How to Haiku

Many years ago, I turned away from writing poetry in favor of the messier form of narrative, the puzzle of the mystery novel, the tension of suspense, and the relief of justice being served by the end of the book.

But during all the difficulties of this year, the plagues both physical and political, I was haunted once again by my old demon— insomnia.

I tried all the usual tricks—no screen time before bed, no caffeine after noon, no alcohol, no television news. But nevertheless, I would find myself dry-eyed, wide awake, staring at the ceiling in the black of night with all the panicked thoughts—we’ll never get out of this pandemic, we’ll never get rid of Trump, the extremists will take over, the Nazis, the white-supremacists. All this started going around in my head like wet tennis shoes pounding in the dryer, over and over and over.

I knew I needed to be present in the moment center myself in the now where I was safe, warm, and in no immediate danger.

But how? Then I remembered writing poetry and how the discipline made me focus on an immediate image, and how I could be fully in the moment when writing a poem. Writing haiku presented the perfect solution. 

So, what is Haiku? Why do I find it so helpful in the dark of night?

A Canadian haiku poet and therapist George Swede gave me the answer. This is from his article “The Role of Haiku in Poetry Therapy”:

“Haiku is a poetic form that avoids the use of metaphor, simile and other poetic devices, obtaining its effects primarily through the juxtaposition of sensory impressions. If done successfully this juxtaposition creates a moment of acute awareness about the external world. The person wrapped up in himself is forced outward to a consideration of the unity of nature.”

Which, I guess, is why I find it so grounding.

So, two rules to help you start out:

  1. Japanese haiku is a short poem of seventeen syllables. In English this has often been interpreted to mean a haiku should consist of three lines, the first made up of five syllables, the second of seventeen, the third of five. (English haiku masters insist this is a simplification. I find it a helpful tool.)
  2. Haiku are made up of images of nature, they include something of the seasons, and end with a contrast.

In the end, how they come together is another kind of mystery altogether.