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Call of the Page (Alan & Karen)

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Taking out the important in haiku

photograph©Alan Summers 2018

Taking out the important in haiku...

Haiku combines many of the attributes I like most, that of brevity and concise language, whilst still containing a full and actual experience within the constraints that haiku demands.  The applied application of thoughtfully placed words in a particular order within the lines can create a reverberation far beyond what should be expected. It’s a challenge for the writer to be tested so that they maintain freshness despite the apparent rigidity of this type of poetry.

Interestingly J.D. Salinger (author of Catcher in the Rye) created a number of haiku, and one haiku in particular became the catalyst for a famous character for a series of short stories, that of Seymour Glass. Although this particular verse contains more words than many contemporary haiku in English it still avoids over-telling.  The temptation of adding the hustle and bustle incidents that make up a flight are not needed in the physical text that we see:

The little girl on the plane
Who turned her doll’s head around
To look at me.

And yet I can feel all the other activities going on within the interior of a passenger aircraft, without it being spelt out: After all we are often our own witnesses by default to common experiences.  From distillation to the very opposite: I wonder how many haiku, once exploded, so we see their inner compartments, its invisible text made visible, could become, or have become short stories, and even novels, because they contain the information in “non-visible” sections of the poem?

What also hooks me is that a reader can become the ending in a haiku by their very own distinctive set of experiences in life, and by the manner which they individually chose to interpret, or re-interpret the incident/author experience within the haiku. Some haiku writers are comfortable or confident with handing control over to the reader, for those six seconds, as co-poets, or co-pilots on their own flight into the poem. It’s why I’ve often discovered that haiku is a great ambassador for longer poetry, as confidence is gained, and fears are diminished, as we unlock poetry via the haiku way.

Perhaps the strongest feature of haiku, and how it operates, almost as a word version of a gyroscope, is the technique of pairing images together.  Sometimes these two images are in close relationship, and sometimes there is apparently no immediate and logical connection. When images are pitted together, almost pitted against each other, the reader has an opportunity to create an experience all of their own making, with the haiku as a catalyst.  I find that fascinating, that a poet could enjoy a reader taking another journey through the poem creating something individual to, and for, the reader.

The main thing about haiku is that you can and perhaps should trust the reader enough not to explain everything.  Implication is economic, it’s a good device and approach to make the poem, as it allows me as the reader to become a joint creative force whilst I’m reading someone’s work.  It’s such a generous act of complicity from the original author and artist.

So why does implication succeed over explication/exposition for me?  It’s not to say that we dispense with explication as the process of “unfolding" the poem via reader power isn’t about losing the bath water, or the baby, but rather to pull it back to its barest components. We can avoid a full ‘reveal’ by the poet, and that is a gift for a reader such as myself:  After all I am quite capable as a human who has interfaced with many aspects of the world both as child and as adult.  I can create or recreate the final poem to become my own end result, as if the first poem was an earlier draft and I become the next draft version, in effect, in a long chain of reader after reader.

In some types of poetry we can be undecided between the baby and the deep blue bath water — about what we leave in and what we decide to take out, and what exactly is “the important” in our work, and what the reader should be made to see.  What we mustn’t forget is that the reader is a creative force in their own right, and if we laid everything out, supplied all the answers to the crossword, there would be no journey for the reader as well as the writer.   As writers we have to challenge ourselves, and whoever else on that journey is also hopefully enabled to see and immersively participate, to jointly create, and even internally rewrite the poem’s core of message in their own mind’s eye.  A haiku poem is so brief it cannot explain over and over with multiple images and explanations, and it is this very shortcoming that makes haiku perhaps unique amongst all poems both short and long(er).

Often a certain haiku can say more by refraining to say too much, and avoiding all the peripheral detail that could clutter up a clean transitory experience.   After all if the world we inhabit had few spaces, or openings, only mostly solid objects and obstructions, such as a massive brick wall or series of walls, how could we make our way through?  So haiku creates a space, an aperture, in-between its pair of images/sections so that I, we, can walk, run, or leap, as if there are stepping stones in a pond, or a river crossing.

wet prints
the sun takes the dog

Alan Summers

close up of photograph©Alan Summers 2018

Haiku is a box of tricks: You don’t need to use the whole container all at once, just conjure up what feels necessary and appropriate for the particular verse you are working into a haiku. These poems can work by contradictions, for example, by leaving out what you feel is the most important fact, or observation.  You can often create more meaning, more expanse, for a reader to roam and hunter/gatherer their (own) interpretations.   Haiku are not poems studded and shot through by nail guns, and the only obstacle in a haiku could be by an author who does not wish the reader to be a fellow creative.   Haiku is a poem of avoiding explanations and instructions that can make the reader into the mechanic; the engineer; the scientist; the detective; the botanist; social commentator; the magician; and even the visionary.

Below is an award winning haiku that started out its life as a six line poem, packed with detail, yet still unsatisfying to me where despite its endless details, it never said enough.   After a laborious six months of multiple versions the poem moved down to four lines, and then I decided to start work on it as a potential haiku.   Eventually I laid the draft haiku (the proto-haiku) to rest, quite literally inside a physical cabinet drawer, for a further six months.  Later, when I decided I needed just one more haiku to make a group haiku submission to a competition, I brought it back out, knowing I would have a completely fresh viewpoint, as if I was a reader and not the author.  The three line poem was stripped down, and I was surprised that it spoke to me far more than any of my previous and longer versions.  I decided to risk leaving it as it was:

dusk at the golf club
part of a marker pole
a tawny frogmouth

Alan Summers

I was comfortable that it would not win the competition which was to be judged by the formidably talented Australian haiku pioneer Janice Bostok, that at least I had a decent poem.  To my surprise it was picked for first prize, and Janice Bostok had this to say (excerpt):

“The marker pole is important to both.  It is the link between them. It guides the human and the frogmouth uses it as a perch from which to watch for prey. This haiku performs in the way in which a well-crafted haiku should – by leading the reader’s mind far beyond the words on the page.”

I had left out everything I had originally considered as important and vital, and thanks to Janice Bostok I now realised that we do not always need to gild the lily.

So what should the original author leave out for the reader, rather than leave in?  That’s both the conundrum and not opening, or attempting to put something back into Pandora’s box:  Leave it to the reader to undo, with just enough information as a spanner to loosen the poem up enough to squeeze through.


J. D. Salinger (January 1, 1919 – January 27, 2010) published Seymour: An Introduction originally in The New Yorker in May 1959.

wet prints haiku
Publication Credit:   hedgerow: a journal of small poems (Issue 1, 2014)

Janice M. Bostok (9 April 1942 - 4 September 2011)

tawny frogmouth haiku award credit: 
1st Prize, Fellowship of Australian Writers, Queensland, Haiku Competition, June 1995

Gilding the lily:
Shakespeare is often misquoted or attributed to the saying of gilding the lily, here’s the correct quote: 

“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, / To throw a perfume on the violet, / To smooth the ice, or add another hue / Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light / To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, / Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”

That quotation, though, strikes us as a perfect example of gilding the lily. The Oxford English Dictionary has this definition: “to paint (or to gild) the lily: to embellish excessively, to add ornament where none is needed.” 

Publication credits:
Anthology: Atoms of Haiku Vol. 3 (2018)
ephemerae vol. 1 issue (2018)

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