Haiku…an Introduction

Adding poetry to your writing routine

By Joyce Hooley and Steve Hooley

Today we are going to have some fun with poetry, haiku to be specific. We’ll learn the rules for writing haiku and how enjoyable it can be, and maybe even discover that we want to add it to our writing routine. Warning: This post may be addictive.

I was recently introduced to this subject, when my sister published a book of haiku. I did some searching for the rules and quickly found myself distracted, walking around the house with my fingers in the air counting syllables.

In reviewing what has been discussed here at TKZ, in regards to poetry, I found that JSB had discussed epigraphs recently. Six months ago, Clare asked who reads poetry. And Sue keeps us up to date on brain research and psychology. But I didn’t find any discussion on writing poetry, so today is a good day to start.

Our guest blogger today is Joyce Hooley, retired pediatrician who has worked in public health and clinical pediatrics in the U.S. and in Africa. She is a world traveler and has written books about her experiences in the places she has lived and worked. She currently lives and writes in North Carolina. Her recently published book is Fifty-Two Haiku, A Year on Plott Balsam Mountain.

Joyce, thanks for joining us today and introducing us to writing Haiku.

 

On Haiku

By Joyce Hooley

Most people, when asked about haiku will offer a simple definition: it is a poem written in three lines with a total of seventeen syllables. The first line, they will tell you, must contain five syllables, the second seven and the last five. But that definition does not capture the spirit of haiku. More accurately, at its essence, a haiku is a short poem that uses an image from nature to evoke a particular season in a particular place, and then uses a break in the rhythm of the poem to juxtapose that image with another image, or to juxtapose two aspects of the central image, and thereby prompt reflection. Haiku originated in Japan where it was intended to evoke Buddhist reflections on nature. But with this juxtaposition of images, haiku can also contain the elements of the most basic story: a subject (encapsulated in an image,) and a transformation (encapsulated in a juxtaposition.) It is for this reason that writing haiku can be such a great exercise for any writer. It is a method for sharpening focus. What am I trying to say? Can I distill it to a vivid image and one revealing transformation or contrast?

Haiku evolved from a 13th -14th century Japanese poetry form, a hokku, which was the beginning verse of a rengu, a longer poem written by two or more poets in collaboration, line by line, back and forth. It was not until the 19th century that the term “haiku” was used to refer to the evolved form. Matsuo Basho was one of the most famous of the early writers of haiku. Below are a few examples from his approximately 1000 haiku. Notice that, translated into English, these haiku no longer contain seventeen syllables.

Clear water—

A tiny crab

Crawling up my leg.

 

The squid seller’s call

Mingles with the voice

Of the cuckoo.

 

Stillness––

the cicada’s cry

drills into the rocks.

I wrote my recently published collection, Fifty-Two Haiku: A Year on Plott Balsam Mountain, in the year 2010. As I went about my daily activities that year, my walks through the woods and my garden chores, I challenged myself to stay present to each moment, alert for an image of the season that would inspire a haiku. I jotted down descriptions of sensory images that caught my eye, or ear, or nose, and kept these in a small notebook. I was still practicing pediatrics at the time, but I had Mondays off and each Monday morning I sat down and composed from one of the most compelling of the images. The rest of the week as I had time, I edited, tweaked, and played with the poem. It was, for me, a form of the discipline that Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, calls her “morning pages.”

The practice greatly elevated my days. Robert Haas, in his introduction to The Essential Haiku, Versions of Baho, Buson, and Issa, (Harper Collins, 1994) wrote that when Buson, the great mid-eighteenth-century Japanese poet, was asked by a student if there was a secret to haiku, he replied, “Yes, use the commonplace to escape the commonplace.” I was not trying so much to escape the commonplace as to dwell in it more fully, to be alive to it, to relish it. Writing haiku helped me to pay attention.

 

Thanks, Joyce, for a great discussion on haiku.

 

Okay, TKZ community, now it’s your turn with any comments or questions for Joyce.

And then it’s time for you to try your hand at haiku. Put on your thinking caps, look around, find a sensory image that distills the essence of what you are experiencing, and transform that image into a haiku. So, lay down your pencil, get your fingers in the air, maybe get out the thesaurus, and start counting syllables. Let’s get those neurons firing and create some poetry. Where else can you write poetry and have it published in the same day?

