A New View on Haiku
Like many people, I was taught that haiku were poems that followed a 5-7-5 syllable count. In fact, I taught haiku that way for years myself. I’ll even own up to the fact that I used haiku as my "special lesson" on days when I was being observed. There was something so satisfyingly tight about the form and my observers (read: my bosses) left the room thinking actual learning had taken place. And, in fairness, maybe a little learning did occur – but a few years later, under the patient tutelage of a kind magazine editor named Robert Speiss, I learned that modern English language haiku is a much richer form than I had ever imagined.
I cracked up when I first heard there was a journal dedicated to haiku – Modern Haiku, in Madison, WI. (Of course it was Madison -- the Berkeley of the Midwest!). Having taught 5-7-5 haiku for a few years I thought I was an expert. So, I thought I would do the journal a favor and send out my first ever submissions. When Bob Speiss, the editor, rejected all of my submissions, I took the rejection as a perverse challenge and tried again. But he rejected the next two batches as well. (My students love this story, by the way!) In his extra-ordinary capacity as a teacher-editor, though, Bob always wrote an encouraging comment by hand with each rejection.
Most helpfully, Bob told me to read great haiku poets – Japanese masters (Basho, Issa, Buson), American poets who made forays into the field (Kerouac, Richard Wright, Gary Snyder) and some less celebrated contemporary poets creating some wonderful haiku right now (among my current favorites are Fay Aoyagi, Yu Chang, and Lee Gurga). He also led me to a more meaningful definition of haiku than mere syllable counting. Haiku, he said, are short, unrhymed, poems (usually no more than 17 syllables) that juxtapose two images to capture a moment of insight about the world or about oneself. (Since the haiku “moment” is so key – let me recommend a great little 4-minute video called “Moments” I just watched from WNYC’s Radio Lab).
So, I quickly subscribed to his journal and to other little journals and read as much as I could. When Bob suggested that haiku are not so much written as lived, I thought of Keats’s line that “Poems must come as easily as the leaves to the trees else they had not come at all.” But I really began to understand when I wrote – or should I say became aware of – my first haiku moment:
the terrier catches a scent
in the hedges
Upon witnessing these two converging images – the new day and the fresh scent – I ran up to my apartment, wrote the poem down and sent it to Bob. He wrote back a week later and said, “Now you've got it.” I’ve been writing haiku ever since:
my daughter practicing
the letter “S”
my hand shake
room full of chairs
the museum guard
stands at attention
I do not offer these examples as proof of my “mastery” (hardly so), but only as indication of how haiku, in the words of Gary Snyder “help us live where we are now.”
P.S. Bob Speiss has since died, but Modern Haiku is now published out of Santa Fe by a terrific editor, Charles Trumbull. I also recommend checking out Frogpond and The Heron’s Nest as examples of contemporary journals that offer stunning haiku in every issue.
John S. O'Connor's poems have appeared in places such as Poetry East and RHINO. He has written two books on teaching: This Time It's Personal: Teaching Academic Writing through Creative Nonfiction (2011) and Wordplaygrounds: Reading, Writing, and Performing Poetry in the English Classroom (2004). He earned his BA and MAT from the University of Chicago and his PhD from...