Wednesday, March 20, 2013

In Praise of the Humble Haiku (The “Orange Juice” Theory of Poetry)

[Updated August, 2017]

Students in grades 7-9 often hate them, or at least don’t take them seriously. Many teachers seem to pass them off as mere intellectual conceits. Perhaps the idea of arbitrary constraints on personal expression seems unduly restrictive. I like to think of it instead as a challenge.

I teach my students the “orange juice” theory of poetry. What is that? So glad you asked. Consider the humble can of frozen orange juice concentrate. Imagine you take a can, let it thaw, pour a shot, and slam it. Mmmm… good right?

No, of course not. The stuff is pure, intense oranginess, compressed, concentrated, so that the barest minim contains an explosion of citrusy goodness, to the point that it’s almost overwhelming. You want juice? Add water; dilute it down, i.e. distribute the concentrated oranginess over a larger volume.

So consider the poem. Let’s set aside lengthy epics for now. Consider a basic lyric poem, a sonnet, elegy, ode – Neruda always gets me going; or a Frost joint about trees and such in blank verse, or some vintage Dickinson with her ballad stanzas, slant rhyme and iambic tetrameter; or some cool bit of free-form jazziness like Nash or cummings. Poems are like orange juice concentrate.


Take a short story, any short story. Let’s take (because this is my blog) “The Simplest Thing in the World” by Ayn Rand, which clocks in at almost exactly 5,000 words (5,004 if you include the title). Read it, digest it, consider all it has to offer. Place it in its various contexts – the time period and social, political and historical context in which it was written, its purpose and theme, the author’s background and formative experiences, her larger oeuvre. Look at its narrative style, its point-of-view: Who is the narrator? Is he reliable? What’s his story? Is he a cipher for something, a stand-in, a metaphor? Really dig beneath the surface. Whip out Bloom’s Taxonomy and really go to town. You know you want to.

Now write a really thoughtful analysis or response. I’ll bet that your elucidation, however pedantic and erudite, would still be far less than the 4,998 words of the story itself. Put another way, the essence of the piece (the concentrate) is expressible comfortably in shorter form than the piece itself (the juice). The published story is that concentrated essence, distributed over a larger volume.

But the opposite is true of most poems. Take Frost’s “Birches,” which, at 60 lines and 510 words (511 with the title) is about as long as most poems that schoolchildren are exposed to, and longer than most. Go through the same series of questions. Really get inside the poem. As C.S. Lewis says in the last of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, “the inside is bigger than the outside.” The words required (the juice) to even minimally elucidate all of the “writerly noticings” (curses to Dr. Kelly Chandler-Olcott at Syracuse University for ever introducing that term to me) far outnumber the meager 510 words that Frost uses (the concentrate) to communicate his message. The poem is the concentrated essence, stripped of unnecessary subplots, characters, wandering words, red herrings (the water); it is an intense dose of meaning, sensation, feeling, imagery, presence.

And no form of poetry, perhaps, achieves such supremely concentrated essence as the humble haiku. A really well written haiku can take seconds to read, but minutes, hours, days to wonder over. It is much harder than it looks, to write a good haiku. I’m not so sure mine are great, but I’ll present some of them anyway. Most of these were inspired by the annual Syracuse Poster Project Haiku Challenge, an event that fuses creativity with civic awareness, often with beautiful (and sometimes silly) results. Here follow some haiku I wrote, all inspired by the city of Syracuse.

In response to a news story about a criminal:
Predatory scum
Preying on the old and weak
Let there be a hell...
A random musing:
"Someday, I will glow
Just like you," said the porch light
To the bright full moon.
An homage to the dilapidated, Detroitesque streets of Syracuse, and the now-closed china factory that bears its name:
City streets, empty
Abandoned, like the china
With its once great name
In celebration of firefighters returning home from duty:
Narrow city streets
Widen, as if to welcome
Heroes coming home

City lights burn bright
The only fire left glowing
In the firemen's wake
On contemplation of a sunset as viewed through trees in a city park:
Standing here alone,
Whitman's 'Learn'd Astronomer'
Understood at last...

Trees, like people, need
To express themselves in song;
Shhh, let's listen in...

When day becomes night,
Where do red and yellow go?
Will they be back soon?
In contemplation of an ultra-modern building’s windowed façade:
Facets of jeweled glass,
A geometer's whimsy
An architect's soul

Glass palace, standing
Delicate, fragile, yet strong,
Rather like us all...

With my small squeegee,
I fear I may just have to
Be at this all day!

Heat is multiplied
By congeries of windows
We walk coolly by
On the Erie Canal:
Banks of the canal
Decked out in their Sunday best
Baptized by the waves

Punting on the Thames?
Strolling along la belle Seine?
Erie, in the Spring.
Of a young girl walking a dog:
Panting in the breeze
Racing down the shady lane
Who is walking whom?

My dog has four legs,
I have only two, that's why --
I run twice as hard!
At a jazz club:
Gin joint, spotlight hot
Waiting for the first downbeat
Calm before the storm

What's "vermouth?" he asked...
"Shhh..." she urged, impatiently,
"It's about to start..."
A girl, shoes cast aside, spinning in the fountains of a city park, amidst a gallery of statues:
Cinderella spins,
Wat'ry sentries stand in awe;
Her prince stands close by.

Without her shoes on
She can feel the city's heart
Beating through the ground.

Raven-haired beauty,
The city's concrete jungle,
Add water, then stir...


  1. Poetry is the concentrate of writing and haiku is the concentrate of poetry. I respect the haiku for its effective simplicity and yes, it is very difficult to do, but here's why I don't like "rules" when it comes to poetry.

    The following is not technically a haiku:

    Does the moon not realize
    how she tempts
    by seeming such a small thing?

    But when re-phrased to meet the criteria for a haiku, I believe it loses something:

    Does the moon not know
    how she tempts by seeming such
    a small thing to us?

    Plus the words "to us" are completely unnecessary, they are the water in the concentrate.
    I appreciate how difficult it can be to eloquently adhere to certain constraints and I love those poets who are brilliant at it, Dickinson, Frost, Longfellow, etc. but my true love is free-form poetry.
    e.e. cummmings is my hero!

    "in Just-
    spring when the world is mud-
    luscious the little
    lame balloonman

    whistles far and wee..."

    1. Hitting the "publish" button took out all extra spaces between certain words so it doesn't read here as cummings wrote it! Grrr!

    2. BTW: now you've got me trying to write haikus & I'm completely frustrated, thanks! *wink*

    3. The trick, the, for haiku, is to recognize the constraints and still produce something wonderful. It's not really any different than exercising the restraints religious or cultural existence to feel more in touch or in contact with something larger; think of it as a form of poetic Lent: you're giving up some structural freedom for a short period of time.

      That said, the modern American language haiku tends toward a lot more freedom, and the 5-7-5 pattern is routinely ignored by many published poets who call their pieces "haiku." So your original would be fine, anywhere except a 9th grade English class.

    4. But that seems like cheating to me, as you said the trick is to stay within the constraints & still write something beautiful.
      Oh & I must say, from your examples above, I LOVE "Cinderella spins..."!

  2. Try Window Poetry. Students write poems on class windows or school glass doors with a dry erase marker. Sometimes there are interesting results.