A correspondent offering prescription medications at very reasonable prices has left us a very good demonstration of a modern short poem. This is a little longer than the average haiku; perhaps we could call it a free-verse epigram.

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This is the sort of thing Alexander Pope would be writing if he were alive today.


The words “wintry mix”
promise sparkle and magic
but deliver mud.


Your eighth-grade English teacher.

Intellectual fashions are often enforced with a Stalinist zeal; and, just as in the days of Stalin, they are usually enforced by the very people least qualified to understand any intellectual pursuit. And just as in the days of Stalin, the intellectuals can make use of those low qualifications to their own advantage.

For example, it is a fact that many teachers in public schools will assign haiku as an exercise in some class (perhaps auto mechanics), and then rigidly enforce the new orthodoxy that English haiku must be formless, insisting that it cannot be written in the traditional 5-7-5 formula, or grades will suffer, detention will be assigned, and parents will be notified that little Albertus is a very bad boy.

Now, for most of the class, this simply makes the assignment easier. You don’t have to put any effort into counting syllables, which is a kind of math, and math is work. But what of the two or three natural poets in the class? A poet craves the challenge of form; form is what makes the poetic imagination soar. You might as well tell a bird that he can fly without those ridiculous wing contraptions as tell a poet she can sing without form.

Now, Dr. Boli loves to be of service to his young readers who are groaning under the oppression of the educational-industrial complex, so here is where we bring in the suggestion Dr. Boli made a few days ago: we invent our own form. For example, you decide, arbitrarily, that you will make a modern haiku in a 5-3-1 pattern. You have the challenge of a form, but you need never tell your teacher that you actually set a form for yourself. (In fact, you would not dare tell her, because you have heard that the reeducation camps in Siberia are very cold.) So you turn in your poem and win appropriate praise:

Form in poetry?
What a crock!

After all, you read that essay that explained why Japanese haiku usually expresses shorter thoughts than English 5-7-5 haiku. You are simply trying to get into the Japanese spirit of things with shorter lines. You could probably get away with several more poems in the same meter before your teacher started to notice something was up:

Dead bird in the street
makes me feel

Scent of gasoline
gets in my

Dandelion seed:
here now, then

But you would be even safer if you added more forms. For example, you could reverse the form you just made up and make a 1-3-5 haiku:

The trash cans
bang and wake my dog.

pours in and
makes me want to dust.

Or you could make a 4-4-4 haiku:

I sometimes think
I can say more
in fewer words.

Come up with two or three forms, mix them up, and your chance of being sent to the principal’s office for egregious formalism is practically nil.


Examine yourself:
Are there untapped emotions
burbling deep inside?

Have you felt something
churning down in your heart,
or in your stomach?

Have you been somewhere
that gave you a brief flash of
intense emotion?

Then sit down right now:
write seventeen syllables
on the DMV.


If, when you hear “haiku,” your instinctive response is “Gesundheit,” then this is not your month, because February is National Haiku Writing Month, according to the National Association of People Who Take It Upon Themselves to Declare Months for Things (NAPWTIUTDMT). But if you are a poet who admires the terse concentration of the haiku form, then this is your opportunity to write twenty-nine gems of evaporated description. The goal is to write one haiku for each day of the month.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, “A haiku a day? Oh, gosh, I don’t know whether I could keep that up.” And thereby you have already demonstrated that you have the innate talent to churn out haiku by the cartload:

A haiku a day?
Oh, gosh, I don’t know whether
I could keep that up.

See? You’re a poet, even though you weren’t aware of the fact at all. Or, as we must train ourselves to write such sentiments in order not to lose a single jewel that might drop from our pens:

See? You’re a poet,
even though you weren’t aware
of the fact at all.

Haiku is easer than it looks.

For that reason, Dr. Boli will hear no excuses for lazy evasions of the traditional 5-7-5 formula for haiku. (Here is an essay that attempts to explain why, because Japanese haiku actually has stricter rules than simply counting syllables, it means that English haiku should not have any rules at all; and the thing you will notice, dear readers, is how angry the idea of form in poetry makes the essayist.) It is true that modern creative-writing teachers encourage their pupils to ignore the number of syllables in a line and simply express their deepest, most heartfelt feelings in some small number of words divided arbitrarily into three lines. It is also true that most of those pupils fall into open manholes on the way home from school. And why? Because they have been taught a lack of attention to details as though it were a virtue. You, however, will not be seduced by the promise of easy poetry without effort. In your haiku, you will put in the work of counting to five or seven, and perhaps actually revising your lines, because you do not wish to find yourself in a storm sewer. Or, if you like better, you will come up with an alternative haiku form of your own devising, and then keep to that form, not persuading yourself that just any brief slovenly explosion of words constitutes a haiku.

So take up your pen and start writing. Then lay it down fifteen seconds later and admire the poem you have produced. This is not going to be a lot of work, and Dr. Boli will be writing haiku along with you all month to encourage you. Meanwhile, Dr. Boli will gladly print any hate mail from free-verse haikuists in this space.


With thanks to our alert Russian correspondent who left this comment, very appropriately, on our article “Yet More Surrealism from Type Specimens.”

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