Monthly Archives: September 2016

Make It Yours

GoodHaiku poems are so short that they are particularly susceptible to the repetition of subjects and structures. In She Was Just Seventeen, a collection of haiku by former United States poet laureate Billy Collins (Lincoln, Illinois: Modern Haiku Press, 2006, page 9), the poet includes the following poem:

If I write spring moon
or mountain, is that
haiku plagiarism?

In a review of She Was Just Seventeen, William J. Higginson comments as follows on this poem (Modern Haiku 38.1, Autumn, 2007, page 82):

While I may not value this especially as a haiku, it certainly spoofs the repetition of favored phrases and images that plagues haiku to the point where even the great Shiki once doubted [more than a hundred years ago] if haiku could continue another decade or two without utterly repeating itself. (If Shiki had foreseen the explosion of interest in haiku in scores of languages around the world, perhaps he would have been less doubtful!)

Emiko Miyashita has shared the following two lines of a Japanese poem titled “Asa no Hikari” (“Morning’s Light”) by Shuntaro Tanigawa (from her 2009 Haiku North America conference paper, “Feel the Word”). His ninth line is as follows:

繰り返すものはどうしていつまでも新しいのだろう

I wonder, why things that repeat themselves can stay fresh and timeless?

And the twelfth line is:

一度きりのものはあっという間に古びてしまうのに

While a thing that happens only once becomes old so quickly.

One secret to avoiding the problems of deja-ku (especially writing on a tired subject) is to write about what is true to yourself and your perspective. In contrast to Ezra Pound who exhorted poets to “Make it new,” I side more with Jane Hirshfield, who has said “Make it yours.” Related to this is the advice to write about the timeless rather than about subjects that are faddish or trendy. Haiku values the ephemeral, but the ephemeral is not the same as fleeting trivialities. This is why there are so many thousands of good haiku about cherry blossoms (both ephemeral and endlessly repeating) but so few about Rubik’s Cubes or hula hoops (but, ahem, maybe that’s a challenge, isn’t it?). Whatever we write about, it’s a good practice to make each poem yours rather than feeling pressure to make it new. As the painter Robert Henri once wrote, “A tree growing out of the ground is as wonderful today as it ever was. It does not need to adopt new and startling methods.” Here’s to making haiku yours!

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