Saturday, May 31, 2014

Prompt #187 – Haiku: Honoring the Art of Detachment


Haiku’s origins have been traced to a form of Japanese poetry known as haikai no renga, a kind of linked poetry that was practiced widely by Matsuo Bashō (1644-94) and his contemporaries. Over time, the first link in a renga, the hokku, evolved into the haiku as we understand it today. A minimalist form of poetry, haiku has been popular among modern poets since the 1960s, when a western-world haiku movement generated increased interest in the form. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Billy Collins, John Ashbery, and Paul Muldoon have written haiku, and haiku-like poems are found in the works of such literary greats as Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and Richard Wright. Although something other than “mainstream” poetry and very much its own genre, haiku is a unique and demanding form to master.

In traditional Japanese, the haiku is typically written vertically on the page  (from top to bottom). Each haiku contains seventeen onji (sound symbols). However, early translators were mistaken when they assumed that onji were equivalent to syllables in the English language and that haiku should be written in three lines containing 5,7, and 5 syllables respectively. Although incorrect, these “defining” qualities of haiku are still regarded as “haiku format” by many. A more acceptable standard for English-language haiku is 10-20 syllables in 3 lines with a longer second line and shorter first and third lines. That said, the parameters are often stretched depending on content and meaning. Three lines have become the norm, but haiku of one and two lines are also seen, and syllable count varies

Traditional haiku contain a kigo (season word) to indicate the season or time of year in which the haiku takes place, along with two phrases (or images) that are inherently unrelated but are juxtaposed to show some commonality within a particular experience. Normally, one idea is presented in the first two lines and then a switch occurs in the third. Alternatively, a single idea is presented in the first line and a switch occurs in the second and third lines. Nearly every haiku has this kind of two-part, juxtapositional structure. The shift is achieved with what is called a kireji or cutting word, which “cuts” the poem into two parts. The kireji is a kind of caesura (and similar in theory to the volta in a sonnet) that signals a pause in the poem’s “thought” and suggests a parallel to the preceding phrase, the following phrase, or provides a “dismount for the poem that offers a finely tuned sense of closure. 

Haiku is, in a sense, an art of detachment in which the poet is removed enough from the subject to write without self-interest or self-absorption but, rather, with a sense of both inward and outward direction. The best haiku are life-affirming and eternity-conscious, spontaneous and unpretentious but entirely focused and either gently or startlingly profound.

Note: The word haiku forms its own plural – haikus is incorrect.

Acknowledgment: The essay part of this prompt (above) first appeared in 
Tiferet: Literature, Art, & The Creative Spirit (Digital Issue, April 2014)


1. Haiku describe things in a very few words – they never tell, intellectualize, or state feelings outrightly. They never use figures of speech (similes, metaphors, etc.) and should not rhyme.

2. Haiku is more than a simple genre or form of poetry—haiku is a way of seeing, a way of capturing experience, a kind of “aha” moment or instant when something in the ordinary captures our attention and leads us to a closer, more concentrated look at its connection to nature, and human nature.

3. Haiku don’t have titles, although haiku sequences do.

4. Brevity is key, along with a sense of immediacy (written in the present tense) and often a sense of relationship between nature and human nature. Some haiku poets feel that one measure of a haiku’s success is its ability to be read in a single breath. Most will agree that a successful haiku is characterized by crystal-cutting clarity and in-the-moment presence.

5. Haiku are about spiritual realities, the realities of our every-day lives, and the realities of human- and natural-world relationships. Most importantly, haiku honor the inside of an experience through attention to the outside.

6. Compact and direct, haiku appear to be light and spontaneous, but their writing requires careful reflection and discipline—haiku may even be considered a kind of meditation. Finely-tuned powers of observation reveal the haiku moments that happen continually in the world around us.

7. Don’t be bound by any notions of 5,7,5 syllable structure—focus instead on use of season words, two-part juxtapositions, and objective sensory imagery.


1. Bashō said that each haiku should be “a thousand times on the tongue.” Before writing anything, read many haiku from a range of sources to get a “feel” for the form. Be sure to read some haiku that have been translated from the Japanese, but spend more time on good haiku written in English. Read some of the haiku aloud.

2. After you’ve read many haiku and have a sense of what they’re about, think about an experience you’ve had.

3. Remember the season in which you had the experience, and then think of a word or phrase that suggests that season. For example, peonies is a season word for spring; snow and ice are season words for winter. A simple phrase like “autumn leaves” can evoke feelings of loneliness and the coming of darkness (shorted days, longer nights) in winter. While many haiku appear to have a nature focus, they are more-specifically based on a seasonal reference that as much about nature as it is within nature.

