Haiku Revisited

Awhile back, I wote a post on judging a haiku contest and mentioned that I had written a few haiku. It’s not my main form of poetry to work with, so I’ve always felt a little like a fish out of water with haiku, yet it was a form I wanted to explore for awhile. The problem was, when I submitted to haiku journals, the response was always negative. I’m used to that with regular literary magazines, but there aren’t that many haiku journals and I didn’t want to keep getting turned down by the same places, so I gave up submitting.

Then last year I let John Z. look at a few of them. He also said my haiku weren’t quite haiku by a strict definition, but at least he tried to explain. And he offered some revisions. Naturally, his revisions didn’t match my vision and for awhile I decided to give up on the form, at least for these poems. I rewrote them as two to four line stanzas, but still didn’t feel satisfied. I called them “meditations” but that didn’t really fit the tone. To me, they were haiku, after all. Or if they didn’t quite master the form, they were at least haiku attempts.

This weekend, I decided to give them another look. My plan in revising the first time was to get them away from the form they had been in and let them sit. Enough time had gone past that I could look at them fresh. I got out my friend’s comments and reviewed the changes and suggestions he’d made. I paid closest attention to the one poem he had said was a haiku. If one got it right, then the others couldn’t be that far off, so I wanted to figure out what was missing.

I read some more about the “cutting word.” In a Japanese haiku, there is a word, sometimes described as an exclamation that marks the turning point in the haiku. It comes at the end of the first or second line in English, though in Japanese a haiku is written in one line with three parts or 5, 7, and 5 syllables (which are different than English syllables, so English language haiku don’t count them). I knew all of this. But in reading, what really sunk in this time was that the cutting word in English is often accomplished with punctuation.

What I realized was that my previous haiku, though they had all of the elements of haiku that I knew about, were too grammatically correct. Or I might say, too complete. What I’m realizing now is that the successful haiku has a silence in it in place of the cutting word. Think of a rap haiku where the cutting word was ‘yo.’ To translate that into non-rap and still try to replace ‘yo’ with a word like ‘ah!’ every time would sound ludicrous. Leave it out, but in such a way that the feeling of a revelation is still there.

With this in mind, I revised my haiku by rearranging and restating things so that the two states or two perceptions are disconnected grammatically. Or connected with a colon or dash. Both perceptions are their own statement. One is not dependent on the other syntactically. I also looked for balance, to make that break after the first or second line, and I tried to keep the weighting of lines at about 5, 7, 5 (so the first and last lines are even and shorter than the middle one without counting syllables), though I didn’t stick to that religiously.

I was happy with these revisions to poems I thought I was done with –either they were haiku or they weren’t, but I didn’t think I could take them any further. In the process, I do think the poems improved. It was more than just rearranging syntax and syllables, in other words. It was an exploration of new linguistic possibilities. Now we’ll see what the haiku journals think. They may still be full of other people’s haiku or opt to choose ones from the haiku writers they recognize, but I hope they are more encouraging.

Who knows, I may feel like adding a few more poems to this sequence of haiku or starting another.

Yet I should add that not all of the original sequence worked as haiku. Four of them were too interconnected, and I felt they really needed to be seen together. I gave them a different title, rearranged a bit more, and wrote them as a four-stanza poem (at least for now). If I decide I don’t like the poem in its current form, I’ve also thought of trying it as haibun, using prose to form the connections and provide the context that I felt was necessary to understand the individual haiku stanzas.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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