What's with all the damn haiku?
I’d rather not treat you like some two-bit neanderthal who hasn’t heard of poetry. But for the sake of having something to write about please allow me to set the stage
Poetry is a linguistic vehicle for the succinct, deep expression of ideas. When done well, a poets get more bang for their buck than novelists or essayists combined.
A haiku is a style of poem that originated in Japan a few hundred years ago. The "rules" of traditional haiku are as such:
- must only consist of 17 syllables,
- must juxtapose two ideas,
- must highlight something from the natural world.
When haiku migrated to the western world those 17 syllables were broken up into three lines consisting of 5 syllables in the first, 7 syllables in the second, and 5 more in the last.
The education machine spat you out most likely devoted a few breaths to haiku. Remember that one afternoon back in your high school english class? It was during one of the fleeting moments between all the standardized test preparation. Your teacher had to fill at least one lesson with frivolous activities like haiku in order to support the facade of promoting multiculturalism in America. You and your classmates were relieved at how short a haiku was. 17 syllables?! What an easy assignment, dude!
Although, if you were a healthy young lad or lady, you probably don’t remember that day at all. Hormones had hijacked your attention and directed your focus to that achingly attractive classmate sitting across the room. A crowded, dispassionate education system is no match for adolescent biology.
For whatever reason, despite the eruption of hormones, something about haiku stuck with me. I enjoyed trying to fit big thoughts into such a small package. Haiku became a mental puzzle that I could use to entertain myself with during the tediousness of a day job without getting caught slacking off.
Birth of the ha!ku
Being a fundamentally immature attention-seeker, it wasn’t long before I connected humor with haiku. Humor is often the juxtaposition of two or more ideas that create discomfort. Laughter is often just the healthy, human reaction to a collision between expectation and reality.
For example: Well dressed man is walking confidently down the street. Man's foot finds a dirty, dripping, banana peel on the sidewalk. Man slips, falls wildly to the ground. His butt, his image, and his ego are injured. The audience relates empathically. Big laughs to relieve the tension. End scene.
Thus was born the “ha!ku”. No, that’s not a typo. Yes, you read that correctly. See how I flipped the very heart of the word, the lowercase “i”, on its head? See how it transformed into an exclamation point, creating the word “ha!”, an expression of laughter? Wasn’t that goddamn clever of me?
High Quality Toilet Poems
Over the last few months I’ve tasked myself to write 50 funny haiku for a collection entitled Ha!ku: A Heap of Humorous Haiku. Even though the poems in this collection are mostly just ridiculous, crude toilet jokes, I wanted them to be high quality toilet jokes.
What the hell is a high quality poem, you ask? I’m still working that puzzle out, but here’s what I’ve come up with so far.
I think most good poets seek to develop an awareness of these things:
Language. Poets use appropriate words. Not necessarily good words. More like: the right word for the job. When writing haiku, with its limited syllables, word choice is critical. Pro-tip: Thesauruses and rhyme dictionaries on the internet are modern day poets’ best friends.
Rhythm. Strings of words have their own melody. You know, like iambic pentameter. (you learned iambic pentameter in high school, but again, it was lost somewhere in adolescent hormones and dispassionate teachers and years grinded out in a working class that has no use for it). Good poetic rhythm, like good music, should be something the body moves to and feels.
Sound. Even if you’re the shyest of poets, with no intention of ever reading your poems aloud, there’s no way around it. The sound of words matters. A reader’s voice reads the words to themselves in their head. Soft vowels. Sharp consonants. Onomatopoeia. Alliteration. Rhyming. They all make words flow together better. The way words sound adds spice to the stew of words you’re asking someone else to eat.
Emotion. Language describes things. Describing a chair or a table, something in the tangible world, is not too hard. We’ve all seen chairs and tables. We have a common, agreed-upon vocabulary for such things. Emotions are as real as, and probably more common than, chairs or tables–but they’re intangible. It’s not clear, nor agreed upon by many, where one emotion ends and another begins, what prompts them, or what their ultimate significance is. Being able to describe something that no one can see but everyone knows, in a way that translates the meaning properly, is an important part of a good poem.
Perspective.The audience will have a different one than the poet. A common mistake for poets is to think their poem is easily understandable in meaning and in value. It rarely is. By positioning the poem’s perspective to a general place outside of themselves, within paradigms of common experience, a poet can write poems that appeal to a wider sliver of humanity.
What the hell makes my ha!ku so funny?
By whose authority is anything funny? Who knows. Poop helps. Just kidding. Ok, not kidding.
When writing the haiku for this collection I’ve stayed true to the basic rules of haiku. Okay, fine... I stretched the rules at times to create balance between comedy and poeticism. Go ahead, sue me. I’m pretty sure you’d lose. On second thought, please don’t sue me.
I tried to make common life experiences the central focus of each. Not just any common experience, but the most private, most uncomfortable, moments we’ve all shared. Many of them revolving around bodily functions. Who in 21st century America doesn’t find bodily functions uncomfortable? (and humorous?)
I tried to take a new approach to structure by framing some-but-not-all of them into three “acts”. I would use the first line as a set up, a frame of reference, a setting of the stage. The second line was often devoted to building tension, to foreshadowing the coming conflict between ideas, to striking the match. The third line was reserved for the pay-off, the punchline, the resolution. Here’s an example:
Line 1: The movement of a butterfly paints a whimsical, light mental picture. It implies a setting where a butterfly might be chased. Flowers. Sunshine.
Line 2: A soft and fanciful kitten adds a playful character to the sweet image painted in the preceding line. The last word indicates a slight disruption to the pattern.
Line 3: Here is where the poem reveals itself as a joke. Things take an unexpected turn. Discomfort rushes into the picture. The imagery of a kitten falling from a high cliff flips the lightness and sweetness of the preceding lines on their head. Heaviness, anxiety, permanence, DEATH are the punchline. HA!
While I used the three act structure a lot, I didn’t follow it for all the poems in Ha!ku: A Heap of Humorous Haiku. Some of them are throwbacks to common Buddhist sayings or perspectives. Some follow no structure at all.
The Post's Punchline
In any case, when we publish the collection in Jan 2018, I hope you buy the book. Once purchased, I hope you read all the poems. Once read, I hope you find at least a handful of them are humorous. If we get that far together, I’d be ever so grateful if you’d leave a glowing review online, and tell every single one of your friends about it. You could even tell complete strangers about it. You could get your favorite ha!ku tattooed on your buttcheek. I wouldn’t mind at all. I may even send you a signed copy. How’s that for “reader engagement”!?