4. Organize your thoughts into approximately three lines. First, set the scene, then suggest a feeling and, finally, make an observation or record an action.  Write in the present tense, don’t use figures of speech (similes, metaphors), and keep things simple.

5. Be sure to include a contrast or a comparison. Remember that haiku often present one idea in the first two lines and then switch quickly to something else in the third. One of your goals is to create a “leap” between the two parts of your haiku without making too obvious a connection between the parts or leaping to a distance that’s unclear or obscure. At the same time, you must reveal the emotions (not ideas) that you want to communicate without stating them overtly.

6. Try to think of haiku in terms of your five senses—things you experience directly, not ideas or your interpretation or analysis of “things.” Think in terms of sensory description and avoid subjective terms.

7. Spend time working on punctuation. In poems so brief, punctuation is important. Read some of the examples and see how other haiku poets make punctuation work for them in their haiku.


From the Japanese Masters

Winter seclusion –
Listening, that evening,
To the rain in the mountain.
— Issa

My life, –
How much more of it remains?
The night is brief.
— Shiki

Over the wintry
forest, winds howl in rage
with no leaves to blow.
— Soseki

No one travels
Along this way but I,
This autumn evening.
— Bashō

Contemporary Haiku from Frogpond (Journal of the Haiku Society of America)

And, by way of sharing, a few of my own:

migrating geese –
once there was so much
to say

       (1st Place Henderson Award, 1984,

between the moon
and the billboard,
a jet liner rising

       (42nd Street Art Project, displayed on the Rialto West Theater Marquee, NYC, 1994.)

a flurry of bats
and then
the Milky way

       (Haiku Quarterly, First Prize, Autumn 1989)

at the edge of the words,
we listen

      (From Castles and Dragons, 1990)

through darkness
churchbells on the cusp
of the hill

       (From Questi Momenti, 1990)

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Prompt #186 - Transport and Travel

I recently put together the video below, based on Nic Sebastian’s reading of my poem “The Trains”—a poem that goes back to a childhood time that, for me, continues to inform the present.

Thinking about trains “transported” me into thoughts about the different ways we travel (in our daily lives to and from work or school, to and from the grocery store, etc.), the ways in which we travel for recreation and education, and the metaphorical travels we take. “Travel,” more than just getting from one place to another, connects us to other people, to other cultures, and can engage us in the art of adventure.

For this prompt, let’s think about how we “travel” and write related poems.


1. Think about all the ways we get to where we want to go—actual modes of transportation: horses, cars, trucks, trains, subways, boats, planes, bicycles, mopeds, motorcycles, trams, baby carriages, elevators, hay wagons, monorails, wheelchairs, ziplines. Make a list of types of transport that you’ve used. Which of these conjure up especially memorable times. Select one to write about.

2. Today, we have various modes of transport that we, perhaps, take for granted. Imagine what life would be like without one or more of them.

3. How is “travel” a metaphor for a time, place, or experience in your life? Or, how is a particular form of transport a metaphor for something in your life?

4. What’s your favorite type of transportation?

5. What’s your best travel memory?

6. Is there a funny travel experience in your life?

7. Have you ever been in a situation in which you felt emotionally “transported” to another time or place?

8. Think about time travel (what it means to journey through imagination, a time machine, or a wormhole).

9. Consider this T. S. Eliot quotation, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Can you relate Eliot’s words to a travel or transportation experience in your life?

10. Think about this quote from Buddha: “It is better to travel well than to arrive.” What does this mean or suggest to you? Can you apply it to a personal experience?


1.  Don’t explain everything. Leave room for the reader to enter and be part of your poem.

2. Avoid clichés and the ordinary. Create images that are unique (and don’t be afraid to be different, take chances, experiment).

3. Because this poem is about travel, find ways to evoke a sense of movement in your poem. (Think in terms of language, form, and meter/sound—try to create a regular meter or metrical pattern for your poem.)

4. Use details sparingly—too many details can spoil an otherwise good poem. Don’t allow your poem to become cluttered with minutia. Too many details can make a poem feel claustrophobic.

5. Only include what’s essential. You know the old adage—if a poem only contains five good lines, then the poem should be five lines long.

6. Read your poem out loud and listen to how it sounds, then edit (tweak and refine).


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Prompt #185 – What You Don't Know (The Unexplained)

Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable.
— Albert Einstein

Our universe is filled with mysteries that neither history nor science can explain. From paranormal occurrences to UFO sightings, to mysterious creatures and places, there are both hoaxes and real phenomena that exist in the space between legend and reality. Many of these defy forensics and psychology and exist only in the shadowy archives of the unknown. What is it about the odd and unexplained that excites our curiosity and stirs our imaginations?

