How to Write Bad Haiku
Want to Write Good Haiku?
I recommend these hubs:
Haiku: The Art of Capturing Nature by Chef de Jour
(I disagree with him on 5-7-5, but also think he's one of the best poets on HubPages: his observations on the form are insightful, and his haiku examples are great.)
For a more advanced look at writing haiku see my How to Write Haiku: Using Juxtaposition
The Big Yawn
Have I got your attention?
Really, this tutorial is more about how to write mediocre haiku, so we can learn not to.
First off, I'm not talking about writing non-haiku, like this anonymous joke:
Haikus are easy
but sometimes they don’t make sense
Instead, I'm writing this for all of us who are working on writing traditional haiku, but may sometimes wonder if our efforts to capture a striking moment may be awkward-sounding, sentimental, wordy, obvious, and above all, boring.
The next section of this hub is inspired by an essay on haiku and senryu by published haiku poet Kathy Lippard Cobb; the middle section reveals one source of bad haiku; and in the last sections I hope to amuse you by taking some excellent haiku, classic and modern, and making them bad.
Sentimentality Helps Bad Haiku
Seven Tips For Bad Haiku
1. If you are writing in 5-7-5, make sure to create awkward and annoying line breaks:
Dragonflies swoop through
the garden chasing flies and
reflecting the light
- Note that good haiku generally consist of two phrases, or a phrase and a short sentence, so this one gets a bonus badness point by being one long sentence.
2. If one seasonal reference is good (see Kigo: Season Words in Haiku), two, or even three, seasonal references are better.
Crisp autumn air
the smell of burning leaves
- This one also has a bonus badness point: instead of dividing into two parts, separated by a line break or a line break and punctuation, it consists of three unrelated phrases, making it feel disconnected for the reader.
3. For a sure-fire bad haiku, don't show the reader how you feel: tell them clearly:
thinking of the day you left
I'm filled with grief
- Of course, you could write, "Cold rain / thinking of the day / you left,"
but resist the temptation: it would not be nearly as bad a haiku.
4. Above all, strive to be as predictable as possible. Here's a fine example from Kathy Lippard Cobb:
my shirt clings
to my body"
- As she says about this kind of cause and effect "it's not only boring, it's too obvious." In other words, "Well duh, of course you get wet walking in the rain without an umbrella."
5. Make sure to use striking metaphors:
arrows though the sky
my heart flies after
- This may not be a truly terrible poem, but it is a bad haiku. Haiku do their work without explicit metaphors; in Kathy Cobb's words, they capture "the essence of a moment, stated simply."
6. Another literary device important for bad haiku is personification, especially if it hits the reader forcefully over the head:
Bright dawn banishes
the countless twinkling stars
kisses the shy moon
- Enough said. No wait, there's some bonus badness here too! While a good haiku may have one, or occasionally two, adjectives, and often makes do with none, a bad haiku can pack in as many as will fit in 5-7-5.
7. Last but not least, embrace cliché:
playing in the first deep snow
snowman's coal black eyes.
- It's a pretty scene, and it's also unquestionably a pretty bad haiku. And besides, who really uses coal for a snowman's eyes anymore?
Too Many Kigo Can Have Explosive Results
Messing with Young Minds. . .
A Key Source of Bad Haiku: Education!
Here is a video about 90 seconds long, made for schoolchildren. It was on the first page of a YouTube search for "haiku," and it's pretty scary.
The example given as model is (of course) in 5-7-5 and follows at least three of my tips for bad haiku.
No wonder that some people think that this is how to write haiku, and others, when they learn more about real poetry, decide that haiku have no literary value.
Dramatic Scenes are Risky
Postcard Prettiness is Safer
Good Haiku Gone Bad
1. Bad Basho
I'll begin with two of the great Basho's haiku, found in this interesting document with multiple published translations. (This link, incidentally, makes the whole hub worth reading, even if you don't like my lame sense of humor.)
Here's the first:
a wild sea—
stretching to Sado Isle
the Milky Way
~ trans. Shirane
The only thing conceivably bad about this translation is the word "isle," which seems rather old-fashioned and formal, and therefore distances the reader from the vivid scene.
Have you ever seen the Milky Way on a moonless night in the country? Now think of it stretching over a stormy sea, arching toward an island in the distance, black against the stars. That's a "haiku moment" at its best.
Now let's make it bad: How many of the tips can we use?
Dark and stormy sea—
the Milky Way forms an arch
kissing Sado Isle
I made it bad by incorporating cliché, unneeded adjectives, and a touch of personification: perhaps you can make it worse.
The second haiku:
into the darkness
a night heron's cry
~ trans. Barnhill
Here's a striking haiku and a beautiful translation. It's almost painful to mess it up, like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa, but I'll do what I can.
Lightning splits the night
eerie in lonely darkness
a night heron's cry
With clear determination to tell rather than show, even a great haiku can aspire to badness, or at least mediocrity.
2. Bad Modern Haiku
For two good modern haiku, I turn to the Summer 2012 issue of Simply Haiku, a fine on-line journal.
red moon . . .
in the stillness
~ Don Baird
First off, this haiku is far too spare and mysterious to be a bad haiku.
How can I make it wordy and obvious?
Sunset-bloodied moon . . .
in the silent twilight woods
owls are hooting
While one can write fine 5-7-5 haiku, I am discovering that 5-7-5 gives more scope for badness, especially in the adjective department. A really short haiku may fall flat, but it generally doesn't slip on a banana peel and land on its butt.
One more good haiku to ruin
shapes the wind makes
in the willow
~ André Surridge
This haiku is quoted in an essay by Patricia Prime, Awareness in Haiku. She writes that "human emotion balanced against close observations from nature may be said to characterize the most enduring . . . haiku," and gives this as an example.
What makes it a good haiku is that the poet expresses the emotion and the implicit metaphor -- tai chi and the flowing branches -- subtly and indirectly. Making it too obvious ruins the effect.
Graceful tai chi:
like willow branches
bending in the wind
Not a nose-holding horrible haiku, but distinctly bad. I added an unneeded adjective, "graceful," and removed the striking phrase "shapes the wind makes / in the willow," replacing it with a predictable simile. Not only is the simile cliched, but it removes us from the natural moment. Is there really a willow tree at all, or does seeing someone do tai chi just remind the poet of willow branches?
Thanks for reading! I think these cautionary lessons will help me write better haiku, and I hope they will do the same for you.