I participated in a haiku workshop recently at Vancouver’s Cherry Blossom Festival in Vandusen Gardens. Poet Michael Dylan Welch led us on what he called a “haiku walkabout” to capture seed ideas for a haiku poem. Michael is a tech writer by day, and told me he was once hired for a job because of his Haiku writing. His employer figured his skills in Haiku would enhance his writing.
Michael told us that in Japan, friends get together for haiku-writing walks called ginkos. At the end of the walk they relax over a few drinks, compare notes, generate poems, and give each other feedback. That sounds like a terrific way to spend an afternoon, and I hope next year we can do the same.
“The objective in haiku, is not to write about the idea, which is an abstraction, but to write about what caused the idea, to evoke a sensory or emotional experience in the reader.”
— Michael Dylan Welch
Michael gave us his haiku checklist to help us create poems and he has kindly given me permission to share it with you. For haiku inspiration, look closely at everything around you in nature, at home, at school, and at work. Write your haiku first, letting yourself be free and creative. Then ask the following questions about your haiku to help you improve them.
- How long is your haiku? It’s usually good to write in three lines of about 10 to 17 syllables. In English, haiku don’t have to be in the pattern of 5-7-5 syllables—the following questions are much more important.
- Does your haiku name or suggest one of the seasons—spring, summer, fall, or winter? In Japanese, a kigo or “season word” tells readers when the poem happens, such as saying “tulips” for spring or “snow” for winter. This is one of the most important things to do in haiku.
- Does your poem make a “leap,” by having two parts? In Japanese, a kireji or “cutting word” usually cuts the poem into two parts (never three). Giving your poem two fragmentary parts is also one of the most important things to do in haiku.
- Is your haiku about common, everyday events in nature or human life? To help you do this, describe what you experience through your five senses.
- Does your poem give readers a feeling? It can do this by presenting what caused your feeling rather than the feeling itself. So others can feel what you felt, don’t explain or judge what you describe.
- Is your poem in the present tense? To make your haiku feel like it’s happening right now, use the present tense.
- Did you write from your own personal experience? When you write other kinds of poetry, you can make things up, but try not to do that with haiku. Memories are okay, though.
- How did you capitalize or punctuate your poem? Haiku are usually not sentences (they’re usually fragments), so they don’t need to start with a capital, or end with a period.
- Does your haiku avoid a title and rhyme? Haiku are not like other poems, which may have these things. Haiku don’t have titles and rarely rhyme.
- What can you do with your haiku? Can you illustrate them, collect them in a notebook, or display them? You could write haiku in your journal every day, enter them in a contest, publish them, or share them at a poetry reading or online.
With practice, you won’t need to ask yourself these questions about your haiku. Japanese haiku master Basho said to “Learn the rules and then forget them.” What I believe he meant was that it’s good to internalize the rules (or targets, as I like to call them) so thoroughly that you no longer have to think about them, the way a chess grandmaster no longer thinks of making bad moves. Have fun with your haiku and enjoy noticing life more closely through your five senses!
Our Haiku Walkabout
The theme Michael chose for us to focus on was “Signs of Spring” and he asked us to use our senses to capture our experiences as we walked along garden paths.
My snippets from the walkabout
The scent of hyacinth
Sounds of the flute
Squish of stepping in mud
Being almost warm
Tightly wrapped buds
From these snippets, I created two haiku poems:
Tightly wound buds
slowly unfurl into
Sounds of the flute
perfumed by hyacinths
I am almost warm
These were good reminders that creativity is a physical activity, something easily forgotten in a push-botton tech world. Awakening your senses will refresh your creativity.