The Evolution of a Haiku

Poetry, Writing

Recently while on my University’s campus, I was struck by two images: daffodils bending to a soft, pattering rain and a clock ticking away in the quiet English department student lounge.

Now it is not often that I decide to write Haikus. Haiku is not my preferred style of poetry, but there are those moments when I see an image and I know immediately that the best way to display it in words is in the simple poetic form of haiku.

So to the best of my ability, I will show you how I came to my finishing decisions on each haiku that I wrote that particular rainy afternoon.


The Clock Haiku

As I contemplated the clock in the study lounge, the first word that came to my mind was gentleman. I feel like clocks and gentlemen have a lot in common: reliability, consistency, steadiness, and selflessness. And, not coincidentally, they both like to know what the time is, and to tell others the time.

Now the second image that popped into my mind was a mustache. The hour-hand of the clock had dipped to 4, and the minute hand inched its way to 4:45pm. It was an odd and uneven mustache stretching across the definitions of time, but it seemed like a mustache all the same.

So from those two images, came all of these lines:

Haiku Round 1 (with rambling)

That gentleman on the wall with
the ever lilting looping mustache...
Oh, Dear! Look at the time!

My skirts follow in a flutter
My self-pressed steps

Painful pumps digging deeper
Into muddy depths that I stare down

Down, down, ignoring the soar
Of cherry blossoms above

My tousled hair receives its adventurous
Petals, the ones that decided to

Let go.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking the same thing I thought after I looked back at those lines: “Wow, that took an interesting turn!” I absolutely agree. I had taken the aspect of time and pushed it into me as a poetic character, rushing and passing other images I’d seen, such as the Cherry blossoms blooming by one of the academic halls I pass every day. In doing so, I veered incredibly far from the form I’d originally wanted. The above is nothing close to a haiku. More like… possibilities for many different haikus. But this is a testimony to the effectiveness of stream of consciousness writing, and then returning to what you have written to find what you actually want to work with.

So I filtered out those extra ideas–rushing, cherry blossoms and tousled hair–that took away from the immediate image that I saw: the clock. So my next step was to write three lines that fit into the popular haiku form: 5 syllables, 7 syllables, and then 5 syllables for the last line. Here is my first attempt:

Haiku A

That gentleman with
the lilting, looping mustache;
Time whispers from walls.

In Haiku A, I kept several elements of the original few lines, but I nitpicked through the words and kept only the most necessary. I kept gentleman because that word and image is important to me in order to bring this clock to life. The words lilting, looming mustache are musical and key to the idea that the hour-hands form a moving mustache. And then I still wanted the word wall or walls included.

In the next version, let’s say Haiku B, I simply switched some of the words around, and played more with the idea of the clock’s mustache.

Haiku B

The gentleman on
The wall is lilting, looping
His mustache ‘round time.

Immediately after writing this second version, I liked it the most. But since then I have asked others for their opinions on the two different versions, and everyone I have asked preferred Haiku B.

I think this is because the first two lines of Haiku A are a single image combined, which is separated by the semi-colon from the third line. This gives the third line more of a punch, whereas the the third line in Haiku B is a continuation of the word “looping” from its second line. Perhaps Haiku B feels more cohesive as a whole, but I often find that purposeful separation in poetry is more satisfying to a reader than a jumble of togetherness. Readers need places to breathe, contemplate and anticipate.


The Daffodil Haiku

Now remember the other image I had seen that day? Daffodils stooping in the rain? Well, this also budded into another haiku:

Daffodils A

Why do daisies sink
Their sunshine heads when rain
Fulfills earthiness?

I love the word sink; it came out naturally as I thought about the stooping motion of the flowers beneath the weight of the soft rain. But I’m not sure how the word earthiness made its way into the verse. I understand what I was going for, but no one needs an explanation that daffodils or flowers are related to the earth or the concept of earthiness.

 Also note that I took the creative liberty to change daffodils to daisies. I did not want to, as they are very different kinds of yellow flowers, but when writing haikus one must think about the count of syllables.

Still, I was rather convicted for leaving behind the concept of Daffodils. So what did I do? I researched other names that Daffodils are known by, and found a nice (and not coincidentally poetic) correlation with the greek god Narcissus. According to Flowers & Plants by Interflora, the name of the daffodil family is Narcissus. “It is so called because its bulb houses a toxic substance – the Greek word ‘narcissus’ means ‘numbness’, so it is a reference to its narcotic nature.” So not only have I found a more creative way to name daffodils, I have learned more about the plant itself. (Take a look at the interesting facts of why Narcissus is another term for Daffodil.)

All of these ideas—rain, steeples, sunshine, color, and numbness—they all mixed in so many different emotions and moody messages; and I finally saw the potential of this little poem.

