Haiku Suspense

Surprise and suspense all in one haiku?

Thrills and chills and spills in seventeen syllables?

All that in three lines? What am I talking about? A haiku is poetry, not genre fiction. It has higher aspirations.

Actually, surprise and suspense are elements of all writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, genre or mainstream. It’s not all the big special effects blowing up as many large objects (usually buildings) in the last ten minutes of a summer blockbuster. It’s all the little questions that keep a reader interested enough to get to the end for the pay-off that validates the journey.

Because of its brevity, a haiku is set up (suspense question: so far so good, but where is it going) and twist (oh, yes: right). The twist is haiku is often an implicit or explicit Zen-like observation, but it can kicker or even a gag line. It completes the haiku, providing closure, even if that closure is a sense of the sublime.

Let’s take two old friends out of classical haiku: the frog and the old pond. Tradition has it that such ponds are part of overgrown, neglected gardens. The water is still, perhaps coated in places with green fungus. And the frog itself hasn’t been a tadpole in quite a while.

Basho, of course, ended it with a ker-splash, surprising the reader as well as the traveler/observer/narrator of his haiku and other verse.

A contemporary poet (whose name alas I have forgotten) took a different approach. Here the narrator notes the frog and the pond. But here the frog is “waiting for Basho”.

Admittedly that’s a haiku as a stand-up comic’s one-liner. And it relies on knowledge of Basho’s verse for the effect. But it does illustrate the concept of set up and pay off. Same set up; different pay off. My frog neither dives nor waits: the frog leaps out of the way of a motorcycle; lands on the helmet face shield; and both go ker-splash. What might other frogs do?

Still water, croaking frog
Strong sun, dense shadow
Rider rests from the road


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