After Jim’s recent discussion of epigraphs, and learning about haiku, it struck me that we could write our own haiku epigraphs for our books. Written by us, totally unique, and custom made for our book. An epigraph in three lines.

 The assignment for today: #1 or #2, and an introduction:

  1. Since nature is the traditional topic for haiku, look out your window and share something in a haiku that surrounds and inspires you, or is unique to your world.
  2. Write a haiku appropriate for an epigraph for a book you have written, are working on now, or have plans for writing in the future.
  3. Please give us a brief introduction to your haiku.

Here’s my nature haiku as we cut firewood for winter heat:

 

dead tree bows to ground

submits to saw and splitter

winter heat in rows

 

Okay, please share your creation.

53 thoughts on “Haiku…an Introduction

  1. Welcome to TKZ, Joyce. I assume that you are related to the Big Guy in some manner or form.

    This is an interesting exercise. My initial reaction on this internally foggy Saturday morning was, “Crikeys, I can’t do this!” Maybe I can’t but I was able to try. Thanks for the assist in clearing the webs. And Steve…great choice.

    I hope that all the Hooleys have a great weekend!

    Dust is everywhere.
    Covering lines of time’s past.
    Entropy’s fine spoor.

    • Thanks, Joe. Yes, Joyce is my sister, the intellectual member of our family. She will make more appropriate responses when she gets here.

      I really like your haiku. Not only does it distill an image in the moment, but its symbolism refers to other things from the past. Beautiful.

      Have a great weekend!

    • Thanks Joe, for giving it a go despite your initial reaction to Steve’s suggestion! Despite all the dust your wrote a beautiful haiku, one that reflects your initial reluctance. I love the thought provoking imagery of “Entropy’s fine spoor.”
      Wishing you a great weekend too.

    • Hi Cynthia, I too take my morning coffee in the garden, but here, instead of feeding the squirrels, I’m watching the chipmunks trying to get at the bird feeder. Your haiku suggests bounty, abundance, generosity.

    • Wonderful image. My wife and I are standing in the house, watching through the windows, as the squirrels bury nuts for the winter. Such quick amusing actions.

  2. Thanks, Joyce and Steve. Haven’t written haiku since school. Really good discipline to develop laser-focused precision in words. It’s like writing a log line–looks simple but is challenging.

    About my WIP:

    Life twisting in strands
    Mysteries return to haunt
    DNA reveals

    • Ah, the poetry of twisted DNA strands! Mystery, destiny, revelation, all wrapped up together in beauty. Thanks for this contribution! And you’re so right in comparing the writing of haiku to the writing of a log-line.

  3. I remember studying/doing these in high school. Wasn’t very good at it then. Not sure I can deal with it until my brain wakes up. But, on the nightstand in my guestroom sits a thin volume entitled “Japanese Haiku.”
    Until I’m awake enough to give it a try, here’s one from the book
    Old dark sleepy pool …
    Quick unexpected frog
    Goes Plop! Watersplash! .. (Basho)

      • Hi Terry, Thanks for contributing. I am right there with you. Because aspens are so often used to portray rustling, shifting, motion, using them to portray stillness is very effective for suggesting a strangeness in that stillness, suggesting restlessness in the viewer…

        • And, of course, those were my thoughts exactly when I wrote it.
          HA! Believe that, and you can have the stash of money I got from a prince in Nigeria.

  4. I’ve always been a fan of “structured” poetry, and the challenges presented by making sense and meaning in a defined format – almost like writing mysteries or thrillers – and the various and varied forms of Japanese poetry have kept me alert to ways of seeing things that tend to come in handy at other times and on other topics… plus the satisfaction from completing a short piece can motivate working the longer one(s)…

    That said, given our recent ten-days of dealing with tropical depression here in Atlanta…

    rain falling through leaves
    water singing in downspouts
    clouds finally clearing

    As for an epigram on my WIP:

    star-shine on whitecaps
    the darkness of the new moon
    tide slowly turning

    • Hi George, Glad to hear you are finally drying out there in Atlanta. I am located in the western mountains of NC just north of you and also very relieved to see the sun the past couple of days. I like the sense of cleansing I feel with your pairing of the image of water singing through the downspouts and the clouds clearing from the sky.
      I also like the epigram for your WIP. With that first line, pointing to star-shine instead of moonshine on whitecaps, you already have me wondering….and then the image in the last line of the tide slowly turning under the darkness of new moon, makes me reflect on how a reader can be successfully distracted by the shiny things, and miss the almost imperceptible changes that a writer drops in as hints to a later significant change in the direction of plot…

  5. Welcome, Joyce. Your wonderful post brought back memories of studying Japanese history and culture in college and my attempts at haiku, which is such a beautiful poetic form.

