On writing haiku: simple isn’t easy

In April 2010, the ancient Japanese haiku form crossed a thoroughly modern frontier when Astro_Naoko tweeted this:

“We are children of the universe, so as the Earth of lapis lazuli and cherry blossoms.”

Astro_Naoko is Naoko Yamazaki, one of Japan’s astronauts, and her poem came to Twitter from the International Space Station. That’s the furthest this beautiful form of poetry has travelled in its twelve-hundred-year-plus history. There have been many great haiku writers, including emperors, travellers, drunks and even a scandalous beauty, Ono no Komachi, and haiku have been written in languages other than Japanese, but Yamazaki is the first to publish her haiku outside Earth’s atmosphere.

As you’ll know if you’ve been following me on Twitter (tweetheart4711 – all the other Helen McCarthys got there first) I write haiku in English. I’ve been doing it for a while, since a trip to Wales over 20 years ago,  but until I started tweeting it was a secret vice. Now I tweet a couple of haiku a week, but they’re the tip of the iceberg.

Any poem – any writing – floats on a raft of debris, the bones of all the earlier drafts that were drowned or dismembered to make it. Generally speaking, the shorter the form, the greater the discard. A haiku should float like a breath and cut like a blade, catching attention and awakening insight with no apparent effort. To make something as light as air and deadly as steel takes a lot of sweating over the furnace of language.

I sometimes think of poetry as analogous to art. The longform poems, from The Vision of Piers Plowman to the works of Byron and Shelley, Kipling and Chesterton, all those thundering, singing dead-white-male epics I love, are like huge oil-paintings hanging on the walls of palaces and museums. Anything that big is usually impressive, and you can cram in enough detail to include something for almost everyone. It’s not easy-peasy-audience-pleasy, but the sheer effort commands attention and admiration.

Shorter forms, sonnets for example, are like watercolours. There isn’t room to conceal mistakes. What’s there has to be cautiously planned if it’s to look right. Whether you use rhyme or free verse makes no difference, just as it doesn’t matter whether you go for realism or abstraction. The smaller the finished piece, the easier to see any misjudgements and the greater the importance of the viewer’s own taste in determining impact.

The haiku is the mobile phone snap of the poetry world – freezing an instant in time in a simple, infinitely portable format.

To many people, the mere idea of writing a poem is alien. The idea of writing a poem in just seventeen syllables, on subjects that most people in the developed world have ceased to notice – observations of nature’s ephemeral moments – is stranger still.  And technically, how hard can it be? It’s like taking a picture on your phone,  something anyone with a cheap bit of kit and a minute to spare between drinks can do.

But stop and think for a moment of the mobile phone snaps you’ve seen, online and in pubs and dropping into your inbox. Every now and then, in among the LOLcats and celebrity nudes,  you get one that stops you in your tracks. It’s simple, seemingly effortless, but it shines out from the other junk like a nova. It’s almost perfect.

Why? Because behind the finger that pushed the camera button is the mind of a guerilla artist, a Shaolin monk of the lens, with the patience and the imagination and the discipline and the awareness to envisage the perfect moment, see it when it happens, and catch it so we can see it too.

That’s why I write haiku, and why I keep trying to do it better and better. I want the awareness to see those moments in nature, and the skill to capture them. If I do it properly, you’ll be convinced that all I had to do, faced with an instant of effortless and deadly beauty, was push a button and preserve it forever.


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