Poets on Poetry
4:00 am
Tue April 15, 2014

My Year in Haiku: Learning to Write Poetry Again

Rhinelander poet Brent Goodman once vowed he’d never write a haiku.  So why has he been writing nothing but haiku for the past 10 months?  As part this month’s Poets on Poetry series, Goodman tells how it all began with a course by Haiku Master Lee Gurga.

Haiku are known for evoking images and a sense of season.
Credit Seabamirum / https://flic.kr/p/dQawfu

It’s April again, which for me means participating in a daily challenge called “NaPoWriMo,” or National Poetry Writing Month. It’s an annual project in which poets attempt to write a poem a day for the entire month of April.

Writing poetry is one of the most profound ways I give my inner self a voice. Through writing, I continue to discover who I am. One thing that makes NaPoWriMo even more rewarding is sharing that inner voice with others, and listening carefully to theirs. That’s why, every April for the past 5 years,  I’ve been fortunate to exchange daily poetry drafts with my friend and professor, David Graham. We’ve only had one rule for our exchange: send a new poem every day, on any subject or in any shape. . .  but please, NO HAIKU.

Of course, that would be cheating -- writing 3 lines and calling it a poem? Please. You’ll have to try harder than that to take the NaPoWriMo daily challenge!

This year, however, things are different. I took a class last June which launched me into a year of wanting to write nothing but haiku. A new local arts organization, The Mill Paper & Book Arts Center, launched a summer workshop series which brought some of the nation’s finest artisans to the northwoods to teach their craft. One of those artists was American Haiku Master Lee Gurga, who came to present a 2-day poetry workshop.

Before then, I never took haiku seriously, to be honest. Sure I learned them in grade school to be a Japanese form of nature-themed poems written in 3 lines, with 5 syllables in the first line, 7 in the second, and 5 in the third.

But last summer I learned that I knew absolutely nothing about an exciting worldwide English Language Haiku movement happening quite independent from the poetry scene I was so familiar with. The haiku Lee Gurga introduced were not your strict 5-7-5 poems from back in intermediate school. They were fresh, contemporary, breathtaking, sometimes even avant garde.

What surprised me most is that the old “17 syllable rule” has largely been abandoned by English language haikuists. That’s because they’ve discovered that the phonetic building blocks which compose Japanese poetry don’t directly correspond to English syllables. A traditional Japanese haiku, written in 17 “On,” or sounds, actually translates into a poem that’s around 9-12 “syllables” in English. Therefore, a shorter haiku in English better captures the form’s original sense of lightness and brevity.

Now, I love a good challenge. When I started reading all of these new poets I’d never heard of before, all writing miniature knockout poems that succeeded to say more in 10 words than I’d been able to achieve in a hundred, I knew I had to dive in and give it a go. But first I had to learn what made a haiku a haiku.

As I discovered for myself, simply put, a haiku is a very short poem composed of two images or things. These two pieces, in their placement next to each other, invite the reader to experience the emotional scene for themselves. Quite often, in some of the most evocative haiku, these images are presented in a way to suggest a deeper relationship between nature and human nature, the elements and their connection to our emotional experience.

I was hooked. After the class, I started reading journals like Modern Haiku and Frogpond, and I began writing dozens of drafts a day. Many of them were clunky or unrealized, as I struggled with how to craft such tiny poems. I literally had to forget everything I had learned about writing poetry, and completely relearn what it takes to compose a decent haiku.

I quickly found that writing haiku made me more alert to my daily relationship with the natural world, and I watched the seasons transition into each other with a renewed sense of wonder. For the first time in many years, I felt poetry taking center stage to my daily routine again, and I’ve never been happier. Better yet, haiku’s focus on seeing and saying things simply helped me practice a much simpler way of living, which is always a good thing.

Here’s a few I’ve written since taking Lee Gurga’s workshop last June. Note the sense of season in each:

I.

yellow onions

caramelize for soup --

august twilight

II.

windows sealed for winter

I bookmark one text

with another

III.

moist mouse nest

upturned with the plow

pink moon

For this year’s National Poetry Writing Month challenge, I told my friend David Graham, this time around I’m breaking the rules: I’m in the middle of a year-long haiku adventure, so expect to see at least 5 haiku  a day from me for the entire month of April. And you know what? He’s writing and replying with his own haiku -- he’s hooked now too!

It’s a great joy to share haiku with close friends and with listeners like you, as it really is a form of poetry for everyone. I encourage you to try writing one yourself. 

Happy National Poetry Month, and may you learn something new about yourself through writing.