Daffodils B

Narcissus, why do
You sink your sunshine steeples?
‘Tis but drops of rain.

Which changed yet again! As I created the featured image for this post, I was looking at the poem so much that I realized I did not like the word do hanging at the end of the first line. Its sound was not soft enough or inclusive enough to fully lead to the second line. And I began to wonder which is more cheesy, sunshine or sunrise? Maybe I should let you decide.

My final version is as seen on the featured image:

Daffodils

Narcissus, why sink
your golden sunrise steeples?
‘Tis but drops of rain.


Talk about how poetry can change at any time!

So which version of which haikus do you like? And why? Also, do you think it’s crazy that I’ve still thought up even more variations of these haikus? I certainly do! But I love searching through all sorts of different versions of this concise poetic form to find the perfect words for the perfect image. Thank you for reading!

Writing a Poetry Book: 3 Things I’ve Learned in the Process

Poetry, Writing

Yes! My literary friends, I am writing a poetry book, and have been working on this particular collection for over a year now; and I’ve been learning so much as I’ve dove into this arduous and satisfying process. Here are a few things that I’ve been realizing or learning while taking on the challenge of writing and compiling my poetry for a very specific collection.

1. I limited myself with the ideas of chapters and sections

When I created my first chapbook (please don’t judge it too hard, I was younger when I wrote it), I separated it into sections and thought myself so professional in doing so. But I did that after I had already written every poem that was in the book. And in my defense, I think it worked rather well. I had poems that fit those four different categories, guiding the reader to what they’re feeling like reading at the time; which I always think is nice, but I can also be limiting depending on the collection. If a reader is only reading your poetry section on Love, will they flip to the rest of the book still?

In brainstorming for this current growing collection of poetry, I began to do a similar process. I took a main theme from my title and split it up into three to four sections. “I’ll pair these type of poems with this image-inspired headline, but then these other poems I’ll put in this other section!” But I now realize that I was too eager. At that time I had probably 12 or 13 publish-ready poems, and some of them didn’t even quite fit those elaborated categories. And when I tried to write poems to put into those categories, it felt fake and forced.

So I’ve ditched the idea, and now I am focused on writing the poems that come to me, that I chase down, and that I catch wonderful quick glimpses of around every corner of life. If I write poems for a specific category, then I’m losing sight of the larger picture, the larger theme that I’m hovering over: the first few years of marriage.

2. Individual poems can be a long time coming

I’m sitting on a nest of ideas for poems. They’re all written down: a few lines, different titles, a simple abstract image, or moments and situations that I know need poetic attention… but these eggs cannot hatch until they decide to hatch by themselves.

I try to revisit my notes, take in what I have written, and as a result I’ll often remember where and when the original inspiration came from. But if I don’t feel the inspiration recurring in the moment or those similar desires coming back, I’ll set it aside and wait for the next time to check up on those growing fledglings of poems.

But of course, this doesn’t mean “Don’t Write” if the inspiration isn’t there. Just write about something else; write about the thing that is your current interest right now. That’s what I’m trying to do to my utmost. And when I’m able to return to the nest of ideas, I usually return to find new inspiration made a home with them while I waited patiently.

3. The Title can appear out of NOWHERE

My husband and I were coming up on half a year of being married, and the poems were simply piling up. I knew that I wanted to work towards a poetry book that was loosely about my first year (now “years”) of marriage, but I hadn’t even taken the time to think of a title. Until one day while we were bustling to leave the house for an appointment that we were late to, one of us, I can’t even remember who, said an ironic phrase that hit both of us as a hilarious title for a poem: one that defined marriage in its own sweet hilarity.

I won’t say it, so sorry. But the phrase kept bouncing all over my head with so much energy, and to my surprise it was whirling around in my husband’s head as well. Before we even left the house he told me, “You need to make that the title of your poetry book.” So it was settled, and has been settled for nearly 9 months! I still haven’t thought up anything better, and honestly I hope that I never do.

Would you like to know more about my poetry collection writing process? Share in the comments! Also, who else is compiling their own poetry collection? Do you have a theme? Ideas? And what are some things you have been learning through the process? I’d love to hear your stories.

My Favorite Writers – Part 1: The Physician Poet

Poetry, Poets, Writers
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

William Carlos Williams was not a poet by career; he was a poet by night and a physician by day. As a doctor, he labored with humanity in its rawest form. He saw humanity in its most sorrowful moments of death and suffering and in its most joyous moments of birth and healing. This affected one of the key aspects of his poetry, the one that I cherish the most. Williams wrote with such human-centered detailing that you feel like you can step into a 3D version of his poems. He treated not only the human body and its ills, but his writing treated the heart, and has many times treated my own.

“I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.”

