While giving a workshop on haiku to teachers in Richmond on a recent Saturday afternoon, one of the teachers asked how to evaluate whether a haiku is “good” or not. My answer – that haiku, like all poetry, is intuitive and touches you in inexplicable ways – failed to satisfy the desire for some objective criteria. I had written a long list of common elements of haiku on the board and emphasized that those were to be used as tools – not as strict rules – for writing haiku. The problem in evaluating haiku is that some poems that meet all of the objective criteria for “good” haiku might still fall flat, while some of the very best haiku might lack some of the key criteria on the list. So, what makes a good haiku? Who can judge the quality of a poem?
One teacher suggested that if a student’s poem fails to get a positive reaction from the rest of the students in a particular classroom, then it is not a good poem regardless of how much the student who wrote the poem likes his own work. Aaagh. No! Wait! I may not be able to give a satisfyingly clear answer to the first question of what makes a “good” haiku, but on this point I am adamant; if a student likes his own haiku, that is a successful poem. A poet writes first to please himself; whether the poem touches other people in a profound way is secondary – it is wonderful, of course, but still secondary to the initial joy of satisfying your own need to write.
This past week I read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, in which he offers the following advice to an aspiring poet:
You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not now do. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself.
Rilke goes on in this series of letters to advise the young poet to trust himself, to write of common everyday things from his own life experience, and to read great literature. It is natural to want to rate our work, to see how our own efforts stack up in comparison to the poems of our classmates or of the whole literary world. Rilke’s advice is right on, though, and a good reminder not only to teachers and students, but to all writers. Trust yourself. Don’t let anyone else – critics, editors, classmates – dampen the pleasure you take in creating your poems.