heron

Frogpond 36.3 • 2013

Museum of Haiku
Literature Award

Haiku & Senryu

Essay on Getting Started

Haibun

Haiku Sequence

Renku

Book Reviews

From the Editors

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Getting Started with Haiku

by Michael Dylan Welch, Sammamish, Washington

Getting Started with Haiku
by Michael Dylan Welch

(complete PDF version)

Here is a sample excerpt from the opening page of this essay:

“To a clear eye the smallest fact is a window through which the infinite may be seen.” ~Thomas Henry Huxley

“The soul never thinks without an image.” ~Aristotle

“Those moments before a poem comes, when the heightened awareness comes over you, and you realize a poem is buried there somewhere, you prepare yourself. I run around, you know, kind of skipping around the house, marvelous elation. It’s as though
I could fly.” ~Anne Sexton

How does one get started in writing haiku? All poets face the repeated task of moving from inspiration to words. It’s not always easy. The following practical tips about process might help beginners, and also interest more-seasoned poets who are involved in helping others learn the art of haiku. The English poet and scholar Thomas Gray once said, “Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.” But how do you get from the breathing thought to the burning word?

One suggestion is to begin by jotting down selected experiences that happen to you every day, focusing on how you experience those small events through your five senses. For example, just now a car drove past my house, and I heard its sound fade in and out as it drove past. That’s a seed for a haiku—maybe not a good one, but maybe it is. You never know. That’s how haiku starts for me—by closely noticing even the simplest of experiences, and then forming words to describe them plainly and directly, without judgment. The idea is to start with things as they are, focusing on nouns and one of the five senses. A key technique to remember is this: Instead of writing about your emotions, write about what caused your emotions. Here’s a start:

the sound fades away
from a passing car

So this is two lines, but just one phrase. A good haiku nearly always has two parts, and one of the parts is like the preceding two lines. Although it’s presented in two lines, it still reads as a single phrase (just one part). Now it needs a third line (its second part) to go with it, and that’s where haiku gets a little more difficult. For me it’s good to think at right angles to a main image, to think about what else is going on out the corner of my eye, so to speak. And sometimes, what is at right angles isn’t an image but a context or setting. That’s where the other line comes from, often—and it could be a first or third line. Perhaps this:

foreclosure notice—
the sound fades away
from a passing car

I hope there’s a feeling of sadness or emptiness here. The house across the street from where I live was recently foreclosed on, and had a big white foreclosure notice on the front door. The house is currently up for auction, so many cars have been stopping by as people check the place out. This poem isn’t about those cars that have stopped (in fact, they’re not part of the poem at all), but about any car that passes by, perhaps oblivi- ous to the foreclosed house. Notice how the first two lines I originally wrote didn’t have anything in the poem itself about a house, yet the foreclosure notice brings a house to mind, without saying it. This allows the reader to have a gestalt sort of realization (even if small). He or she can put together the setting with the emotion of being in or seeing that passing car, whether aware of the foreclosure or oblivious to it. Either way, we undoubtedly feel compassion for the stress of foreclosure, even if it is someone else’s.

The poem may also make a compassionate reader wonder about the observer in the poem (known as the poem’s “persona”—usually presumed to be the author, but one cannot always assume this). Is the observer in the house? In a nearby house? Walking by? What is the relationship of the observer to the foreclosed house? As we contemplate these questions, we can feel empathy for the observer, and also for the people who live (or lived) in the foreclosed house, whether that’s the observer or not.

[essay continues for several more pages] . . .

. . .

Welch, Michael Dylan. "Getting Started With Haiku." Frogpond 36.3, Autumn, 2013.

This excerpt inclues the first pages of Welch's essay: page 71-72. The complete essay includes pages 71-77. To read the complete essay, click on the PDF version:

Getting Started with Haiku
by Michael Dylan Welch

(complete PDF version)

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Michael Dylan Welch is HSA first vice president and proprietor of National Haiku Writing Month (nahaiwrimo.com). He was recently appointed as poet laureate of Redmond, Washington, where he curates two monthly poetry reading series. His website is graceguts.com, devoted mostly to haiku poetry. He has been an HSA member since 1988.