Short, sweet and weedy

24th March 2000 at 00:00
Bridget Jell explains how her plans forprimary poetry lessons withered

The dictionary says: haikuhikoo n.(pl. same) 1. a Japanese three-part poem of usu. 17 syllables. 2. an English imitation of this. (JAP.) There are several reasons to celebrate the haiku as a verse form to be explored in the primary classroom. Reason number one: children enjoy writing them. Of course they do - let's face it, how often do they have a legitimate excuse to write fewer than 15 words during the literacy hour and be applauded for it during the plenary? And to be honest, haiku day is probably the only time a piece of writing actually gets finished under the new regime.

That brings me to the second reason - literacy hour itself; neatly divided with 20 minutes' independent writing time allowed in which to produce 30-odd haikus for the literacy board in time for parents' evening next Tuesday.

Which of course provides reason number three - they make a pretty neat display of work, especially if word-processed and accompanied by colourful illustrations.

Reason number four: they're quick to type up, and when you've got a whole class of two-finger typists queuing for the Acorn in the corner with the not-so-nippy mouse and the dodgy printer, that's got to be a bonus.

And we mustn't forget that the haiku is endorsed by the national literacy strategy. It specifically rears its head in term three of Year 4, but there's no doubt it could be unearthed in Years 2, 3, 5 and 6 under the guise of poems from other cultures, poems based on observation and the senses, poems based on common themes and the all-embracing "poetic forms". (And the haiku must surely be the supply teacher's standby, a close runner-up to the old acrostic.) The haiku structure has its roots in comic verse but the haiku primary children are encouraged to emulate is Matsuo Basho's more serious verse, which presents aspects of nature. But - dare I raise the question - should we be attempting to wrestle the English language into the Japanse haiku form? Is it possible to squeeze the mighty oak into a bonsai dish or are we in danger of destroying the tree and shattering the container? I think perhaps so.

And what right does a student-teacher have to make such presumptions? Well, believing that we should never set tasks for children we haven't tried out ourselves, I had a go at writing a haiku myself.

The results were not impressive. In one and a half hours I produced five stunted scraps of haiku apologia. By my reckoning that's just about one haiku per independent writing session, and I'm a grown up who knows how to work in silence, can locate and use a dictionary, is able to find and sharpen a pencil and who should not be distracted by the cat washing herself, a devilishly interesting telephone bill or an intriguing coffee stain on my desk, which, from a sideways angle, looks a bit like Mussolini.

So, to analyse the process. Creating haikus is a difficult exercise. I spent most of my time counting syllables on my fingers (like the children), discarding interesting words simply because they didn't fit (like the children) and forgetting what I was attempting to write about in the first place (like the children). When I actually managed to compose my first five-syllable line I was tempted to repeat it for line three and just look for a sandwich filler. The resultant "One puny flower In a drought ridden desert One puny flower" is about as inspirational as the half-dead African violet wilting on the window sill.

The thought of redrafting once the criteria of the set number of syllables has been met just seems to lead to more dreary counting of syllables. My close encounter with this tortuous verse form has left me convinced it's time to stop wallpapering the classrooms with homespun haiku. As a poetic form it is worth including in the curriculum - but not too often. One set of 17 syllables per key stage two child should suffice.

Bridget Jell is a fourth-year BA(Ed) student at Exeter university

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