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Haiku Clinic #1
William J. Higginson
[email] [bio]

Below are 'draft' poems that have been submitted to me for comment and revision. The poets are kept anonymous. I have gone through the poems, writing parallel draft verses on different subjects based in my own experience. (By "parallel verses" I mean verses that attempt to duplicate some aspects of the originals' grammar, poetic structure, and psychological force while shifting the specifics into other times, environments, and subject matter.) I have sorted the resulting drafts into groups based on the problems I see in them and I have tried to rewrite them into the best haiku I can make on those experiences. Below are five types of problems that I wish to consider for this first haiku clinic.

Problem #1: Unriddling the Riddle

--DRAFT--

deepening night
shadows the tips of wings
bats

A number of the "hai-kai" verses of early Western experimenters looked like this: a slightly mysterious description, followed by the revelation of what had been described. Such poems often resorted to metaphors in the description, which does not happen here, thankfully. But the setup and delivery mode, or riddle and solution, a kind of logic, still doesn't work very well in haiku. Fortunately, this is not a disastrous first draft, however, and can pretty quickly be fashioned into at least a passable haiku. Note how the revision below still maintains an air of mystery and resolution toward the end, but by breaking the second line after a word that asks for more information ("tips" of what?) instead of stopping dead before the last line, the surprise is more subtle, less of a setup. The result is at least a pleasing combination of mystery with a bit of a chill, though the poem still might not make it out of my notebook.

--FINAL?--

deepening night
shadows the tips
of bat wings

Some editors would reject this as a haiku because it lacks a clear syntactic break. This could easily be fixed by making the first line independent with a slight revision of the second, thus: "deepening night / the shadows on . . ." (making "shadows" a noun instead of a verb)--but I like the more fluid movement above. Perhaps it would make a good renku stanza at some point.

Problem #2: The Perils of "-ING"

--DRAFT--

eating a cookie
and sinking into the plush
sofa cushions

Those pesky "-ing" verbs without grammatical subjects show up all over the place in our haiku, even though nothing like them ever shows up in Japanese haiku. The notion of omitting the subject of a verb in haiku when it happens to be the first person "I" does not come from Japanese, but from some erroneous ideas about haiku introduced by translators. What "-ing" verbs usually seem to be indicating, aside from the author's misguided desire to avoid stating the first person openly, is the "present progressive" tense (sometimes called "present continuative"), indicating that the action continues through the present into the future. So, taking both of these problems into account, I can rewrite the draft either of two ways:

--REDRAFT "-ING"--

I am eating a cookie
and sinking into the plush
sofa cushions.

--REDRAFT NO "-ING"--

I eat a cookie
and sink into the plush
sofa cushions.

(I added the period at the end just to satisfy that demon in me that demands a stop at the end if there is a capital at the beginning.) If either of these is a haiku, well, I'll leave it to you to figure out which version is best! (Personally, I'd probably scratch it out of my notebook, so no one could read it, ever.)

Here's another "ING" example:

--DRAFT--

Memorial Day
marching along the pavement
on the way to speeches

This gets to the nitty-gritty of the "-ing" problem. Let's try fixing the verb:

--REDRAFT "-ING"--

Memorial Day
is marching along the pavement
on the way to speeches.

Hmm, that won't do. (I wonder how many people thought this was what the original draft meant, even for a nanosecond, before they corrected themselves. If anyone did--and I certainly did--then the writer needs to be warned forever to avoid this construction: noun + "-ing" verb, unless the noun is in fact the grammatical subject of the verb!) OK, I guess what I meant by that draft was that "I" am marching along, or someone else is. Even if it was me in the first place, it might be better to give the action to someone else, like this:

--REDRAFT NO "-ING"--

Memorial Day--
they march along the pavement
on the way to speeches

Still not a great haiku, but at least the image and the grammar are clear. Actually, I'm not fully satisfied with "they," and want to put myself back in here, but note that if I move to the plural, "I" is no problem:

--FINAL--

Memorial Day--
we march along
on the way to speeches

Also, getting rid of the visually enticing "pavement" (looked like good form, but made the line very long in the mouth/ear), and allowing the three strong beats of "we march along" to carry the line lets the poem approach a more ideal haiku rhythm in the ear, even though the eye sees a seemingly longer third line. Say the poem out loud, and you'll find that the last line is actually shorter than the second. As Bashô said, "On your lips a thousand times"--referring to how to revise haiku.

Problem #3: Unwarranted Emotions

Nothing kills a haiku faster than false or unwarranted emotions. Here are a few drafts that really bother me, so I'll have to do a little digging to figure out what's really going on in my head, as well as in the world.

--DRAFT--

Two ducks are flying,
one welcomed to the table
and one disappears.

First of all, there's a real time problem here. We cannot have a duck simultaneously flying and "welcomed to the table"--whatever that means. Oh yeah, I remember, I was thinking how good that duck would/did taste to someone at dinner. But really, getting back out to the sky where the ducks are flying, haven't I skipped something? Have to shoot it down before someone can eat it. (In haiku we usually focus on one event, not two or more.) And what's this "disappears" about? Is it a bad thing, the duck getting to go on and live its life normally, while its wing-mate dies to feed a human? Somehow, I think that shot-down duck would prefer living to die a natural death, rather than sitting on a platter at someone's dinner table. At the same time, humans need to eat, so what to do? I can see a couple of paths to take with this draft. 1) Focus on the killing of a duck and its consequences. 2) Let both ducks live. Let's tackle the latter possibility first. At least it seems more pleasant for the ducks.

