Use a regular haiku writing practice to strengthen your poetic voice. Developing a strong poetic voice may be one the most challenging skills for a writer to do, simply because poetic voice is composed of so many elements. Poetic voice is often perceived as the authenticity of the poem, or the elements of the poem that make your poem sound like you. Poetic voice is what makes an Emily Dickinson poem sound different from an Audre Lorde poem, and poetic voice is what makes Ada Limon recognizably different from Frank O’Hara. As readers, we readily recognize our favorite poets’ voices, and when reading a whole collection of work we can hear, feel, and intuit the different ways tone, diction, syntax, theme, meter, and lyricism work together to create authentic, original voice. But knowing how to create that for ourselves in our own writing can be much harder.
When we are faced with too many choices in writing, it is easy for aspects of craft to get away from us; since voice is often a bit instinctual and sometimes nebulous, writing in short, controlled forms, with a focus on a single experience, can help a writer really concentrate on and learn about voice. Writing haiku, a form that requires us to pare down our writing and really pay attention to each element, can help sharpen those instincts and help us identify what elements of craft we are using to create voice.
Keep it simplified, and keep it focused
First and foremost, writing haiku can help you keep your writing simplified: as poems of three lines, and traditionally limited to just seventeen syllables, there is no room in a haiku for ornamental dross or rambling off-course. Haiku insists you keep only what is truly needed for the poem, and with its short, condensed form, careful attention to diction and language precision becomes both more necessary and easier to focus on. This careful attention to diction and language precision is part of what creates authentic voice; when you work on haiku with the goal of strengthening voice, make sure you pay careful attention to each phrase or line at a time. Focus on a single image, a handful of sounds, or the workings of a small group of syllables. By taking time to attend to these small parts that make up the haiku, you can hone in on your voice and notice how it emerges in your poem.
Stay rooted in experience
While traditional haiku consists of three lines, with five syllables, seven syllables, and five syllables for each line, the heart of haiku is based in focusing on the singular and the experiential; for the sake of strengthening voice, think of haiku as brief and controlled, but also describing a single, fleeting, lived moment. In haiku, the poet seeks to create an experiential moment for the reader, not merely a descriptive one, and this is another reason why the practice of writing haiku can help poets strengthen their poetic voice: experiential poetry, as opposed to descriptive poetry, requires the writer to stay in the moment experienced, instead of getting mired in thoughts about the experience. When we focus on how a moment is experienced—and what senses, thoughts, and beliefs create that experience—authentic voice is more readily available to us, rising to the surface of the poem, because we are not coloring over that voice with interpretations, reflections, or metacognition. For example, look at Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
In this brief poem, the reader experiences the visual elements of the poem in the moment; Pound is not talking about his ideas about the faces, nor is he reflecting on his feelings or any imagined thoughts from the crowd; the haiku is anchored in the visual and tactile sensation the image creates, not any metacognition about what’s happening in the poem. More than syllable counts or line counts, focusing on this concentrated, experiential nature of haiku can help writers tune in to their own voice.
Be more aware of breath
Haiku can also help strengthen voice because the demands of the form—short, syllabic, line breaks, with lots of white space on the page—require breath and pause. As writers, when we become more aware of breath, we also become more aware of voice. When form requires us to stop and use words with exacting precision, as haiku does, it encourages the poet to embody the breath of the poem, and use only the words and pacing that feel truly authentic and necessary. There is no space for cluttering bits of language, and the form requires you to stay attentive to what feels most natural and genuine. By being aware of your own personal relationship to breath, you can more easily feel and intuit the rhythms and cadences that are uniquely yours: those same rhythms and cadences are a crucial part of your poetic voice.
Notice how voice works in these examples
As you try haiku to strengthen your own voice, also check out these gorgeous haiku and notice how poetic voice operates in these examples. First, consider these ten examples of haiku from the masters. Next, check out these contemporary takes on haiku. Poet Fay Aoyagi shares a daily haiku, often in translation. Notice Etheridge Knight’s powerful voice in this series of haiku:
by Etheridge Knight
Eastern guard tower
glints in sunset; convicts rest
like lizards on rocks.
The piano man
is stingy, at 3 A.M.
his songs drop like plum.
Morning sun slants cell.
Drunks stagger like cripple flies
On jailhouse floor.
To write a blues song
is to regiment riots
and pluck gems from graves.
A bare pecan tree
slips a pencil shadow down
a moonlit snow slope.
The falling snow flakes
Cannot blunt the hard aches nor
Match the steel stillness.
Under moon shadows
A tall boy flashes knife and
Slices star bright ice.
In the August grass
Struck by the last rays of sun
The cracked teacup screams.
Making jazz swing in
Seventeen syllables AIN’T
No square poet’s job.
Next, notice how haiku principles shape the voice in Henri Cole’s poem, even though the poem itself is not a strict haiku:
by Henri Cole
After the sewage flowed into the sea
and took the oxygen away, the fishes fled,
but the jellies didn’t mind. They stayed
and ate up the food the fishes left behind.
I sat on the beach in my red pajamas
and listened to the sparkling foam,
like feelings being fustigated. Nearby,
a crayfish tugged on a string. In the distance,
a man waved. Unnatural cycles seemed to be
establishing themselves, without regard to our lives.
Deep inside, I could feel a needle skip:
Murmur of the saw.
After you’ve practiced strengthening your own voice through your haiku writing practice, through language precision and simplification, staying focused on the experiential in your writing, and paying attention to breath, you might be wondering what you can do with all your fresh, new haiku. Check out this post to find out where you can submit your brilliant haiku poems.