invented, fantasised or fictionalised. They are usually closely observed aspects of nature. They are real experiences. They are images in the sense that they give the reader pictures (and sounds, textures and smells) with which to recreate the experience as a whole. They show the experience, in the vivid present; they do not tell about it, reporting on something that has passed and summing up the judgment to be made about it. The reader is in the middle of it, not being told about it second hand.

Thoughts and ideas: If mental events are the subject matter of a poem, then they are expressed through the strong feelings they arouse, or through images or experiences, not baldly, as thoughts. Essays (in philosophy or journalism, for example) are the right forms for the direct expression of thoughts, ideas, analysis and judgments. Creative writing is different, and works the opposite way.

The Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival provides a “basics of writing haiku” section, which states:

A haiku is a poem that captures a scene or experience in just a few words, suggesting the depth and intensity of the moment. Haiku use concrete images to capture this moment of intuition. Above all, haiku try to imply the emotion of the poet’s experience without stating it.

Alistair Scott’s essay “Writing Haiku,” at Worldwide Freelance Writer, states:

  1. Do not tinker with ideas or ideals. Haiku should arise from genuine feeling and should be written without being aphoristic, didactic or judgmental.
  2. [A sample poem by Buson] is a traditional haiku which takes a moment, an incident or a scene, observes it with clarity and sets it down with the minimum of fuss. Two images are placed side by side, without comment, giving the reader the opportunity to compare, reflect and share an emotional experience.
  3. Is this [sample haiku] a statement of love? Another emotion? Or something else altogether? Individualism? That is for the reader to decide. Haiku is one of the purest expressions of the well-known writers’ aphorism, ‘Show, don’t tell’.

Haiku Society of America’s latest definition of haiku was promulgated in 2004 and states:

Definition: A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.

Ruth Franke’s review in tankanetz of Michael McClintock’s “Letters in Time,” compares how the poet implies a feeling of loss in two cognate poems, one written in tanka form and one in haiku form:

all the spring day,
the deer cross the high meadow
and into the clouds
through rain
checkedBoxS
all day in spring,
deer cross the high meadow
into the clouds, always
into the clouds …

“In both poems the same image is pictured. In the haiku version, the language is objective, and it is left to the reader to complete the poem with his empathy and imagination. When we look at the tanka version, we see that the observation has been expanded from “all the spring day” to “all day in spring”, but the initial unit of three lines is still objective. What makes it a tanka is the additional development in the final two lines that may be more subjective, more lyrical or personal and gives us the poet’s response to the previous image. . . We sense the poet’s feeling of sadness and irretrievable loss – a continuous loss – stronger than in the haiku version and understand why Michael McClintock is so much attracted by tanka with its larger range of poetic devices.” The reviewer concludes:

“In tanka – much more than in haiku – a poet is able to relate natural imagery to personal introspection and reflection by taking subjective decisions about subject matter and language, and this is what gives the poems their depth.”

6 Comments

  1. Interesting and well thought out. For the most part, I agree with what you’ve said. However, I think that such an essay would benefit greatly from examples of each point made. Also, I think a distinction must be made between haiku and senryu, and nowhere have you done that. I think that

    sleepless night
    she won’t stop
    leaving me alone

    is a terrific senryu and thus deserves publication. Most journals do not distinguish haiku from senryu (and I often don’t agree with the criteria of those that do). The Red Moon Anthology no longer makes a distinction between the two, so it is unfair to judge every poem that appears there as if it were a haiku.

    That said, I thank you for the reminder to be mindful of what I write–especially if I intend for my poems to be read as haiku.

    All best,
    Carolyn

    Comment by Carolyn Hall — June 4, 2007 @ 1:02 am

  2. Hi, Carolyn, Thank you for taking the time to leave a thoughtful comment. I knew from the start that the Essay would be a better piece of scholarship, criticism or instruction with examples. I made the decision, however, that I would not criticize the work of individual poets, even if my pundit credentials would suffer. (You’ve been around human beings and poets long enough to understand that choice on a personal level.) Of course, I did not intend, and did not have the energy, to make this a comprehensive literary treatise or instructional manual. To try to compensate, much time went into explaning the show-em and tell-em concepts — and the breakdown of tell-em categories (psyku, wryku, cryku, etc.) — to assist those who want to understand or avoid the problem or evaluate a particular poem. I added my own tell-ems to help those who wanted examples.

    As for senryu [a short poem similar in structure to haiku
    that focuses on human nature], I believe that “show don’t tell” applies to them as well as to haiku. The best senryu allow the reader to draw the conclusion or experience the insight into human nature based on juxtaposition of sensory images. Indeed, they are more at risk than haiku of being little more than bon mots and epigrams if not grounded in sensory images.

    Although I enjoyed writing the verse in question and am pleased you and others have enjoyed it , it is a line from a country song attached to a very generalized physical experience (not even a sensory moment). As such, it has the makings of a moment of mirth or a pretty good greetings card, but is at best a mediocre senryu. It is a good example of my point that being interesting, insightful or entertaining does not itself make a poem either good haiku or good senryu, even if presented to look like one or intended to be one.

    I hope that poets and editors will not use the excuse of a poem being senryu or almost senryu as an excuse for telling their insights, explanations and conclusions rather than showing them, or for including tell-ems in sections that are billed as “haiku & senryu.”

