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Writing Haiku: Originality and Cliché

Updated on October 27, 2013
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The Haiku that Got Me Thinking

I deeply believe that most contemporary thinking about originality is a trap and a delusion. Skill matters, coming from the heart matters, trying to create — or demanding — novelty leads to faddishness and escalating attempts to shock or confuse the reader. Still, I was surprised when people responded positively to this haiku:

A lilting birdsong
weaves around the low whistle
of a distant train

I wrote it without trying for good poetry: It was a response to the "#Haikuwordgame" on Twitter, where three words must be included. In this poem, the words were 1.distance 2.lilt 3.whistle

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"If You Miss the Train I'm On"

What is a Cliché in Haiku?

Yet the word “cliché” still means something for haiku. Editors of haiku journals beg . . . "please no more herons landing on their reflections!" Some themes have simply been worked to death.

I thought the poem above, while a clever solution to the word game, was thorougly cliched, a sort of haiku-country-music fusion … lilting birdsong … whistle of a distant train … “you can hear the whistle blow, 100 miles” (a song I love, incidentally, & one of the few I can sing). Nevertheless, five people liked it enough to retweet.

This doesn’t mean they have bad taste: maybe they just hadn’t seen these words in this configuration before, and something in the words spoke to their hearts. Perhaps the combination of haiku and country music ideas was itself a fresh effect!

Traditional vs Innovative Haiku

Some would consider my more representative haiku, with their plain language and spare observation of nature, to be cliched, because they employ tropes and techniques picked up from English translations of classical Japanese work.

(Note for those new to the genre: most serious/literary haiku writers in English rarely write in strict 5-7-5; my poem above is in this form, because I play the "Haiku word game" that way)

I like the translations I’ve seen of the edgier, more personal, modern Japanese haiku, as well as a lot of the innovative short forms in English published, for example, in Roadrunner. I just can’t write like that myself successfully, although I may in the future.

I’m not going to force it, though.


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Some Comments from an Expert

Chen-ou Liu, @erricoliu on Twitter, whose website is Poetry in the Moment had some insightful remarks about how traditional Far Eastern cultures understand originality very differently than modern Western culture (at least before the contemporary rise of remix).
Close variations on a theme are perfectly legitimate if they add something new.

He writes:
"For example, Yosa Buson wrote:


On the temple bell
has settled, and is fast asleep,
a butterfly.


And Masao Shiki wrote a haiku in response to his:


On the temple bell
has settled, and is glittering,
a firefly.


"The technique Shiki employed here is exactly the same; the feeling conveyed is completely different."

Mr. Liu also has some extremely nice things to say about my #haikuwordgame poem that started the whole thing, including attributing to me conscious artistry that may have been unconscious artistry, but which I think was more lucky chance:

I like your “lilting birdsong” very much. It is two-axis, making a metaphoric allusion to “500 Miles.” You expertly use aural imagery to stretch the impact of the poem on the reader’s senses. In the poem, you skillfully demonstrate the “modern haikai spirit” — the awareness of established associations in pop culture and the need to bring new perspectives to them — and allow the reader to read the poem through fresh lens.


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    • Angelo52 profile image

      Angelo52 5 years ago from Central Florida

      Great explanation of Haiku for those of us not of Japan. Voted up.

    • KrisL profile image
      Author

      KrisL 5 years ago from S. Florida

      Thanks! For a more traditional haiku on-line journal see Simply Haiku http://simplyhaiku.theartofhaiku.com/

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 5 years ago from southern USA

      Very interesting and thanks for writing this hub. It is very informative. You are a gifted writer. Looking forward to reading your future hubs! Faith Reaper

    • KrisL profile image
      Author

      KrisL 5 years ago from S. Florida

      Thanks, Faith.

      Welcome to HubPages.

      I love what you wrote about an angel in your daughter's room.

      If you want to return to writing poetry you might begin to notice beautiful or striking things you see or think of on your commute and take minutes to jot them down when you get home . . .

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 5 years ago from southern USA

      Excellent idea. Yes, there is much beauty on my commute. I do notice something new each and every day! So, thank you for the useful comment. I will start doing that very thing this coming week. In His Love, Faith Reaper

    • profile image

      Derdriu 5 years ago

      KrisL, How fortuitous that you decided to move your haiku to HubPages so that readers such as I may enjoy it! You play the haiku word game well since the traditional haiku deals with seasons, usually explicitly but implicit is allowed. Yours is implicit since you don't overtly name the season. But we know that we're in the season of "lilting" bird songs.

      Thank you for sharing, voted up + all.