William Carlos Williams

During the first year at my current university I took a course on Modern Poetry. It was then that I was officially introduced to the famous American Imagist poet that is William Carlos Williams. Unsurprisingly, the Imagist Movement focused on the imagery within a poem rather than the structure — not that you won’t find structure in Williams poetry — but the forms that he uniquely incorporates into each poem amplifies the images and details within. Take these two poems for instance: Blizzard and Flowers by the Sea.

Flowers by the Sea” was one of the first poems of Williams’ that I read, and I remember always being enchanted by the magic of its last lines: “the sea is circled and sways / peacefully upon its plantlike stem.” Williams took a concept as vast as the ocean, and with his pen he wrapped it up into something as simple and individually captivating as a flower content on its own stem.

Now unlike several of his fellow imagist poets, who felt called to the creative atmosphere of Europe or became ex-patriots of the United States, Williams never neglected his deep American roots. He was both an American physician and poet to the American citizen. He wrote about the everyday American experiences, human interactions, the human interaction with nature. Above all, he wrote about people and aspects of small-town America unapologetically. His literary focus was to create a new American way of writing.

“If they give you lined paper, write the other way.”

Williams Carlos Williams

I cannot do this great poet justice in just one blog post. This was a man who lived two full lives within his one life: a doctor who loved his community and his patients; a man who loved his friends and his wife and family; and a poet who sought to change the face of American poetry. Later, his poetry and mentoring would spur more shifts and movements in contemporary poetry.

Before I conclude, I’d like to mention one of the particular reasons I love Williams poetry: his imagist “direct treatment of the thing” — a mantra that fueled the Imagist Movement — resulted in poems that are often short, succinct, and artfully direct. One of his most famous poems is The Red Wheelbarrow, which struck me with its effectiveness of the mantra. These poems are my favorite. I can sit down, open my copy of his selected poems, and know that there are so many small poems within that will each fill me deeply with the attention the writer gave to whatever “thing” it was that he was treating — a true doctor, indeed. So for poetry readers who lean toward the shorter-in-length yet profound poems, Williams is the gem you’re looking for.

But now that I’ve shared one of my favorite poets, who are some of yours? What other modern poets do you love to read? Let me know in the comments! As usual, I’m always looking for more poetry with which to fill the time I hardly have. For now, I will leave you with yet one more poem from Williams to digest:

“THE THOUGHTFUL LOVER"

Deny yourself all
half things. Have it
or leave it.

But it will keep—or
it is not worth
the having.

Never start
anything you can't
finish—

However do not lose
faith because you
are starved!

She loves you
she says. Believe it
—tomorrow.

But today
the particulars
of poetry

that difficult art
require
your whole attention.”

― William Carlos Williams, The Collected Poems, Vol. 2: 1939-1962

For far more information on Williams Carlos Williams than I can give you — and of course, for more of his poetry — visit his dedicated page on The Poetry Foundation.

Inspiration Conversation: featuring “The Disciple’s Information Desk”

Poetry, Writing

“Everybody walks past a thousand story [and poem] ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.”

– Orson Scott Card

Poets get inspiration from all sorts of intricate corners of the world: the rhythmic Boing! of a basketball bouncing on cement; a self-help book’s chapter on other people’s opinions; an annoying, overreaching song on the radio, or even a client’s heartfelt complaint over the phone. Well, I just received inspiration from a sermon I listened to on this snowy March morning. I opened my living room and kitchen blinds; I let the blinding snow-light flood my home; I set out my laptop for the service’s live stream on the coffee table, and I wrapped myself in a large sweater on my sinking couch, ready for Sunday morning’s learning. And while my thin-socked toes froze, I heard my pastor’s sermon on the Transfiguration.

For those unfamiliar with the event, it is when Christ takes three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, with him up onto a mountain. While there Christ’s appearance suddenly changes, and out of the blue he is joined by Elijah and Moses. (Note that these two prophets have been dead quite a long time.) The disciples are stunned, and Peter literally blabbers out of shock. He’s interrupted, though, by an enveloping cloud, out of which God speaks and basically tells the disciples to “shut up” and listen to Jesus. After the cloud leaves, Elijah and Moses are gone, and everyone is ominously silent. Quite the event, huh? (Unsummarized version in Luke 8:28-36.)

Now during this event, the rest of Jesus’ disciples (he has a total of 12) have been approached by a man whose son is possessed and terrorized by a demon. This father asks the disciples to heal his son, but all nine disciples fail. But when Jesus comes down the mountain, this same man also approaches him, entreating Jesus to heal his only son. Unsurprisingly, Jesus heals the boy of the evil spirit, but not before saying something that really puzzled me: “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you?” (Luke 8:41a). I mentally gasped. Jesus was annoyed. How on earth? He, in a sense, actually complained. But at who, exactly? About what? It’s one of those semi-ambiguous complaints, and my imaginative mind doesn’t quite know what to do with it.

