Monday, December 8, 2014


Image courtesy of foto76 at
Ah, the haiku.  Doubtless, you’ve all heard of it in your English classes, whether that was yesterday or years ago.  In its Anglicized form, it is a poem consisting of three lines.  The first and third lines are five syllables each, and the second line is seven syllables.  Katya Sabaroff Taylor offers a really great into to haiku on her website, Creative Arts and Healing:

“Each Haiku is a tiny world of its own. Whether the poem is about a flower opening its petals to the sun, a woman looking in the mirror, or a cat playing with an old garden hose, Haiku often offers an “aha” moment to both writer and reader, as we become “one” with the image and its levels of meaning.

Haiku Structure:

This is a haiku                   5
in seventeen syllables        7
one revelation                    5         

Haiku can be lighthearted, bittersweet, philosophical or joyous."

On writing haiku, she says:

"Let yourself tune in closely to nature and the seasons, to city streets, to a pot of rice sending out its fragrance from the stove. You have a kindred relationship to animals, trees, people, the stars, moon, and rain. Look around you, what do you see? What holds meaning for you, at this moment now?"

It’s all pretty philosophical and deep, right?  This can make haiku seem kind of intimidating.  Haiku doesn’t have to be, though.  My introduction to haiku was actually a funny humor website that my sister found when I was younger.  Haiku about Spam.  Not email spam, but SPAM Spam.  You know, that weird stuff that nobody eats but everybody still sells it? 

Here are a couple of the gems from that.  Sadly, I don’t know who wrote these.

Twist, pull the sharp lid
Jerks and cuts me deeply but
Spam, aah, my poultice

Clad in metal, proud
No mere salt-curing for you
You are not bacon

And who dares mock Spam?
You? You? You are not worthy
Of one rich pink fleck.

To this day, these still make me laugh.  Really, haiku can be about anything.  If you want to deepen your understanding and appreciation of haiku, write about something fun and familiar.  Here are some more awesome examples of haiku – I like these, since they are Lord of the Rings based.  Many years ago this website called The BarrowDowns had a haiku contest.  This one by Alan Lensink was my favorite:

If Sam kept the ring,
Barad-dur would have flowers,
Mount Doom, potatoes.

I like it because it’s funny, but at the same time, it’s a wonderful exposition of Sam’s character.

The reason haiku is so good for poetic expression is that you are forced to choose your words wisely.  You have to condense your entire thought for a poem into seventeen syllables.  This means that each word must be packed with meaning. 

Maybe a demonstration will be helpful.

The most important part of writing a haiku is understanding the thought you want to communicate.  If you have a thought in mind, that’s great.  If you don’t, then allow yourself to draw from the moment.  My haiku was drawn from a project I was working on today.  I was having trouble figuring out this post, and so I worked on another project instead: rendering tallow.  I didn’t expect to find poetic inspiration doing this, but I did. 

That’s the thing about poetic inspiration.  Sometimes it’s intentional, other times, accidental.

So why was I rendering tallow? I make soap, and tallow just happens to be one of the best fats for a hard, high-lather bar.  Also, tallow is usually free.  You go to your local butcher to find it.  It sort of goes like this:
You: Hi, can I have a massive lump of nasty cow fat?
Butcher: Sure! I was gonna throw it away anyway.
You: Awesome! I now have a chunk of fat bigger than my head!
As you might imagine, it’s a very messy process.  You have to chop up this solid chunk of fat and cook it slowly until all of it is liquefied but the gristle and nasty sinewy stuff.  The result is this golden brown liquid that’s actually kind of pretty.  When it cools down, it’s solid and creamy white in color, sort of like shortening. It’s glossy and fairly attractive, as far as fat goes.

Anything is pretty compared to raw tallow, though.

I found myself thinking, “It’s really neat how this ugly, horrific junk turns into this pretty gold color, then makes such lovely soap.  Who thought something so disgusting could make something so awesome?”

That was when I realized that I needed to write a haiku. 

Yes, about cow fat.

But remember that haiku can be about anything.  Some of the best poetry takes something seemingly insignificant and captures its essence through the power of the written word.

So, my central thought for the haiku was, “this gross fat turns into something awesome.”  I ran through several possibilities.  There were many aspects I could focus on: the messy fat turns into something I can use to clean, or the changing process itself.  I bounced around a few words in my head – impermanence, which is related to change, but I rejected it as it didn’t really fit. I played with short phrases – hard white fat, shimmering golden oil, ugly fat – and I liked all of them.

This is the difficult part: condensing the essence of your thoughts into seventeen syllables while still using poetic language.