      Respectfully, and with a big welcome to HubPages, Derdriu

    • KrisL profile image
      Author

      KrisL 5 years ago from S. Florida

      Thanks to you, Derdriu for your kind and welcoming words, and to Faith Reaper also.

      I think I really may have fun here, reading and writing, as time (which is short) allows. If either of you wants to read more of my poems you can check out http://klindbeck.tumblr.com/

    • Nigelstrawberry profile image

      Nigelstrawberry 5 years ago from Cheshire

      I wouldn't knock the power of a good cliché! Sometimes we can all use a good short-cut... Thanks for this.

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 5 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      What strikes me most in the haiku is that I see and hear it immediately, and the feeling comes right at the same time. It creates a momentous moment. (Sorry, I love puns.) I'll study the essay; it will help my writing and my being present.

    • KrisL profile image
      Author

      KrisL 5 years ago from S. Florida

      Nigel, thanks . . . it's such a delicate balance between touching on a tradtional theme or playing with common phrase and falling into a cliched way of writing that turns the reader off.

      And the practice of traditional haiku-writing is a particularly good place to play with that balance, because a haiku needs to both bring forth an immediate response -- which requires something familiar in scene or language -- and be fresh for the reader.

      Sid, I appreciate the comment. I think any good haiku does that, creates a unique moment for the reader/hearer. Some people call English-language haiku "one breath poems," and I think that's metaphorically true as well as literally.

    • Freya Cesare profile image

      Freya Cesare 5 years ago from Borneo Island, Indonesia

      I think I am one of those who writes Cliché in Haiku. I am not really sure I fully understand the concept, the rule and the technique of traditional Haiku, but I love writing it. Even when it caused me headache for trying to squeezed words to met the strict rule, while stretched the meaning by added the right word in the right place. But it's fun. Thank you.

    • KrisL profile image
      Author

      KrisL 5 years ago from S. Florida

      Thank you! For more advice in writing haiku, you can look at my other hub.

      I greatly admire you for writing in a language that you did not grow up speaking.

      I speak two languages beside English a little, and I sometimes consider writing haiku in them, but then I feel afraid of the mistakes I would make :-)

    • profile image

      whowas 4 years ago

      Hi KrisL,

      Thanks for reading my hubs on Andrew Marvell but more for having lured me here...your writing is exquisite. You write prose with a poet's sense of economy, precision and balance. An absolute joy to read.

      Your words ring like bells

      of mindfulness in the forest temple,

      echoing silence.

      Voted up, ticked and shared on FB and Twitter.

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

      I didn't realize there was a difference between traditional and modern haiku. I could definitely hear the sound of a distance bird whistle in your haiku. After reading your hub I appreciate that haiku is a complex artform! I look forward to learning more. Thank you!

    • KrisL profile image
      Author

      KrisL 4 years ago from S. Florida

      Thanks so much . . . you may learn more from my other hubs, and I'll be adding others now and then.

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

      Great! I might even get up enough courage someday to write my own haiku. : )

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 4 years ago

      ..... personally I am not a big fan of the Haiku because the epi-man usually needs more than 3 lines to 'do his thing' - lol - but that said you have done a marvelous job here of educating and enlightening me about the Haiku itself and the cultural background associated with it.

      You are a master of the Haiku I would say- judging by your other hubs featuring this poetic form - so nice to meet you and sending you warm wishes and good energy from lake erie time ontario canada 9:31pm

    • KrisL profile image
      Author

      KrisL 4 years ago from S. Florida

      Thanks so much for your generous words. I'll be reading more of your work in the weeks to come.

      I may not post many of my own poems here - I have a twitter account for that - but I do enjoy writing these little essays when I have the time.

      I can also write longer when I want to tell a story: that's one thing a haiku can't do!

    • profile image

      Richard Welch 3 years ago

      Birdsong, because of its brevity, allows a moment of sentimentality in English, a language normally so hostile to sentiment. It reminds me of two Afrikaans poems, "Dis Al" by Jan FE Celliers and "Repos Ailleurs "by "Totius". In both those poems sentiment works and the residual "aftertaste" image is fine and delicate and entirely credible.

    • KrisL profile image
      Author

      KrisL 3 years ago from S. Florida

      An interesting insight, Richard. Sentimentality is generally seen as a bad thing, but genuine sentiment is rare and precious in modern English verse. You're making me wish I knew Afrikaans!

    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 2 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      Found a fun form. Finally freely framing flamingoes.

    • KrisL profile image
      Author

      KrisL 2 years ago from S. Florida

      Enjoy! I think you'll like my "How to Write Bad Haiku" too.

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