Haiku Rules of the Road

Neal Whitman, Haiku Editor

Some say haiku is a form. Others, a Way of Life!

Some say is it is less than a poem because it is so short. Others, more than a poem precisely because it is so short!

I think of haiku as a journey. As a poet, I have arrived at a place I want to be and I want you, the reader, to find me there.

However you view haiku, here is an opportunity to share personal accounts of illness and healing and to foster the humanistic practice of medicine.

Let me offer guidelines that I will use as Pulse‘s haiku editor. There is no right or wrong here, but this is how I will view your haiku.

Length: Though contemporary poets like to experiment with two-line and one-line haiku (and even one-word haiku), I am looking for three-line haiku.

Image: I am looking for two images–one image in one line and one image in two-lines, separated by a pause. These can be in either order.

one-line image

(pause)

two-line image

or

two-line image

(pause)

one-line image

Punctuation: The pause might be so obvious you would prefer no punctuation to separate the two images. Or, you might prefer a punctuation mark to signal the type and length of the pause. For example, a dash for a very brief pause; a comma might communicate a short pause; a semi-colon, a longer pause; a colon, a follow up thought; an ellipsis, an unfinished thought.

Resonance: I am looking for the two images to resonate. I know this might sound kind of Zen, but some haikuists speak of two things that do and do not go together. What we want here are haiku in which pairing the two images creates interest.

Syllables: I am not looking for a 5-7-5 syllable count. A 5-7-5 syllable count is not wrong, but you do not need a 5-7-5 syllable count to be right! Some haiku poets find the structure of 5-7-5 helpful, so go ahead and use it. But, if I can “see” your fingers counting, I might not like your haiku. So, please do not let the syllable count dictate adding or subtracting a word to make it “work.”

Balance: The 5-7-5 structure provides balance, so some poets who want to be free of counting syllables, still use a short-long-short structure. I am not looking for every haiku to balance in this way, but it often works well. I see wonderful haiku in which lines one and two are the same length or in which lines two and three are the same length. You might choose three lines of irregular length. I am not looking for a specific structure, but for haiku that invites me to “see” (or hear, smell, taste, touch) the poet’s concrete experience.

Season: There is an old tradition that one line of the haiku should alert us to the season of the year. Every season has its own sets of feelings and each poet brings his or her own life experience to how a season feels. I welcome haiku that uses this tradition if it helps you convey how you feel. But, I also will welcome haiku that does not refer to the season. It is up to you.

For example, here is one that makes use of the autumn season to convey a feeling I get at this time of the year:

in the cancer ward

his hospital gown flapping

fall gusts

And, here it is in any season:

in the cancer ward

his hospital gown flapping

Grand Rounds

Subjectivity:   I hope these guidelines do not feel like strict rules, but rather strike you as a road map to help you get to your destination: haiku that brings the reader to your experience by showing, not telling. We are going to publish only one haiku every other Friday, so please do not take it personally if your haiku is not chosen. When I get what some folks call a “rejection” letter, I substitute the word “subjection,” because it is all so subjective. With many of my haiku in print and online, I can report that many, many of them were turned down by one editor (or two or three) and then accepted by another.

I hope you enjoy the journey. Safe travels.

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