While poems start in our own ideas, and are typically grounded in our personal experience, what makes a poem powerful is when it uses that intimacy of one’s own experience to reach out and connect with the human experience at large. I call this realization and connection the “aha” moment. Usually, this moment is not only a surprise to the reader, but the writer as well!
James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duff’s Farm in Pine Island” spends most of the poem in description, leading up to the last line: “I have wasted my life”. With us reading so much description for so long, this statement comes as a surprise—but not one that’s not earned. Another great example of using description to lead to a larger realization is Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station”. Through the description of a homey gas station, and the details that show how it’s carefully maintained, Bishop is able to say that “Somebody loves us all”.
A great form that embodies the idea of the “aha” moment is the Haiku. In high school, I took a course on writing haiku, and I’ve realized that the haiku approach has influenced all of my poem writing. The haiku uses the natural object to express large truths. Typically, the natural object is very small and mundane—easy to look over (e.g., a cricket, frog, leaf, flower). They begin with a description, subtly preparing for a turn. At the very end, this description proves to be a preparation to discover a larger truth—the “aha” moment.
I find that the poems I love and am haunted by have some sort of turn, or realization. The poet learns something. The reader learns something. The imagery in the poem is justified as being the building blocks to a larger discovery. Like in prose, where we want the character to be transformed in some sort of way, I would argue that the poem should encounter some sort of transformation. This is what engages a reader—a reader isn’t drawn to what stays the same, but what changes.
Poems don’t have to explicitly state a realization however. You’ve probably heard the old truism “show don’t tell”. Poets “show” in a variety of ways. Natalie Diaz uses surrealism to get at her most intimate material, and to reach some interesting aha moments. Shuntaro Tanikawa uses magic realism to create surprising discoveries—he takes a mundane concept like menstruation and transforms it through a metaphoric realization: that inside a woman, there is a festival. Lawson Fusao Inada’s Legend of the Magic Marbles uses the object of a marble to explore the relationship with his uncle, leading to the sudden realization of the uncle’s absence in the current time of life.
Prompt: Write at least three haiku. Feel free to write more! Also include a one paragraph response: what was it like, writing a haiku? Did you feel freed or limited by the small space? Did the haiku prompt a longer poem, or a series of haiku, or was it completely uninspiring to do?
Some Notes on Writing Haiku:
- Haiku have a sense of time through their heavy nature imagery.
- Haiku’s images are grounded in the physical, in the small, real moments.
- Syllable count is optional for this assignment.
- A typical structure of a haiku is that the first line is description, the second is description that prepares for a turn, and the third line embodies the “aha” moment. That is to say, the first two lines are “zoomed in” on a moment, and the third one “zooms out”.
- The realization should be relatable, but not necessarily abstract. Try to be clear and precise, avoiding abstractions like “strength” and “peace”.
- This three-line structure should create an emotional build-up in the narrative of the experience.
- Need inspiration for a haiku? Try taking a poetry walk at a local park, or in your yard.
Meg Eden’s work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, Eleven Eleven, and Rock & Sling. Her work received second place in the 2014 Ian MacMillan Fiction contest. Her collections include Your Son (The Florence Kahn Memorial Award), Rotary Phones and Facebook (Dancing Girl Press) and The Girl Who Came Back (Red Bird Chapbooks). She teaches at the University of Maryland. Check out her work at megedenbooks.com.