Friday, July 8, 2011

Day 4: editing Day 3's haiku

As soon as I posted yesterday's haiku I was dissatisfied with it and started further editing. Here is yesterday's version:

         of silence


What bugs me about it (so to speak), is that it's a closed poem. There's no openness to the interpretation. There's a husk of a cicada's head on the ground; it will be silent for 13 years again as it goes through the cicada cycle. Done. As a poet I've done all the work and, more importantly, the poem doesn't trust you as a reader to be smart enough to draw your own conclusions.

In haiku especially, that kind of closure can be deadening. One of the hallmarks of the best haiku is that they leave some ambiguity for the reader to fill in. In fact in Japanese, the nature of the language makes it so that ambiguity is unavoidable. For example, in Japanese a noun doesn't necessarily indicate whether it is singular or plural. So in Matsuo Basho's famous haiku about a crow on a bare winter branch, it's impossible to say whether he is referring to one crow on one bare branch or multiple crows scattered on multiple branches in a tree. Moreover, Basho himself made several paintings to accompany the haiku -- and while most of them feature one crow on a branch, there is at least one version in which he painted multiple crows. Clearly the ambiguity is an intentional and valuable thing.

That ambiguity is really hard to replicate in English -- a very straightforward, pragmatic language that values clarity instead of suggestiveness. Not only is it linguistically difficult, but as writers our inclination is to give the reader as much information as we can. One of the greatest challenges of writing haiku is to recognize when you're telling too much. When to get out of the way.

I'm not 100% sure the following is a better haiku, but it's a step in the ambiguous direction. With so few syllables the ordering of each one counts -- try switching words around and see how much the meaning changes. I'm still playing with it (and considering adding a second image to resonate with this one), but this is what I've settled on for tonight:






1 comment:

  1. I love the first one! And it may have more ambiguity than you think -- when I first read it, I thought of a creature that had been silent for 13 years only to break its silence and quickly become a mere dried-out head. So awesome.