The Sword of Cliché: Choosing a Topic
I currently live in Alameda, a Bay Area town situated next to Oakland and directly across the bay from San Francisco. I’m married and a parent. I work for an Internet company in San Francisco. My life revolves around family, work, and friends. Like many haiku poets, the bricks-and-mortar of my daily life are also the bricks-and-mortar of my haiku.
However, residing in a dense urban environment layers another set of topics onto my haiku. The characteristics of life in a large metropolitan area constitute some of the oxygen of my daily life, and naturally my writing. Wealth and poverty, social and ethnic diversity, traffic and crime, restaurants and cultural pursuits, open space and architecture are all threads in the fabric of my daily life. Not surprisingly, these realities too are recurring preoccupations of my haiku.
of my pocket change—
cardboard shelter 
One topic that I find myself returning to often is homelessness. For a haiku writer (indeed, for any artist) the choice of a topic for a poem usually feels natural and “organic.” Any topic that arises directly from experience is bound to feel legitimate.
However, a writer needs to be on guard against the risks that attend certain topics—not the least of which is cliché. A cliché is an idea that has been overused to the point that it has lost its original force or novelty. Of course, sometimes it is not the topic itself that leads to cliché but rather how a writer handles it. At the same time, experienced writers know that certain subjects carry a greater risk
From my perspective, homelessness is one such topic. On the one hand, avoiding it seems absurd. I encounter homeless men and women every day. Sometimes, the circumstance of homelessness is unique or particularly jarring. For example, I once encountered a mother begging for money while her son—who was close in age to my own then-five-year-old—played next to her. In another example, I was confronted with the overpowering smell of a wheelchair-bound man who had defecated in his pants and was struggling to clean himself in full public view, while an attending police officer stood off to the side, hesitant to begin helping him. Many urban residents share similar experiences, including Paul Mena:
a homeless man
flirts with schoolgirls 
It would be nonsensical for me to consciously avoid the topic. On the other hand, the topic of homelessness is fraught with pitfalls. First, the act of simply choosing this topic may trigger skepticism. I may be subject to “political” challenges: what right do I, who am not homeless, have to write about the subject? Will my work necessarily treat the homeless as objects, however well-meaning my intentions? For instance, am I focusing only on the most visible slice of the homeless population (those living on the street, often mentally ill)? Finally, if I am construed as merely an observer, or only incidentally a participant, there is the charge that the haiku is not based on direct experience—it is almost a desk-ku.
Beyond these arguments, I face the challenge of writing a poem that meets the standard of previous admired work or offers new insight. It is all too easy to succumb to the cluster of emotions that is typically evoked with this topic: indignation, pity, hyperbole, and so forth are all (understandably) easy emotional responses to fall into.
Because the topic is inherently sensitive, the writer may be in danger of writing a less good poem. That is, because of its inherent nature, the topic can do much of the work for the writer; it can trigger a powerful response in a reader even if the poem is not great. Put another way, it’s probably easier to write a mediocre haiku about homelessness than a mediocre haiku about, say, traffic congestion. The subject of home-lessness itself does a lot of the “heavy lifting” for the writer.
So, the writer—to use a cliché—is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The subjects that are often the most compelling are precisely those that have been written about before—and remembered by readers. These subjects inherently encourage the writer to fall under the spell of a timeworn response— to fall on the sword of cliché. However, it is essential to remember that each of these risks also offers opportunity.
As Paul Williams noted, good haiku usually stem from our daily lives: “such perceptions as do transform themselves into haiku tend to emerge from the familiar rather than the new.”  Repetition affords the writer the opportunity to reflect and see a subject from many different angles. This can help the writer move beyond commonplace observations and achieve a more nuanced or unique understanding.
As the month ends ...
the line at the soup kitchen
longer every day... 
In this poem, Tom Tico notices the subtle changes that occur over time at the soup kitchen. This is not a one-time impression.
the santa hat
finally in season 
The same dynamic is present in this haiku by Roberta Beary. It’s clear that the poet has encountered this person before, and this fact forms the basis for her observation. In both Tico’s and Beary’s haiku, a long-standing familiarity with the subject matter provides the foundation for the poem.
A writer should certainly be concerned about portraying a subject (homeless or otherwise) as an object or a “prop” for their own ideas or ends. However, it is often true that topics like these stimulate the writer in unplanned and surprising ways Robert Spiess noted: “In the better haiku there is a surprisingly large amount of subjectivity beneath the objectivity of the haiku’s entities ... It is this subjective aspect that accounts for very much of the difference between a haiku that is merely descriptive per se and one that engenders intuitional feeling ...” 
the itch of his clothes
all down my spine 
In this poem by H. F. Noyes, the “homeless beggar” is the initial focus of attention. But in the last two lines, the focus shifts to the speaker. Although this shift away from the beggar may seem self-centered, it is in fact this subjective response that conveys the empathy. The speaker imagines—strongly, viscerally—what it might feel like to be the homeless beggar.
the postman delivers
a smile 
The same is true in Elena Naskova’s poem. The homeless subject is the first image, but the main character is the postman. It is the postman’s subjective response—his smile—that calls attention to the humanity of the homeless man, who might be overlooked by others.
In each of these cases, the poet waded into tricky territory and returned not with a heavy-handed gesture but with a fresh insight. Venturing into such subject areas is challenging, but they offer rewards for those who learn how to step carefully.
1. 3rd Place, 2008 Anita Sadler Weiss Awards.; in A New Resonance 6: Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku, eds. Jim Kacian and Dee Evetts. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2009, p. 53.
2. Paul David Mena, Simply Haiku. December 2003, Volume 1, Number 6 <http://www.poetrylives.com/SimplyHaiku/SHv1n6/Paul_Mena_haiku. html>. Accessed March 28, 2010.
3. Paul O. Williams, “Loafing Alertly: Observation and Haiku,” in The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics, eds. Lee Gurga and Michael Dylan Welch. Foster City, CA: Press Here, 2001, p. 21.
4. Tom Tico, Spring Morning Sun. San Francisco: Belltower Press, 1998, p. 68.
5. Roberta Beary, Shiki Monthly Kukai—November 2008. <http://www.haikuworld.org/kukai/recent.nov08.html>. Accessed October 16, 2010.
6. Robert Spiess, A Year’s Speculations on Haiku. Madison, Wisconsin: Modern Haiku Press, 1995), 16.
7. H. F. Noyes, in The Red Moon Anthology 1996: The Best English-Language Haiku of the Year, ed. Jim Kacian. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 1997, p. 81.
8. Elena Naskova, Shiki Monthly Kukai—November 2008. <http://www.haikuworld.org/kukai/recent.nov08.html>. Accessed October 16, 2010.