Beyond Counting Syllables: Thinking Through Haiku

The title for this week’s post is inspired by another of my favorite professional books, Thinking Through Genre by Heather Lattimer. In addition to providing readers with several genre-based units of study, such as memoir and feature articles, Lattimer offers a template and process for designing genre units in general, with goals and instructional focuses set for both reading and writing.

The process she maps out begins with the teacher immersing him or herself in the genre to be studied in order to consider to two critical questions: What do you want students to learn, understand and be able to do as a result of the study? and What about this genre is worthy of an ‘enduring understanding’—that is, why should we spend time reading and writing it?

To answer the second question, Lattimer looks at what specific genres do for us as readers and writers and how they affect us. Thinking through the genre of memoir, for instance, she writers:

“A good memoir will provide the reader with the opportunity to connect with the experience—to feel the emotions, empathize with the response, appreciate the learning that took place, and find community it what can be an isolating world. A great memoir will cause readers to reflect upon and better understanding their own lives and experience.”

And her immersion in feature articles leads her to this understanding:

“It should capture readers’ fascination and spark within them an intense desire to learn, not just about interesting people and place, but about ideas and perspectives.”

Thinking Through Genre doesn’t delve into poetry, let alone the sub-genre of haiku. But a few years ago I began using haiku in curriculum planning workshops to model Lattimer’s process in a way that I hoped would empower teachers to design genre units of their own. I begin, as Lattimer does, with immersion, sharing a handful of haiku, such as these which come from the journal “Modern Haiku“:

a jacket

on the playground fence

summer moon

Cor Van den Heuven

after the reindeer cookie

only a redhot

on her plate

Susan Delphine Delaney

stars at dawn:

the clatter of small change

on the coffee shop counter

Chad Lee Robinson

I ask the workshop participants to read them, attending to both what they notice and how they’re affected as readers. And if you were like some of them, you may have found yourself counting the syllables and noticing that none of the above conformed to the usual 5-7-5 pattern. A bit of googling will reveal that the haiku formula we often teach in schools is an inaccurate translation of Japanese characters into western syllables. And while generally there are no more than 17 syllables in a haiku, neither the number of lines nor the syllables for each line are as rigid as we tend to teach them.

But then . . . if haiku is not a short poem composed of three lines that each have a specific number of syllables, what is it? What does it do for us as readers? How does it affect us? What makes it worthy of our consideration? What might we say is its essence?

When workshop participants go back to the poems without syllables on their minds, they begin to notice other things. Some notice that there seems to be a pattern, with one line establishing a season or time and the other two creating an image. Others say that each evokes a feeling in addition to an image; others notice that they’re composed primarily of concrete nouns. Still others think that each one captures a moment while also suggesting other moments or events, as if the captured moment contains not just the present but the past and future, too: We see the jacket on the playground fence, for instance, frozen in time like a photograph, but our minds also wander to what happened before that and what might happen afterwards, so that the present moment resonates with both the future and past.

Almost everyone, however, acknowledges that they’re not as simple as they first appear. You need to slow down and attend for a moment, so that reading the poem stops time as well. And it’s this ability of haiku to make us slow down and attend to the momentary particulars of the world that the great haiku critic and translator R. H. Blyth says is “the Way of Haiku. It is having life more abundantly.”

Now that, it seems to me, is an enduring understanding worthy of true study. Thinking through haiku allows us to attend to the incandescence of individual moments, to stop and smell the proverbial roses in a way that makes us better appreciate the small wonders of world around us. And when we design instruction that helps students see this, first as readers then as writers, we get poems like these by three 8th graders, that have captured some of the essence of haiku:

Face lit by a screen

way past midnight

homework still not done

Nathan

Ferris Wheel seats

creak in the wind

Coney Island in November

Naomi

Cat’s sandpaper tongue

on my cheek

better than an alarm clock

Tryone

So attend to genre deeply, as haiku attends to the moment. And invite your students to do so as well. It is, indeed, a harder path, requiring that we connect with our own inner reader and not rely on someone else’s take. But it’s also more rewarding, for teachers and students alike.