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  • Genine Babakian

Don't Take Away My Bad Poetry

I’m not sure when the addiction took hold, but I knew I had a problem the moment I realized that I was taking snippets of overheard conversations and reshaping them into 5/7/5 syllable formations. Like this one, composed one summer evening while I was walking behind a couple along 8th Avenue:

The only problem

with Marty’s birthday party

is it’s in Jersey

I’ve got a thing for haiku. And by that, I do not mean that I have a skill…just an obsession. I can’t get through the day without one. In fact, I usually crave a haiku fix in the morning, along with my daily cup of coffee. Which might explain why I have written so many java-themed haiku, such as this one, inspired by Rwandan coffee beans:

A little bitter

but an aroma ripe with

wakeful industry

Wakeful industry? Like that’s a thing. As I’ve said. I don’t claim to write a good haiku. In fact, I know little about the Japanese art form, other than the three-lined structure with two lines of five syllables sandwiching the middle line of seven. This and the fact that it is usually the first poetry unit taught in elementary school. If you can count to 17, you can master this form of Japanese poetry. Right?

Well, perhaps that’s an oversimplification.

First of all, let’s get this on record: The plural of haiku is haiku. There may be plenty of people adding an “s” to the end of the word (like me, until about five minutes ago). But according to reliable sources, haiku is both singular and plural. Jason McBride, dedicated to the art form, even wrote a haiku about it in his weirdpoetry blog:

Here I make my stand

on this hill, I will perish

Haiku is plural

And then there’s the 5/7/5 rule – the one that I’ve been clinging to since I wrote my first poem in the 3rd grade. In Lou Freshwater’s “The Art of Haiku,” she takes aim at the 5/7/5 syllable rule, backed by the argument that the art form originated in the Japanese language, which does not have equivalent syllables to English. Rather, the 5/7/5, many insist, is more like a guideline.

“In English, it's better to use no more words than you need to use,” writes Barbara O'Brien in The Zen Art of Haiku. “If you find yourself adding an adjective here and there to make the syllable count work, that's not good haiku writing.” This reminds me of what my grandmother used to say when you asked how much of a particular ingredient to include in a recipe. “Until it is enough,” she would say.

With all due respect to the masters – and my grandmother – I’m sticking to the 5/7/5 pattern. The act of tapping out syllables against my leg is almost like a personal tic. Besides, for me haiku writing is not in the pursuit of art, but a form of communication. A good morning haiku to my daughter studying abroad. A “your shift’s over soon” haiku to my son at his boring job. A “please make your Cole slaw,” haiku to a friend asking what she can bring to a barbecue.

But even if I am too literal about the syllable structure, I’d like to believe I capture a sliver of the haiku spirit. I refer back to Lou Freshwater, who writes:

“Haiku should be written using concrete images without poetic flourishes and overly-descriptive words.”

Check. I’ve composed haiku about dirty dishes, pumping gas, polishing off the last glass of wine. What could be more concrete than that? The last glass of wine / if only I had one more / I could fly away.

“It can teach patience in a society moving faster each day.”

Check. Try it! There’s nothing like tapping out a haiku while you are in line at the supermarket to slow down time and instill a sense of calm.

“Every day is full of haiku moments; the only question is whether we are able to slow down long enough to catch them before they vanish.”

I could not agree more! There are limitless haiku moments in a day… or night. Like the time I drafted a haiku to my husband at 3am, when his restlessness was keeping me awake. I’ve got haiku about colonoscopy prep and the unconditional love of dogs. About gender disparities and perfect apricot tarts.

I write haiku for special occasions. Like this 20th anniversary one:

Marriage is a road

with smooth parts and lots of bumps

you’re a good driver

And for unfortunate incidents:

Flood in the basement?

I’m too terrified to look

such relentless rain

The point is, there is a haiku for every moment. Sometimes elusive, other times like low-hanging fruit. As Matsuo Basho, the 17th century haiku master wrote: "When composing a verse let there not be a hair's breadth separating your mind from what you write; composition of a poem must be done in an instant, like a woodcutter felling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping at a dangerous enemy."

Or, if I may put Basho’s words into a more contemporary context, a haiku is like:

A mom at the beach

lathering kids with sunscreen

before they all burn

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