We’ve all read about or seen TV documentaries or fictional accounts of a Bigfoot or another moving into a dense forest, planes going down in the Bermuda Triangle, alien abductions on dark country roads, and the ghosts of British royalty lurking in dark castle halls (some without their heads).

Along with unusual phenomena of the mind, such as feelings of déjà vu, there’s something about the mysterious and the unexplained that invites us to explore—to be thrilled and frightened by— such subjects.

Psychology suggests that the mysterious and unexplained are uniquely linked to human experience. They are certainly linked to human entertainment.

This week, let’s create some special “entertainment” with a poem about something weird, odd, or unexplained.


1. Some subject ideas:

            Bermuda Triangle
Loch Ness Monster
            Jack the Ripper
Out-of-Body Experience
Ghosts (Poltergeists)
UFOs or Aliens
Crop Circles

2. Have you ever had an “unexplained experience,” something otherworldly? If so, write a poem about it.

3. Is there a particular unsolved mystery that interests you (Bigfoot, Shroud of Turin, ghosts)?

4. Consider writing from the point of view of an unexplained creature or mysterious person (Jack the Ripper, the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, a chupacabra, a ghost, an alien life form).

5. You might want to think about a spiritual or faith-based poem dealing with a subject such as the Shroud of Turin.


1. Create a feeling or tone that fits your subject.

2. Use language that suits your content and tone.

3. Work on a sense of the visual.

4. Think in terms of sonic impression—the music you make in your poem. Figure out how you can use sounds to enhance the “music” of your words (alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, off-rhyme, anaphora).

5. Pose a question that’s impossible to answer.

6. Can you move beyond the obvious subject of your poem and suggest a deeper meaning?

7. Try to create a concluding image that will startle your readers with its unexpectedness.


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Prompt #184 – Opulent Odes

I’d never written an intentional ode before learning that I was going to be honored with the 2014 Kean University Distinguished Alumni Award. Apart from being profoundly grateful for such an unexpected honor, I found the idea of making a ten-minute speech at the awards ceremony a little daunting. I knew from the get-go that instead of a traditional speech, I’d much prefer to write and read a poem for Kean U.

It didn’t occur to me until much after the poem was written that it is indeed an ode, not in any formal sense, but definitely in spirit. I began to research the form, having little prior interest in odes other than perhaps Keats’s “Ode to A Grecian Urn” (and that only because I like Keats).

An ode is generally defined as a poem in which someone or something is addressed in an elevated style or manner and written in rhymed or unrhymed form with varied or irregular meter.

Historically, odes were invented and popularized by the Greek poet Pindar. Originally accompanied by a chorus and dance, and then taken to heart by the Romantic poets to convey strong sentiments, there are three types of odes: Pindaric, Horatian, and Irregular.

Pindaric odes contain a formal opening (a strophe) with a complex metrical structure, followed by an antistrophe (which echoes the opening) and an epode (the closing section of a different length and composed with a different metrical structure). William Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” is a  good example of an English-language Pindaric ode.

Horatian odes are named for the Roman poet Horace and tend to be more tranquil and contemplative than Pindaric odes. Less formal, less solemn, and geared more to gentle reading than performance, Horatian odes typically use a regular, repeating stanza pattern. An excellent example of the Horatian Ode is Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead.”

Irregular odes have been written with a range of formal possibilities, sometimes recalling the themes and tones of Classical odes.  Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which I mentioned earlier, was based on the poet’s experiments with sonnet form. Other well-known odes include Percy Bysshe Shelley's “Ode to the West Wind,” Robert Creeley's “America,” and Robert Lowell's “Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.”

Of course, it’s not poetically incorrect to write an ode that’s not Pindaric, Horatian, or Irregular. You can make up your own form and simply write a poem that honors or praises someone or something in any way that you choose (see #6 under “guidelines”). So ... don't be frightened off by what may seem  lofty or ambitious. Have fun with this!


1. Generally, stanza length, meter, and rhyme are flexible in ode composition, which leaves you lots of room for experimentation and creativity.

2. The ode is traditionally a longish poetic form. Because you’re honoring someone or something, you’ll want to include a fair amount of description and/or detail. Think about writing your ode in four-line stanzas with a minimum of about five stanzas.

3. If you choose to write a Pindaric Ode, remember that this form of ode traditionally tends to be serious in tone and often has a historical perspective. Typically, Pindaric odes celebrated deities, important people, places, and events (rather than more commonplace people or things) in a tone that was somewhat distant or detached and something less than passionate.  Keep in mind that Pindaric Odes repeat a three-stanza pattern throughout the entire poem (a triad that consists of the strophe, antistrophe, and epode).

