by Phil Houseal
April 30, 2014
This week’s column is about haiku.
I’ll pause while most of you roll your eyes and turn to the obituaries.
OK, for those of you still reading, let me explain. Haiku is that form of poetry venerated in Japan and despised in America by 5th-graders forced to learn it as their first introduction to poetry, usually from an English major who wanted to be a novelist but was encouraged by her parents to get a teaching certificate for something “to fall back on.”
To review: Haiku is a 17-syllable verse form consisting of three metrical units of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. It is steeped in ancient symbolism, but for the purpose of this piece, all you need to know is that it is three lines consisting of 5, 7, and 5 syllables.
Why? I don’t know. I didn’t pay attention in 5th grade.
But today, as an actual writer, I do see value in the form. It gives structure and boundaries. Just as Picasso believed the frame was the best friend of a painter, the haiku form forces the artist to choose every word with care. If a writer lacked that discipline and focus, he wouldn’t write poetry; he would be a columnist. Where he could waste more than 200 words before getting to his point: That sometimes we write or speak “accidental haiku.” These are uttered in everyday life, and often filled with wisdom and insight. But not always.
The first accidental haiku I catalogued was uttered by my wife as she talked about a friend:
She can’t get away
From the smell; she has the shit
Right under her nose.
“5... 7... 5...” I counted to myself while pretending to listen... that’s haiku!
Another time, I was discussing career plans with a custodian at the school (I’ve learned the wisest people in schools are custodians and secretaries), when he offered up this powerful haiku:
Sometimes it's better
To let the wind fill your sails
Than use a motor
He quit shortly thereafter and took a job that offered better insurance.
Just as the symbolism can be obtuse, the wisdom can be subtle. This haiku occurred to me as I was trying to... well... I’ll let the poem explain:
To light a cigar
When walking in a light breeze
One must keep walking
Eh? Eh? How about that gem? Try it–it really works. Just be sure to walk in the same direction the wind is blowing. Haiku you can use.
I got this one on a birthday card. It doesn’t really count as “accidental” because some gnarled gnome dug it up from the Hallmark mines, but it’s funny and fits this column’s flimsy premise:
Getting older sucks,
Yes, it really, really sucks
It sure does suck bad
The fun thing about watching for accidental haiku is that it starts popping up in unexpected places, such as on doors, or cereal boxes, or on signs in the break room at work:
$1 in the kitty
Thank you very much
That is very cool, though probably too subtle, and completely ineffective, I concluded as I watched unimpressed coffee drinkers drop in only two quarters.
Now the rest of you can turn to the obituaries. But before you do, read one more:
Try it out yourself
Write your very own Haiku