    My attempt today:

    Spanning sky between
    The proud lion and the twins
    Glistening wonders

    I’ve rekindled my youthful passion for stargazing during the pandemic, and am out as often as the often cloudy skies in western Oregon allow. This morning, a brief interlude under the lightening sky, looking east and tracing the line between the rising constellations of Leo and Gemini in binoculars. Nearly midway is Cancer, the glistening wonders revealed by my optical aid and the heart of that is the Manager, aka the Beehive cluster, a collection of stars wreathed in a wispy nebula.

    Thanks for being here, Joyce, and Steve, thanks for having your sister guest post at KZB.

    • Thanks, Dale. I don’t know my astronomy. I’m doing well to find the Big Dipper and the North Star, but I loved your imagery of the vast span between the Lion and the Twins.

    • Hi Dale,
      Thanks so much for your comments. I was very interested in your stargazing observations. I had not heard of the Beehive cluster, the Manager, but my husband and I do like to look for nebulae with our binoculars so we will search for the glistening wonder of the Beehive next time we have a chance.

      • Joyce, I meant to type “the Manger”, called Praespe in Ancient Greek. The actual cluster is bounded by a four bright stars, hence the name. If you find bright Regulus in Leo and draw a line to Castor and Pollux (the twins) in Gemini, it lies about halfway between. In darker skies than my suburban ones, the Beehive will be visible as a faint glittering patch of nebulosity,.

  6. How timely your post–I was thinking of a particular subject that means so much to me & wondered how I could ever do justice to it in words. Your post gave me a way to practice:

    Orange red morning fire
    Sups at dusk blue and purple
    Blue Ridge reminders

    As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, WHERE I live is super important to me. I grew up in a flat & featureless state on the east coast. Then I was blessed to live in Western North Carolina for about 10 years amid the Blue Ridge Mountains. Then moved to my true home in the desert southwest. I love the desert, but wish I could also have one foot planted in the Blue Ridge Mountains too.

    The Creator made a way for me to do that. The mighty Superstitions are a hot-blooded orange-red by day, but as dusk falls they turn to a blue-purple shade that lets me treasure my time in the Blue Ridge Mountains as well. By day, the two mountain chains are completely different. By dusk, for just a few minutes, the two are melded into one. And I get the pleasure of being reminded of both.

    • How interesting, BK! Your comments made me go online and look for images of the Superstition mountains. As Steve mentioned, I live in Western Carolina, about 40 minutes west of Asheville. I look east from my land on Plott Balsam mountain, out over the Lickstone Ridge to Pisgah Mountain, Beaty Spring Knob and Cold mountain. We have beautiful sunrises from behind that horizon, and in the evenings the dipping western sun lights up those easterly mountains brilliantly, so I can imagine the changing light on your mountains.

  7. My very first published work (in the literary magazine for Oliver Wendell Holmes Intermediate School) was haiku:

    A roar overhead
    An explosion and a cloud
    The world has ended

    I was very deep when I was 13.

    • Thanks for sharing your first published work, John. I’m impressed. Now if I knew a way to get that autographed.

      Do you think that haiku foreshadowed the books which you would write?

      • That’s an interesting question. There was a lot of living and loving and triumphs and tragedies between that haiku and my first real book, so it would be hard to pin too much on my early childhood. As a Navy brat who has spent my entire life living on the X of Ground Zero should the balloon go up, I guess I was always aware that it could all end quickly. It wasn’t until I cut my teeth as a young safety engineer by building the delivery systems that I fully grasped just how fragile it all is.

    • Hi John, Thanks for sharing your earliest haiku and first published work! I may be a bit older than you, as I also remember being very aware of the looming threat of annihilation by nuclear warfare in my late teenage and early adulthood years. Nowadays, unfortunately, young people are feeling that same sense of doom regarding our climate crisis. Perhaps the horror of a sudden atomic explosion (and the ironic image of a cloud as both beautiful and terrifying,) lends itself to the short haiku form a bit more easily than do the insidious signs of our pending demise due to climate change, but it makes me wonder what awake and aware 13 year- olds are writing in poetry class today….