4. If you choose to write a Horatian Ode, remember that this form of ode doesn’t have a fixed stanza length, but each stanza in your ode should have the same number of lines (as few as two or three lines or as many as 20 or 30 lines). Every stanza in a Horatian Ode should be the same length—if there are four lines in your first stanza, then every other stanza should have four lines. Traditionally, Horatian Odes are personal but are somewhat reserved with emotions more muted than wildly fervent.

5. If you choose to write an Irregular Ode, be aware that this form of ode has no predetermined number of lines and, unlike other ode forms, each stanza within a single ode can contain a different number of lines (though they may be the same or similar if you wish). An Irregular Ode might consist of five three-line stanzas that are book-ended by two stanzas of five lines each.

6. And … I’ll add the “Freeform Ode” in which you praise or honor someone or something without any attention to format all: no set number of lines, no set number of stanzas (stichic format is fine too), no rhyme, and no prescribed meter. You’re free to be as distant or as passionate as you like!


1.  An ode should only be focused on a single topic, so choose wisely.

2. Think in terms of  person, object, place, idea, relationship, animal/pet, or a time in your life for your subject. Because an ode praises and honors its subject, be sure to choose a subject that will allow you to develop a strong emotional center.

3. Decide how long you want your ode to be, and be sure not to over-write it. Although odes  have been on the long side by tradition, that doesn’t mean yours has to be a long poem.

4. Decide on a stanza format that appeals to you (number of lines and number of stanzas). You may want to write for a while before making these determinations.

5. You may want to try a rhyme scheme for your ode—if you do, be sure to avoid the pitfall of  making meaning subordinate to rhyme.

6. Edit carefully and delete extraneous material, details, and overstated emotions.

7. Work toward a sense of elegance in both content and style.

8. Don’t be afraid to adopt a lighthearted approach, especially if you choose to write a Freeform Ode. You might enjoy writing an ode on an unexpected subject (i.e., a cockroach, a head cold, weeds in your garden, a person you dislike). Be sure to “play” with your idea through romantic language, linguistic frills and flourishes, and a convincing argument for praising your unexpected subject idea.


Saturday, May 3, 2014

Prompt #183 – "Love in the Animal Kingdom" by Guest Prompter Marie-Elizabeth Mali

We come back to our regular prompt schedule this weekend following a wonderful National Poetry Month. To all who visited, commented, and wrote or read poems, here’s a big THANK YOU! The poems and comments posted added so much to this annual celebration of poetry and sharing. 

Kudos and special thanks go to Risa Roberts and Basil Rouskas who both posted poems for just about every day of the month!

On this first Saturday of May, I’m happy to post a prompt from guest prompter Marie-Elizabeth Mali, the author of Steady, My Gaze (Tebot Bach, 2011) and co-editor with Annie Finch of the anthology, Villanelles (Everyman's Library Pocket Poets, 2012). Marie-Elizabeth graduated Summa Cum Laude from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego in 1998 with a Master of Traditional Oriental Medicine degree and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Oberlin College in 1989 with a B.A. in East Asian Studies. Before receiving her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in 2009, she practiced Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including Calyx, Poet Lore, and RATTLE, among others, and she has served as co-curator for the Page Meets Stage reading series from 2008-2012. She also co-curated louderARTS: the Reading Series from May 2008 through December 2011.

A distinguished poet, Marie-Elizabeth is also an amazing underwater photographer. To view some of her stunning underwater photographs, please click here.

From Marie-Elizabeth:

It’s no secret that love poems are tough to write. They too easily veer into cliché and sentimentality. But cliché and sentimentality happen when a poem is too general, when the poet reaches for stock phrases and common images to represent love, or when the poet relies on declarations of feeling instead of imagery. That said, the best love poems walk right up to the edge of sentimentality but don’t go over the cliff. Here are four ideas for ways to enter the tricky terrain of the love poem.

1. Choose an animal and research its mating rituals, parenting practices, feeding practices, etc. Write a poem about that animal as if it were someone you love.

Here’s a link to a sample poem by Aimee Nezhukumatathil: "Penguin Valentine." 

2. Another effective strategy to counteract the tendency toward sentimentality is the use of humor. Try writing about a funny moment you and your love shared, or didn’t share. Sometimes the humor is found in misunderstanding.

Here’s a link to a sample poem by Tony Hoagland (bonus: involves animals!): "Romantic Moment."

3. Write an anti-love poem or a poem that seems to celebrate love but leaves you wondering if it really did.

Here’s a link to a sample poem by Kim Addonizio:  "For You."

4. Write a poem celebrating the inevitability of the loss of the beloved.

Here’s a sample poem by Ellen Bass: "Ode to Repetition."


Thank you, Marie-Elizabeth!