--REVISIONS PER #2--

Two ducks are flying
across the glorious sky,
gone in the distance.

That is not an impossible amount of time for a haiku to deal with. But I notice that the five-seven-five structure is making things a bit wordy, given the rather simple observation here. Let's trim it down a bit, and consider a better word than the over-heated and under-sensed "glorious" in the process.

Two ducks fly
across the blue sky
into the distance.

Well now, there's a plain prose statement for you! Can I try to relive the experience in my mind and come up with something to leaven this rather flat loaf? Well, even if I bring in some other detail and get rid of the trite riming of fly and sky, I doubt I can ever get this one beyond a so-what. Let's try another tack.

--REVISIONS PER #1--

Two ducks are flying,
one gets shot by a hunter
and one disappears.

This, at least, has a bit of a story going for it. But wait, is it not the one shot down that "disappears"? Maybe the last line should read "and one gets away." Now that I have the story straight, I seem to have lost the haiku here, not an uncommon problem when the original draft is based on false or unwarranted emotion. For the moment, at least, I'll give up on this one.

Another example of unwarranted emotions:

--DRAFT--

without a song,
the daffodils sink down
into their beds

A nice touch, the musical connection (song = music; daffodil = trumpet), but daffodils do not usually sing, so the fact that they are not doing so now does not really mean anything, despite the appealing allusion to a popular show tune. More important, however, I must look at the language of the rest of the poem. Does "sink down / into their beds" seem a little like anthropomorphism? A bit more emotionally colored than actual physical description? Is that really the way daffodils behave? Well yes, maybe, over the course of an entire season. But I doubt that they think about "their beds", even though we casually use that phrase to describe where we plant them. Stripped of irrelevant allusions and unnecessary verbiage, this draft reduces to "the daffodils die down"--and there seems to be no haiku here, either.

A third example of unwarranted emotion:

--DRAFT--

Chapel walk--
last semester's papers
smother the bricks.

Ah, having been through a couple of these, this over-emotional word "smother" jumps right out at me. Since the problem seems mainly to be with that one word, let's see if replacing it with something less emotionally charged helps.

--FINAL?--

Chapel walk--
last semester's papers
scattered on the bricks.

Now I may be able to understand what I was trying to say. Do the papers on the walk, evidently in a disorganized mess, point to a story? Telling a story in a haiku usually does not work. But pointing to a story, one the reader can fill in, often does. In this case, perhaps the papers--class notes, tests, term papers?--were discarded or dropped accidentally by some distraught student. Now, instead of worrying about the potential for suffocating bricks, or wondering why I used such a charged term where it cannot be factually true, the reader gets to see the campus environment and the particular building involved for what it is. Had I said "Dormitory walk" the poem could easily be mistaken for merely an observation of student carelessness. But setting the poem on the chapel walk suggests someone seeking help--now that nothing heavier-handed intervenes. The occasional over-strong word, laden with too much emotion, can often be corrected. When it is, we can usually then see if anything else needs to be done to allow the poem we saw and felt at the time blossom in our language and the reader's mind something like the way it originally did in ours.

Problem #4: Too Much Detail?

--DRAFT--

summer at last
the glint of orange soda
warming in a glass bottle

Naming the season always has a certain amount of risk associated with it, and adding the emotional "at last" here increases the room for failure. But the image is evocative, if a little overdrawn. (Remember, haiku are best a bit like sumi-e, sketchy rather than filled in.) How about slightly simplifying it, making it a little less wordy and improving the rhythm, thus:

--FINAL?--

summer at last
orange soda warms
in a glass bottle

This way, the "glint" is suggested and the rhythm of the final line lightens up.

Problem #5: Too Much Ambiguity?

--DRAFT--

purple dawn
a veteran remembers
the Mekong Delta

I suppose this could be very moving to veterans who were there, giving them an opportunity to recall things they saw, heard, touched, and so on. But after the first line, we have only a vast geographic region named, so it's a little hard for other readers to enter into. Sometimes a simple detail bringing an image into focus can help, like this:

--FINAL?--

purple dawn
a veteran remembers
an eddy in the Mekong

The visual image connects the last line with the first, but is general enough to fit many different specific scenes. And the word "eddy" by itself suggests, perhaps, a bit of a lull, a slowing of the pace of things, a rest. Also, since most people have seen an eddy in a river or stream somewhere along the way, just about every reader has an image to visualize in that purple dawn.

Your Turn

Do you have revision suggestions that you think might improve the poems discussed in the most recent clinic? Or a way that might improve the "final" versions offered beyond where I got them to? Pick one specific poem from among those in the current clinic, and tell me about it. If I like your suggestion, it will appear in the next installment of "Haiku Clinic" along with your name.

Write to me using the email address, "wordfield-at-att.net", with the subject line "Haiku Clinic". Note that you will have to substitute "@" for "-at-" in my email address--this prevents the spammers from finding my real email address, but I hope it won't prevent you from taking your turn. (Please, only one poem to a customer!)

For a more detailed introduction to the haiku clinic, please go to the haiku clinic introduction.

- Bill Higginson


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