Poetry Nuggets – A Haiku How-To

My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Vogler, taught us a lot about arts, from pottery to poetry. Most important, she let us know there are no mistakes in art. There’s not a “right answer.” You do you.

She was strongly influenced by Japanese culture. I don’t know why that would have been. Her son is now a ceramics artist living in Japan.

I think it must have been Mrs. Vogler who turned me on to judo. One day near then end of third grade I came home and announced to my mom that I wanted to join the summer judo class at the YMCA. I rounded up my sister and a neighbor girl, and that’s just what we did. That’s a story for a different day.

Haiku seemed to be one of Mrs. Vogler’s favorite things to teach. Maybe because they are perfectly suited to the attention span of 8 year-olds? In any case, they were one of my favorite things, too. Writing haiku is a discipline that sharpens not only our powers of observation and expression, but our writing skills as well. Cut out the deadwood. Let the reader feel and see. Make a point.

They are easy and fun. You can learn how to write them right now, in just a few minutes, then continue to play with and refine for the rest of your life.

What are Haiku?

Haiku are the tweets of the poetry world. Tight little clusters of expressive words – no rambling, no padding, no fluff.

Haiku are usually focused tightly on a specific, tangible experience, sometimes with a deeper meaning behind it.

They are short. Something you could say in one breath. Traditionally they are written in three lines, with five, seven, and five syllables, but that’s not a strict rule.

Let’s call these “guidelines.”

There are no rules you have to follow. How you write your haiku is up to you.

A note to students: If your teacher has assigned you a specific form, with set requirements, that’s OK – do that! It’s a useful exercise. Sometimes structure and limitations can inspire us to be more creative. Besides, you’ll probably earn better grades by doing what the teacher asked. When class is out you can choose to keep writing in that form, or toss it out and write however you like.

Follow the 5 – 7 – 5 pattern, or not. If you change it, I would go shorter, or maybe a tiny bit longer. Something much longer would be a different kind of poem. (And that would be OK, too.)

The Japanese idea of sounds in language is a bit different from our idea of syllables. And in any case, the way we pronounce a word can include more or fewer sounds. So consider the feel of the lines more than a strict syllable count. “Wild” kind of has two sounds: “Why-uld,” even though it might technically be one syllable.

You can use punctuation or not. Make each line a clear sentence, or let the whole thing flow freely.

Use capitalization or not. Totally up to you.

Haiku don’t usually rhyme. You can try rhyming if you want, though.

Play with sounds of words. In addition to their meanings, the sounds of words can affect readers. They can sound hard, sharp, and brittle, or soft, relaxed, and loose.

Forget about normal sentence grammar. Haiku can be more like a collage of words that make a picture in the mind. You do not have to write in classically “correct” sentence structures.

Let’s Try Writing Some Haiku

OK. Grab a pen and a pad of paper. We’ll start out easy, by taking the pressure off. Let’s write some truly awful stuff. Don’t even try to produce good work right now. We’ll jot down whatever comes to mind, and work our way up from there. Ready?

Here’s mine:

I went to the store
to buy candy and sodas
and also some chips.

See? I told you we were going to start out writing garbage. It’s not wrong. It follows “the rules.” But it’s pretty dull. I went to the store. So what?

Here are some areas that could be improved:

  • It’s flat. There’s no emotion, conflict, triumph, joy.
  • The last line is just a continuation of the same thought.
  • See how it has a lot of words that don’t add much to the picture in our minds I, to, the, to, and, and, also. … Bleh.
  • Store, candy, sodas and chips are pretty generic. Try being more specific.

How can we improve that?

Consider the “density” of your words. Is each one adding something important? Helping things along? See if you can remove any that aren’t pulling their weight.

No potato chips?
Sweet Snickers bars? Cold Pepsi?
Convenience store run!

By clearing out the clutter of boring words we make more room for good stuff. Now we have all of these more specific items – we can picture them in our heads:

  • Chips >>> potato chips
  • Candy >>> sweet Snickers bars
  • Sodas >>> cold Pepsi
  • Store >>> Convenience store
  • Went to… >>> a “run.”

The first lines show a problem – OMG, we’re out of junk food!

There is vivid detail. You can almost taste the delicious chocolate and crispy, salty chips. Can you feel the icy blue-red can?

The end solves everything with a sharp, punchy action.

Inspiring Ideas, and Tips for Improving

This is classic advice for writing of any sort, and it applies here as well:

  • Don’t tell, show.
  • Be specific.

You could say …

“Winter was just starting to turn to spring, and the temperature was getting a little warmer.”

Or try …

“An icicle drips.”

See how that captures a moment in time? You can see it, feel it.

Include something seasonal

Seasonal words are traditional in haiku, but you don’t have to say spring, summer, winter, or fall. Consider these categories:

Nature changing throughout the year

  • Flowers
  • Insects
  • Birds
  • Weather
  • Fruits

Or events/traditions that have an annual rhythm

  • Sports
  • School
  • Holidays
  • Foods
  • Activities

Dig into your experience.

Now combine your seasonal image with vivid details. The more specific the better:

  • Sensation
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Color
  • Temperature

Notice how these drop you right into a scene you can see, or an experience you can feel:

  • Crunch of amber leaves
  • Tailgate hot dogs
  • Chlorine-green hair
  • Choosing a pumpkin
  • Sweatshirt morning
  • Firelight whiskey
  • The orange tree hums
  • Dark alarm-clock morning

Tie things together at the end.

The last line ties things together. You can sum up the image you’ve created. It can be a kind of punchline. An “aha moment.” Clarity. A satisfying ending.

30 feet from home
Children in their sleeping bags
Backyard adventure

Be Traditional, or Be Playful

Haiku can be subtle and dignified, about the natural world:

Branches hang heavy.
Green pecans ripen to brown.
Winter approaches.

Or they can be expressive and loud, describing everyday experiences:

What is all this junk?
Bang! Crash! Boom! Trash that, save this.
Garage cleaning day.

Getting Started, or Getting Unstuck

Look around your yard or neighborhood.

Notice a feeling in your gut, and write about that.

  • Back-to-school sadness
  • Hopeful beginning

Look for a color, and write about the first thing you see.

  • White hourglass sand
  • Cobalt ocean waves
  • Wildfire sunset

Write about specific things.

  • Not “a rock,” but this rock, with the fleck of mica near the sharp chip.
  • Not “a flower,” but the rose in your neighbor’s front garden.
  • That cloud, the crow on the phone pole, this warm, coarse beach sand.

Start from the end and then build a foundation for getting there.

Throw a bunch of random ideas on a page, and one will be worth taking further.