Haiku: The perfect form for erotic expression

By Ellery Littleton Ellery leads a number of programs at The Haven, including Writing up a Storm: Haiku in March 2011.

Poetry is my favourite form of writing. It took me a long time to figure this out. About 50 years, in fact. Although I wasn’t thinking about poetry as a kid, I was writing it sometimes, all unawares, and reading quite a bit of it in children’s literature. When I think about it, I see that I’ve been into it all my life. It became part of my “work,” then part of my identity.

I have found too, that the more I write poetry, the more I am searching for brevity of expression. I have come to prefer the haiku over the epic poem – or even something as long as a sonnet. I can’t really tell you why, but there is something immensely appealing to me about writing a short poem. A haiku, in fact. Three lines long. With twelve to seventeen syllables.

But what can you say in such a short space? People wonder. They are more used to something a good deal longer, like the stuff they read in school or at university. But I have discovered that you can say a lot in a short space, in a very brief poem, the kind we seldom got to read – or write – as young people. Consider the following erotic haiku:

please undo
just one more

See what I mean. Your memory and imagination took you right away to scenes laden with tantalizing possibilities. And you probably smiled when you read it. Not bad for six words. And the words are gentle, subtle, not explicit; they hint and suggest, which allows you to fill in the blanks, so to speak. In the tradition of the haiku, what is not said is important.

Alan Ginsburg said “writing haiku is like eating popcorn; once you get started, it’s hard to stop.” The comment sort of trivializes the process, but I agree with it. I have found that there is something delicious about writing haiku, which is like taking verbal snapshots of the human condition in a particularly concise, focused and enjoyable way.

Recently, I finished writing a book of erotic haiku, close to 200 poems, entitled Hummingbird Tattoo. None of them are more than four lines long; most of them are three. The longest has about 20 syllables; the shortest has six. I found that I was able to take a lot of snapshots of intimate moments in the lives of individuals through these poems.

I had been writing haiku for years, but started writing the erotic variety after I came across a number of them on haiku websites. I often found them clumsy and too explicit. I allowed myself to think, “I can do better than this.” I wanted to take the form and elevate it somehow, create something more contemplative and relational, rather than primarily sexual, and found that I preferred a more subtle approach. I think this is reflected in my poems. For example:

inevitably your hair
came undone …
now that we are apart
does it still?

As I was preparing to publish the book, I asked Jock McKeen of Haven fame, a published poet himself, if he would be kind enough to write a few words I could use in the introduction to the book. Jock understood what I was up to, and wrote some thoughtful words for me. For instance:

“In these haiku, the constraint of the words creates a remarkable intensity of experience. Life is sharply revealed in these moments. The spareness of the words invites a quick entry into the experience. Haiku uses sharp cuts to get to the meat of the matter. This can be in itself breathtaking. When the topic is eroticism, it is doubly breathtaking!

“The poems provide glimpses through a briefly-opened window into private spaces. The reader is personally, subtly engaged, as one who observes in secret becomes part of what is seen.”

I was invited recently by an established American publishing company that specializes in haiku to “manage” an on-line forum or blog, about erotic haiku. I was flattered by the offer, but turned it down. I don’t want to be associated exclusively with the erotic genre. I want to move on and write haiku about anything and everything; the form lends itself beautifully to writing about the myriad moments and experiences of a life lived with awareness.

If you are interested in writing haiku, and getting a brief but in-depth experience of the process, I will be offering a one-day haiku-writing workshop next March at The Haven. It’s easier and more fun than you think to write haiku, once you get the hang of it. Maybe we’ll see you there.

spring flowers
from the market …
couldn’t wait
for valentine’s

Victoria, Oct. 2010


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