Revisiting déjà-ku . . .

Several months ago, when I was beginning to test the waters by sending my haiku out to journals and contests, I noticed that I often would see a poem that bore a resemblance to another poem I’d read (or written) in content, phrasing and/or wording.  It bothered me, not just because I felt vulnerable about my own work being perceived as original but also because I suffered from the illusion that my work was undoubtedly the sole creation of my oh-so-very-unique and original mind.

When I contacted a friend who had been writing and studying haiku longer than I had, her thoughts on the matter were thoughtful and wise.  She helped me understand that–whether intentional or not–similarities are bound to happen when you’re writing three-line (or one-line) poems of 17 syllables or fewer, especially when those poems are written to a particular “prompt,” contain a traditional season word, and are constructed with a “fragment” followed by a “phrase.”

Add to that understanding the realization that all creative people are influenced, both consciously and subconsciously, by what they have read and studied as well as by a sort of general zeitgeist that permeates the world around us (trending news stories, global warming, issues of love, death, aging) and you have all the makings for a creative dilemma that, it seems to me, has no real resolution . . . except to recognize that there is no such thing as being an “original.”

Once I came to realize this, I began to accept my own and others’ limitations in the creativity department.  I no longer felt angst-ridden when I read a word or line some other poet had written (how dare they?!) that I too had written or thought–before they did, surely . . .  Instead, I began to appreciate the unique inter-connectivity three little lines can offer: a community of people who share similar dreams, fears, viewpoints, and, yes, often, similar vocabulary.  In short, I began to feel less “me-centered” and more a part of something universal.

I’m saddened, then, that one of my own recent poems has been misinterpreted.  I wrote my haiku “origami rose . . . ” after witnessing a particular incident: a young man (a student of mine) who participated in a group presentation on Japan was speaking about origami.  In the course of his talk, he produced an origami rose that he had spent two days creating as a gift for his soon-to-be bride.  When he told her he was going to take the rose for his “show and tell,” she objected, fearing that, as it passed from hand-to-hand around the class, it might be damaged, and that all the myriad folds he had created for her would come “undone.”  There was something so powerful and personal and poignant about his confession to us that my class and I were spellbound as he walked from person to person and table to table, holding the folded paper rose gingerly in his outstretched hands.

When the “roses” prompt came up for May’s Shiki kukai competition, I knew I would write about my student’s origami rose.  For me, it symbolized both the frailty of love and the explosive energy of youthful passion.  I also was, I admit, mesmerized by the delicacy of my student’s fingers as he passed the rose in front of me and his classmates, and more than a little nostalgic.  And that’s what I tried to convey.

Regardless of whether my poem succeeded or failed, I wrote it independently–based on my own personal experience.  That it struck some (myself included) as familiar after the fact I take as validation that all human experience is, to a great extent,  a shared experience.  And I’m grateful for that.

About Margaret Dornaus

I’m a writer and a teacher, as well as a haiku-doodler. I live in a beautiful woodland setting, surrounded by native oak forests, that inspires me to record haiku snapshots of luna moths and our resident roadrunner, and even an occasional black bear as it hightails it across the top of my road, my mongrel dog barking at its heels as I watch with wonder. My work as a travel writer has appeared in publications from The Dallas Morning News to the Robb Report. You can find examples of my travel writing–as well as excerpts from a travel memoir I’m working on–at my other WordPress site, Travelin’ On. What more than that do you need to know? Only that I started this blog with an eye toward collaboration. Got a haiku? Send it my way. . . . I’m all about new visions & voices. Best, Margaret
This entry was posted in Deja-ku, Haiku, Haiku-doodle, Origami, Rose and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Revisiting déjà-ku . . .

  1. Jim Sullivan says:


    I am sorry someone challenged you on this. If ever there was a straight and honest shooter/writer/person, it is you. I am sure this hit you deeply and you must have agonized over this posting.

    But there is a bright side. I loved your explanation of haiku with its limited syllables and the natural repetition of images. It makes so much sense. I too struggle with that sense of I need to write this first and only. Your sentence “In short, I began to feel less ‘me-centered’ and more a part of something universal” is something I will take to heart and remember.

    It is interesting that the same friend that helped you, I believe, has helped me with making commentaries objective and tied to the words and images. I have slowly learned that my commentaries are my own and not necessarily the authors’.

    Another bright spot was as I read your comment I began to think you were writing a haibun. The description of the orgami incident held my attention and I could feel the tension and emotion in the classroom. There is a haibun there.