Slowly, the first draft congealed.
Ugly, hard white fat
Shimmering golden liquid
Something to clean with.
It didn’t feel right, plus, I really wanted to emphasize the change.  This worked especially well with the word ‘golden,’ since the old alchemists were always trying to figure out how to transform lead into gold. After counting the syllables of various combinations, I tried this: 
What transformation!
Hard white fat, golden liquid,
Something that will clean.
I didn’t like it.  I liked the idea of the second line, as it really highlighted the contrast. I did not like the word ‘something.’  It was far too weak and ate up two whole syllables. I realized that the bit about cleaning a) was too ambiguous and b) didn’t really fit the overall concept.  I was trying to combine the thoughts of messy stuff making something that cleans with the thoughts of the changing process. 

Haiku only has room for one thought at a time.

So, I needed to change that last line.  I tried this:
What transformation!
Hard white fat, golden liquid,
Into bubbly soap.
The concept was better, but the whole thing didn’t really flow.  I also wasn’t sure I liked ‘bubbly’ as the descriptor for ‘soap.’  I also thought that rather than saying “what transformation,” I wanted emphasize how dramatic the change was.  I swapped ‘such’ for ‘what,’ and changed the exclamation point into a colon.  This made it clear that the first line was, “Hey, the following is a really big transformation, so pay attention.”
Such transformation:
Hard white fat, golden liquid,
Into lovely soap.
This still didn’t work for me.  The first line was great, and the second line was great, but the third line was ‘meh.’  Also, it didn’t really have any kind of syntactic flow.  I toyed around with adding ‘then’ to the second line, but realized I’d be a syllable over. So, I changed ‘liquid’ into ‘oil.’

‘Oil’ is only one syllable, despite the fact that it might sound like two.  This is because ‘l’ is a “liquid” consonant.  Imagine the same word but with a “stop” consonant, like ‘t,’ and you can tell that it is only one syllable.  Also, I checked the dictionary, and it said that ‘oil’ is only one syllable. So, you know, that settles it.

Anyway, linguistic debates aside, I now had one extra syllable in line two to work with.  I realized that ‘then’ didn’t really work so well, since the hard white fat was transforming to golden oil, then into lovely soap.                                                                                                     
Such transformation:
Hard white fat to golden oil
Then to lovely soap.
I knew I was close now.  But it still needed tweaking. ‘Lovely’ wasn’t working for me.  I decided to use alliteration for poetic effect – alliteration is when two or more words in the same phrase start with the same consonant sound.  I chose ‘sudsy’ instead because of this.  That, and ‘sudsy’ seems mellifluous to me.  Then, there were the grammatical considerations.  I felt that the phrase really needed a pause, so I added a comma to the end of the second line.  I also un-capitalized the first word of the second and third lines.  This is a personal choice.  Some prefer to capitalize every line of poetry; others capitalize only where grammatically necessary.  Some don’t capitalize at all.  It all depends on the effect you’re trying to achieve.  Since I wanted to emphasize that this was all one connected sentence, I decided to un-capitalize ‘hard’ and ‘then.’ Normally, I would add a title to a poem, but since this is a haiku, it doesn’t really work.  A title has the power to color the whole meaning of a poem, and that’s basically an extra few words in haiku.  It’s cheating.  You have seventeen syllables, and that’s it.

The final result:

Such transformation:
hard white fat to golden oil,
then to sudsy soap.

This took me less than forty-five minutes to compose.  It wasn’t a huge effort.  It’s simple, really.  Nothing grandiose.  But haiku isn’t about the grandiose.  It’s about the moment, the single fleeting thought.  Remember that haiku is Japanese in origin, and a lot of Japanese (and Eastern in general) philosophy focuses on the impermanence of things. It’s fitting then, that the haiku is brief and momentary.

Now, there remains the question of how to read haiku.  Do you pause at the end of every line?

Not necessarily.  As in reading all punctuated poetry, you pause where the punctuation indicates it, just as if you were reading a sentence.  When you read it out loud, inflect it (inflection is the tone of voice you use) like you would normal speech.  Before a comma, raise the pitch of your voice ever-so-slightly.  At a period, drop the pitch, just like when you speak normally.  

Some poetry, including haiku, does not use any punctuation, in which case the end of a line is as good a place to pause as any. Without punctuation, however, you as the reader have the freedom to decide where to pause.  What flows naturally?  Try reading the poem with different inflections and caesuras (a caesura is a poetic pause) and see what you like best.  You might even notice that the way you read it out loud changes your interpretation of the poem’s meaning.

Haiku is very open to interpretation in general.  If you didn’t have the context of my tallow haiku, would you have known what I was talking about?  If you had never eaten Spam, would you interpret those silly haikus the same way as someone who has?  Or if you never read or watched The Lord of the Rings, would you ‘get’ the haiku about Sam?

Remember: fleeting, impermanent thoughts.  That’s what you should be thinking when you approach haiku. This was the essence of a moment in the poet’s mind. Not all of our moments are fancy.  They range from silly, like the Spam haiku, to very serious. When you read haiku, try to understand the essence of the moment being presented. 

Share your thoughts on haiku in the comments.

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