And that’s when an image struck me. I saw myself at my day job, at my desk, waiting for people to come in with questions that maybe I can answer and maybe I can’t. I saw the times I succeeded. I saw the times I’ve failed. I saw the times I’ve become annoyed and couldn’t bear the questions anymore. Then I saw the following poem shaping in my imagination:

The Disciple’s Information Desk 
Luke 8:37-43

They come to me, eyes
wild with confusion
to search and search
The woman losing her
coin, her whole day’s
wages, the shepherd
scouring his pastures
the woods, the streams
for his lost sheep
They come to me

To my unattractive desk
with their unprepared
Questions, with their
frantic hearts beating
out of their rushed mouths
And I listen, I half listen
I can only half understand
these harder questions
I cannot answer, I can
not fix. I am not the
Master. I am only the
Student worker here.

I am one of the helpless
disciples. Why Sir, do you
Come to me with this issue?
"I need help, and your boss is
not here." Then I will try. I
will listen. I will half listen
and half understand. I will
fail. "Please do something!
My son… my Son has gone
through enough with this demon!"
He is searching. This father
Searches for an answer from
me. And I fail.

I am a helpless disciple
Sitting at this unattractive desk
That brings forth the people
with questions. I walk with
the Wise, with the Miraculous
but I cannot heal your son
You must wait for my boss
to come down from the
Mountain. You must wait
until the manager is here.

- An original poem by Julie E. Harms

Perhaps I’ve broken the poets’ code by detailing my pre-poem inspiration, but I did so purposefully, and I willingly put myself at the scrutiny of other poets. I think it is important in the conversation concerning inspiration. Once upon a time poets wrote the highest form of poetry if they could allude to the most elaborate mythological, historical, or religious references. They were writing for the educated society, to those who could understand such images and complexities.

But in my opinion, contemporary poetry does not use outside inspiration to show its superiority; contemporary poetry uses outside inspiration as a conduit that makes the poem relatable to the contemporary reader. The fact that I used biblical inspiration for this poem does not on its own merit make it a better poem than others. But the fact that I took biblical contents and connected them to an everyday trial or experience is what heightens the poem.

Another poem that does this (and in my opinion does it better) is Helen Considers Leaving Troy, by Jeanann Verlee. Verlee modernizes the woman of Greek legend, allowing the reader to theorize and consider Helen in the light of a modern woman trapped in an undesired relationship. Not only does her content reflect this, but Verlee also uses a creative structure to accomplish that relatability. Each stanza is fueled with inner thoughts affected by an established situation: “while walking the dog,” “while paying the bills,” “when Menelaus writes a letter,” etc,.  These tie Helen to the present day, and overall create a more relatable Helen that we as contemporary readers find we can more intricately understand.

In relation to my own writing, I can hardly write without inspiration, It must be from something or someone or because of somewhere. In any artist’s creation there has been a touch of inspiration to spur that said creation. It may be big, it may be small, it may be a legendary figure from history, it may be words from an ancient book, or it may be snow-blinding light that still floods through my windows as I type. Whatever inspiration comes next, I hope to catch it as successfully as I did today. I’ve missed many a poem because I did not grasp the tails of inspiration soon enough. But that, my literary friends, is a thought to explore on another day.

“Not knowing when the dawn will come I open every door.”

– Emily Dickinson

My First Poem

Poetry

“The poetry of the earth is never dead.”

John Keats

I was a weary eight-year-old, bored of the lulling rhythms of my family’s Toyota Previa as it pulled me further northward to Wisconsin. It would be my first trip to my cousin’s new, wintery home. As always, I had packed my journal, and a handful of books. So far the journal only contained measly childlike information: crushes, highlights of a day, which sibling I was mad at, etc.

But as I stared out the window, it’s glass cooling my forehead and hair, I took in the vast plains of Illinois. They were endless pools of gold against the sunlight. The sky and the road were its frames, and I suddenly wished that the van could stop, that I could close the distance between my small self and the glittering expanse and find whatever treasure was lying in wait for me there. I felt it. I wanted it. And the desire birthed my first poem.

Had I already been holding my journal? My small little notebook with a lock? I can’t even remember. But I found myself writing down a dream about the plains. It rhymed. It had rhythm. It had a true theme of expansion, of things bigger than myself, of awe and of wonderment. But of course, it was in its own special way… pitiful.

But most first poems are, aren’t they? They are attempts. They are leaps of bravery that can go so far, even if at that moment they are short simple. The poem was not only titled “The Plains”, but it was itself very plain, boring, and certainly not enticing by itself. And yet I will never forget it. And most importantly, I’ll never forget the power of nature, of the world beyond the small van that I was traveling in, that inspired my thoughts to expand, to roam across those plains in my adventurous childhood imagination, and to write down where my young mind decided to venture.