Scott’s Haiku Tips

Come try your hand at haiku for the KPS “Small Wonders” Haiku contest. Not only is it fun, it will also support our beloved Katonah Poetry Series (KPS), now celebrating its sixth decade. Entry fees will help replenish KPS coffers, so we can present more poets.
To enter the contest click here. In the meantime, contest judge Scott Mason offers some haiku tips below.
A Time to Explore
Haiku poetry provides not just a pleasurable reading and writing experience but also a fulfilling “emotional wellness” practice. Haiku helps you to notice more; to appreciate more of what you notice; and to share and exchange that appreciation with like-minded others. It’s truly life-affirming . . . and fun!
The very best way to write good haiku (the plural as well as singular term) is first to read good haiku – as many as you can find. Although the quality of haiku found on the Internet can be highly variable, my top choice for consistently good haiku is the free online journal The Heron’s Nest. [Disclosure: I served as an editor from 2011-21.] Besides its current quarterly issue, the journal’s website includes archived issues going back twenty years, so you can find thousands of quality poems there.
Using The Heron’s Nest as your starting point, here are some tips to help familiarize you with the pleasures, power, and practice of haiku poetry:
  • As you read through the current (or any) issue, jot down your ten favorite poems. What was it that you appreciated so much about each one? How did the poet allow you to “enter” each haiku and engage with it? 
  • If your reading triggers any personal experiences or recollections, jot down some brief notes about those. But please resist the temptation to actually compose any haiku at this point. (Your rough notes may prove quite useful in the next installment.)
  • Each issue includes an editor’s commentary for its “Heron’s Nest Award” recipient haiku. Read a few of those to get a sense of what experienced haiku practitioners look for and value in the work they read. One of my personal favorite commentaries, written by managing editor John Stevenson, appears here (scroll down to read it).
Next time we’ll begin to write haiku. But until then, just enjoy exploring and absorbing!

A Time to Dabble

The theme of my first set of tips was “Explore” and I suggested spending some time with the online journal The Heron’s Nest to acquaint yourself with high-quality contemporary haiku (the plural as well as singular term for this form of poetry). If you haven’t already done so, take a look – I think you’ll find it both informative and enjoyable.

Now it’s time to try your hand at writing haiku, so “Dabble” is the theme of these tips. [In the next and last installment we will “Refine” your haiku drafts.]

The best haiku convey a personal moment that the reader can respond to on a feeling basis. This often happens through the use of vivid sensory cues – sights, sounds, smells, tastes and/or tactile sensations. To impart a sense of you-are-there immediacy, haiku are almost always written in the present tense.

But most haiku are based on their writers’ past experiences, so my half dozen prompts here are intended to unlock some of your personal memories. They don’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) be momentous events but rather small moments that still somehow captured your attention and piqued some emotion – if only momentarily. So here goes.

We all have food or beverage memories, so try to express a few in haiku form that others may be able to relate to. Here are a couple of mine:

a tall straw
color drains
from crushed ice

hometown visit—
farm stand blueberries
stems still attached

Likewise, there were doubtless items around your home (growing up or more recently) that made a particular feeling-based impression on you. Two of mine follow:

heirloom lace curtains—
first light dapples
the bassinet

the nightlight glints
in her teddy bear’s
unplucked eye

Try to conjure memorable moments from a favorite place. One of my favorites is the beach:

spring break
a day moon too high
to spike

starry night
the lifeguard stand
tilted back

Can you recall any small travel moments that somehow stayed with you? Here are a pair of mine, one apiece from Italy and England.

Venetian canal—
lifting fog reveals
another mask shop

ruined abbey
the rose window

Do you have small holiday moments that lodged in your memory? A couple of mine, one from the city and the other from the suburbs:

Christmas trees for sale
the season begins
in my nostrils

Christmas bulbs
outline the bandstand—
silent night

Finally, all of us have experienced awkward moments; two of mine:

wet paint smell . . .
gingerly touching a slat
I just sat on

just-missed subway . . .
the throbbing beat
of two congas

So dive right in and plumb those recollections. And, above all, have fun on your haiku cruise down Memory Lane!

A Time to Refine

My first two sets of haiku tips were designed to get you to “explore” (to get to know quality haiku) and to “dabble” (to make some initial attempts at writing them). As we head into the home stretch it’s now time to “refine” those first few attempts.

Haiku are capable of capturing and conveying a great variety of moments. But in my observation the very best haiku do two things especially well:

  • They are readily understandable yet leave a bit of room for the reader to step in and “complete” them in some way that the reader finds personally relevant
  • They draw the reader’s attention to a particular experience rather than to the poem itself.

In order to accomplish these goals with your haiku, I’d suggest that you assess each of the poems you’ve drafted with these guidelines:

  • Show your poem(s) to a friend whose judgment you trust, and see if he or she has a general understanding of the moment you’re trying to convey. Haiku shouldn’t be riddles.
  • If so, then see if your friend also found something unsaid (or suggestive) in the poem that personally involved or intrigued her or him. Haiku are too short to “say” everything about the poet’s chosen moment, and that turns out to be a very good thing: it allows your reader to share in the fun!
  • Make sure your poem is set in the present tense so that your reader can experience a sense of the you-are-there feeling that you experienced in the original moment that you’re trying to convey in your haiku.
  • Use natural language (nothing obviously “poetic”), common words and clear diction (nothing “choppy” in an attempt to sound Eastern).
  • Avoid the use of poem titles, end-rhymes, heavy alliteration and any other trope, technique or device that draws the reader’s attention to the poem itself rather than the moment’s experience it is meant to share.

Don’t forget to submit your poems by the “Small Wonders” Haiku Contest deadline of July 31. Full entry details appear here.

Good luck and have fun!