Haiku and Fitting Surprise

8 07 2010

In a recent post, I cite a terrific paragraph from Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite.  That paragraph, titled “Surprisingly Apt,” reads:

“Ultimately, the devices of surprise may set up the pins, but they don’t guarantee the strike.  The essence of surprise is in its timing and execution: fast, graceful, and apt.  Aptness is paramount.  The best surprise of all may be how precisely an unexpected word or image pops a message.  Unexpected is easy; unexpectedly perfect helps separate writers from hacks.”

As I note in that post, what I like so much about this paragraph is that it jibes with a quality of writing that I’m very taken by: a quality I call “fitting surprise,” that moment in writing when something occurs that is both unexpected and yet truly apt.  “Fitting surprise” is not a kind of turn, but rather a quality of turn I value highly.

For those (potentially) interested in this quality of turn, I thought I’d highlight an essay I wrote a few years back that offers my clearest statement about what I think fitting surprise is: “Writing Degree ∞ (on Recent Haiku).”

While generally a review of some recent haiku, “Writing Degree ∞” also offers some history of the concept of fitting surprise (for example, how it is discussed by artists, writers, and critics such as Lee Gurga, Rene Magritte, Pierre Reverdy, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Margaret Atwood, Antonya Nelson, and Randall Jarrell) and employs the concept critically, showing how the application of the concept actually can make a difference in how one thinks about, in this instance, haiku.  (I suggest that the more structural quality of fitting surprise should trump formal considerations when trying to determine what are successful (or: awesome, astounding, wonderful…) haiku–haiku form (three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively) offers very little in terms of how to judge the success of a haiku (anyone can write a 5-7-5 haiku!) whereas the mysterious, difficult, and amazing quality of fitting surprise offers a worthy criterion: if one detects the presence of fitting surprise in a haiku, that haiku is doing something powerful, something singular.)

Please note that while I hope all of “Writing Degree ∞” is worth paying attention to, the essay’s turn to discussing fitting surprise and its role in the evaluation of haiku begins with the final paragraph on p. 150.

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3 responses

25 07 2010
Matt Katch

I think part of what makes haiku so singularly powerful is the level of restrictions it places upon the writer. We typically think of the syllable constraints, but there are also requirements regarding the inclusion of a seasonal keyword (there are a lot of these, though even most Japanese people don’t know them, you sort of figure them out in context), along with other restrictive requirements. True, good haiku do have a succinct surprise worked in, but I would suggest we not too quickly overlook the value of the sense of wonder that some more nature-based haiku tend to inspire. It’s not all about the KO left hook, but also the body blows that leave you breathless.

It’s worth noting that the overwhelmingly famous haiku poet Basho actually broke these rules regularly, and was still famous and loved in his time regardless of his James Dean-like rebelliousness.

@Mike so you went w/ the symbolic 無 which is basically the prefix “non-” as opposed to the actual 俳句 haiku kanji? yeah, I knew there was a reason I liked you

28 07 2010
Mike Theune

Hi, Matt! Great to hear from you–thanks for the comment! Agreed: restrictions certainly can be productive for writing haiku. Agreed, as well: the haiku tradition offers many such restrictions. However, I’d reiterate: all of those requirements (often*) don’t mean much if there isn’t some element of surprise in the haiku. That surprise may be a KO left hook, or it may be a body blow, but it’s gotta be there.

*Of course, some poems may succeed without such surprise (though I’d need to see some examples) just as many free verse poems survive without strict form. My claim is not that haiku without surprise by necessity do not succeed but rather that those haiku that do have fitting surprise tend to be pretty amazing, and therefore we should focus on fitting surprise (and not, say, the strict 5-7-5 syllable count) much more as the vital, central element of haiku…and perhaps even poetry more generally.

21 04 2012
Surprised by Syntax: Stanley Fish on the Sentence’s Turns « Structure & Surprise

[…] kind of surprise one is bound to discover in high-quality fiction, and the writing on the turn in haiku and in two-line poems, two poetic forms that often are accomplished in the space of a single […]

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