    And one final benefit is that I can lapse back into my inactivity and not figure out your origami haiku. I was struggling with it and would never have imagined your aha moment. But that is haiku and the way this all works.


    • Thank you, Sully. I appreciate your comments and friendship. You are such a kind man . . . It has sort of taken the air out of my brag, but, perhaps, there’s a lesson in that. I’m sure there is. I like your idea of a haibun–perhaps I’ll come up with another haiku that better illustrates the story, who knows?

      All best, Margaret

  2. snowbirdpress says:

    Hi, Margaret, When these things are pointed out to us in ways that suggest more than accidental resemblances it can be quite embarrassing. When an editor changes a haiku though and you have no idea that the editor is copying another haiku, and you agree to it … believe me it is extremely embarrassing. It happened to me. Neither the editor nor I thought it was a copy of anything else. We were just trying to write a good haiku for the journal. It took me awhile to be comfortable with the fact that this could happen over and over too.

    Then I found a haiku written by a prominent haijin in an old journal that was practially identical to a haiku written in old Japan…by an even more prominent Japanese poet… and I realized this could happen at any time… it’s just part of the genre. I hope that whoever pointed it out to you was not accusatory in tone… that does nothing to further the creativity of haiku.

    • Wow, Merrill! What a story! That an editor changed your haiku . . . and then to discover its resemblance to another. But, you know, you’re right about the genre issue and how often that happens, unavoidably I think. But I think it raises a really good philosophical question for anyone who attempts the form . . . that is, given the brevity of haiku, there are bound to be overlaps in subject and wording, and that’s the point I was trying to make in my post. I see overlaps in haiku all the time; in fact, I found these two haiku in carving darkness:

      at the campfire
      another round
      of ringtones

      –Ben Moeller-Gaa

      campfire sparks
      someone outside the circle
      starts another song

      –Billie Wilson

      I already knew Billie’s poem, so when I read Ben’s it struck that chord of familiarity with me–but I would never suggest that his haiku was a replay of hers or that it was even an allusion to hers . . . or vice versa.

      As to the second example you gave, it might have been a deliberate allusion and example of honkadori–which is, I’m told, an accepted practice–especially among Japanese haijin. It’s something I’ve been reading a lot about lately, and I’m interested in learning more.

      Anyway, thank you, as always, for your kindness and generosity. I appreciate it . . . and you!

  3. …our output, as artists, is the culmination of all our life experience…I believe we can be unique in our output, but never truly original because all our new output is based on previous output we have witnessed throughout our short existence here…our thoughts although are truly our own…you relayed a beautiful thought and that thought was truly your own…Margaret you need to stand proud for your truly original thought composition…

    • Thank you, Chef. I agree–we are all products of our experience and the experience we encounter either directly or indirectly through others. I appreciate your kind words.

  4. For more on the phenomenon of deja-ku (a term I coined), please visit the following links:

    An Introduction to Deja-ku

    Some Thoughts on Deja-ku

    Selected Examples of Deja-ku

    Similarity happens in haiku. It affirms the commonality of our experience. Honkadori (which is essentially allusion) is just one aspect of deja-ku, which includes both good kinds (allusion, parody, homage, and sharing the same season word), and kinds that are not good (plagiarism, cryptomnesia, or an accidental sort of plagiarism, and excessive similarity). What’s tricky about some of these types of deja-ku is that people have varying ways to respond to them, emotionally and intellectually, and sometimes independently created poems are not celebrated the way they often can be. Excessive similarity is a very subjective line, but in theory there’s a point where I think one haiku is too much like another, without employing allusion, parody, or homage, and those are difficult to deal with (dealing with overt plagiarism, on the other hand, is easy — we know it’s wrong). Please note that deja-ku should not be considered a perjorative term (it includes both positive and negative sorts of haiku that bring to mind other poems), so writing a poem that brings to mind another is not necessarily a bad thing — in fact, it usually isn’t.


    • Thank you, Michael, for your thoughtful comments. I have read–and recommended–your articles on deja-ku very recently, and found them to very helpful with my understanding of the phenomenon. I still have so much to learn about the art of haiku, and I’m grateful to be able to continue to learn from practitioners like yourself . . . I’d like to learn more about honkadori, especially, if you have any recommendations. I know that Alan Pizzarelli is somewhat of a master at it . . . and I enjoy reading his work, but am unclear on a couple of points that you might help be better understand. I’ll e-mail you directly if that’s okay.

      All best, Margaret

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