    Comment by David Giacalone — June 4, 2007 @ 8:23 am

  3. A response to your [David Giacalone’s] concern about “tell-em” haiku.

    (1) As hinted in your essay and Caroline Hall’s posted response, some of this may be related to the mix of haiku and senryu in many publications, so there may be a broader mix of these traditions in English-language haiku publications.

    (2) There may be some growing influence of tanka traditions (which celebrate a deliberately lyrical expression of inner psyche & emotion linked to a sense of being in a moment of perception). Many of the English-language haiku poets have been exploring ways of writing tanka in English, especially in the last few years, where the autobiographical, the confessional, the modernist angst and the post-modernist cynicism are valued both in Japanese and English-language traditions. These approaches are, perhaps, contributing to your observation about “psyku” and “wryku” versions of “tell-ems”.

    (3) Also, more exploration of the Renku traditions have, perhaps, led to a realization that not every link has to be pure image and sensory perception. This playfulness with linked verse has, perhaps, extended an open-ness to the lyrical, the political, the ironic, etc. as shifting types of expressions and emotions available to the range of haiku. As discussed in Haruo Shirane’s excellent book, Traces of Dreams, one of the main goals of linking is to have a mix of ninjo and ninjo-nashi verses (some verses focused on pure images of the natural world, whereas other links are images and emotions from the human society). It is this mix that makes the Renku a fresh, unpredictable and a pleasant literary experience.

    As editors, publishers and writers put together collections of haiku (in books, anthologies, and magazines) there is a natural desire to offer an interesting mix of perceptions, experiences and voices. Some of that mix is probably going to be a range of focus from nature and pure images and sensations to the inner or psychological or more human focus. Now the danger is that this human focus can easily lead to less effective haiku based on generalizations, emotional catch-phrases, or lyrical poeticisms which, of course, result in the “tell-ems” you are concerned about. And the human focus can turn into self-focus where the haiku finally are merely about the author’s life, values, attitudes and views. If too many of these end up in a collection, then the mix is probably not a good one, and the collection is a failure as a haiku collection because it has become a collection of epigrams or minimalist confessional free verse.

    (4) Probably the biggest potential threat to haiku excellence, is a possible loss of connection to the Zen aesthetic principle of selflessness. In other words, if the haiku is anonymous, and the haiku experience is valuable because it offers an experience open to every human being, then it provides a unique set of particular images that connect to universal human experience. They are not about the author, the author’s feelings, the author’s biography, the author’s state of mind, etc. Ultimately, what matters about a haiku is that anyone could have written it, and everyone can feel it’s gift of perception. It is not about the haiku writer’s ego; it is about being human. The “by the way” about haiku publishing, then, is that “by the way, this haiku was written by so and so”.

    The motive of the ego-based haiku is that the poem is a vehicle for the poet to gain reputation for wittiness, for a political position, for a cleverness, for a popular social movement, for a certain perspective. The haiku becomes subordinate to the writer’s identity. This problem of “celebrity” poets or clever voices and perspectives is probably the thing I am most alarmed about. And yet, some haiku poets are able to convey the personal, the inner psychological, the emotional, even the political, in humble ways that still invite readers into a universal human experience.

    So overall, I’d say some mixing of the pure image of sensory perception with human expressions is natural in haiku. However, when the final point of a haiku is to keep the insight personal or to make an abstract statement, or to build up a public celebrity haiku poet identity where the biography seems more important than the selfless moment of perception, then we lose the primary value of haiku. Those “tell-ems” belong to the writer and do not invite the reader into the perceived images. Haiku readers don’t need to form fan-clubs for haiku writers or to adopt certain haiku writer’s attitudes; they need the genuine haiku experience that invites them into that human experience of being alive. So David, you raise a valid concern and caution for editors and publishers and writers of haiku. We should keep our guard up and publish haiku that offer readers the gift of perception and insight.

    Forgive us when we fail and are taken in by the emotional outburst, the pathos of generalizations, the humor of witty expression, the bold expression of positions, and the little tell-em that seems worth repeating.

    Randy Brooks
    Editor, Mayfly magazine
    Publisher, Brooks Books

    Comment by Randy Brooks — June 4, 2007 @ 12:55 pm

  4. Randy, Thank you for this thoughtful and comprehensive reply, which offers us insights you have gained after much reflection and experience as poet, teacher, and editor. My Essay above — like much at this weblog that is aimed at my legal brethren — is meant to provoke some self-examination and discussion. Your response surely helps achieve that goal. I hope I’ll always remember to keep a Beginner’s Mind, which is curious, humble and forgiving (even of myself).

    Comment by David Giacalone — June 4, 2007 @ 2:16 pm

  5. Check out my essay ‘Dial 5-7-5 for Classicism: In Defense of the Seventeen-Syllable Haiku‘ in the latest (June 2007) issue of Jane Reichhold’s Lynx at the aha poetry website, then kick up a stink by responding with commentary, essays, death threats, etc.

    So far, the response to this essay has been merely more non-constructive haijin apathy. Break the silence. Start a fistfight today.

    Comment by R. W. Watkins — August 17, 2007 @ 10:10 am

  6. I think there is a cultural difference here. The problem is Americans trying to imitate a non-American art form. I find reading and writing Haiku (or haiku-like verse) very relaxing, but I don’t like traditional Haiku and tend to prefer senryu or even zappai simply because I don’t want to have to think too much about it or interpret the images myself. I like things spelled out. I think that’s a very American way of thinking.

    Thanks for teaching me a lot about haiku and related poetry. I came here looking to learn about haiku and learned a whole lot more.

    Comment by Donna Knight — January 3, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

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