      • If young people were aware and paying attention to world events, they’d be worrying far more about the same threats threats of nuclear war (vastly increased over the course of the past year or so) than they would be about climate change. During the Carter administration, the concern was about global cooling, in large part because we were in a cooling cycle. Now, it’s the opposite. Not that long ago, in geological terms, the USA’s Desert Southwest was an ocean and the Midwest was one big glacier. That’s all very slow motion.

        By contrast, nuclear nations are on edge all around the globe. All it takes for Armageddon to happen is for one world leader to blink when they should have nodded, or to prove themselves to be not up to the task they’ve been given.

        When I was a kid, destruction was delivered by lumbering bombers. Nowadays, the flight time between launch and delivery is somewhere between eight and ten minutes. For the most part, once missiles are launched, they cannot be recalled. Likewise for the most part, they can’t be shot down, either.

        Okay, that went dark. But you did ask. 🙂

  8. Interesting and fun exercise, Joyce & Steve. Reflecting on (and shamelessly self-promoting) my WIP – a netstream style series titled City Of Danger with the logline “A modern city in crisis enlists two private detectives from its 1920s past to dispense street justice and restore social order.” It’s a juxtaposition of societies a hundred years apart.

    what is old is new
    and what is new is still old
    so many new old changes

    • Hi Garry,
      “..new old changes…” is a thought provoking phrase. The writer of Ecclesiastes put it well, “There is nothing new under the sun….” History does tend to repeat itself.

      • Thanks, Garry. I liked your haiku. Another contrast and juxtaposition: Your new series, and using haiku (an old Japanese form) to introduce it.

        When you use your haiku for a tagline, I hope you will credit TKZ for inspiring you. Does that pay any royalties?

  9. Haiku. Could never get the hang of it in school. But, I try never to shy away from a challenge. Thanks (I think), Joyce and Steve, for a mental cattle prod on a lazy Saturday morning.

    I want to try to combine my WIP with my current praying mantis obsession. Fascinating critters.

    My WIP, No Tomorrows, sends a suburban mother of four into an unexpected catacomb of fear during a twenty-four hour period in an otherwise normal week. She’s convinced she will die tomorrow.

    So, here goes.

    Leafy earwig sunning
    Stealthy green slowly extending
    Tomorrow never comes

    🙂

    Thanks for the stretch, you two, and have an awesome weekend…

  10. Thanks, Joyce and Steve, for the poetic end to our week.

    I’ve been watching out my window to track the season’s change by the walnut tree’s coverage.

    The walnut tree flirts
    Tossing leaves to stand naked
    Blushing trees surrounding her

    • Wonderful, Suzanne. Great choice of trees. The walnut is first to drop it’s leaves, and last to put them back on in the spring. Quite an exhibitionist.

      Your haiku may make me come up with one for the oak. It hangs on to its leaves, even through the winter, sometimes not dropping them until the new leaves push them off.

      Thanks for sharing your creation. If you write a haiku for the oak, let us know.

      • Just for you, Steve.

        Tan and sere they hang
        Blocking the sun from windows
        Winter dead oak leaves

        Hmm, I’m going to make it a practice to start the day with a haiku. Creating them really gets the brain in gear.

        • I am honored, Suzanne. Thanks! And you taught me a new word, sere. After you’ve practiced starting each day with a haiku for a month or so, let us know if you think it’s improving brain function. I should try it, too. If I could just remember to…

    • Excellent, Truant. Great haiku, and a familiar image for me in my tractor shed, where I never clean the windows. Now, when I look at the dirty windows, I’ll think of haiku. More fun than cleaning.

      Have a great weekend!

  11. Good evening Steve and Joyce!

    Thank you for a challenge to end the week. Here’s my entry:

    Dawn breaks clear and clean
    Deep vermillion mystery
    Sun to light our dreams

    • Good evening, Kay. Thanks for stopping by.

      Wonderful haiku. And you got the mystery into it. Does this relate to one of your books?

      Those vermillion sunrises are some of my favorite nature images.

      Have a great weekend!

    • Thanks for stopping by, J. I can see a haiku starting to emerge. You can add other haiku, and have enough for that long song.

      When you have it done, we’d love to see (hear) it.

      Have a great weekend!

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