Haiku and its Relationship to Space

by Tracy Koretsky

I used to sing jazz professionally, and, because I’m known to enjoy an expressive risk now and then, worked up a little arrangement for one of my tunes calling for an unresolved final chord. It drove the accompanists nuts. Half of them resolved the chord anyway, despite my red circles and double underlines instructing them not to. Most lectured me in rehearsal believing, as accompanists frequently do, that because I’m a singer, I don’t understand theory. One bohemian cat “dug” it, though he shook his head. But my favourite accompanist actually begged. “Just let me resolve it,” he pleaded, his hand hovering above the keys. “Look, I’ll just play one little note.”

So I asked him why. What was it about breaking this rule that was so hard to do, so objectionable, so “whoa, out there”?

“It’s because it breaks my heart,” he said. “It’s just so lonely.”

Precisely. That is exactly the effect the unresolved tanka that is haiku has upon the Japanophone’s ear. This trailing off, this ellipses leading to nothing, effectively imbues haiku with its predominate tonal mode: the untranslatable quality known as sabi. Inadequately understood, sabi is the sadness of aloneness, or perhaps better phrased as the more Zen concept of the solitariness of no-mind.

Notice how space functions to convey this quality in this haiku by Bashö:

           first snow
          on the half finished bridge

The bridge, the only mode of connection between people of the day, is not only unfinished, but, because of the snow, will remain so for the long winter ahead. The image confirms an unbroken emptiness of space and time lying ahead.

Former American poet laureate Robert Hass writes of Matsuo Munefusa Bashö 1 (1644-1694) that “it would appear that the world contrived to serve him with a lesson in non-attachment every decade or so”.  He is referring first to Bashö’s father’s death, then to his beloved master’s, and finally to destruction of his house due to fire. These life lessons, combined with Bashö’s dedication to Chinese poets and Zen meditation, characterise the form to this day.

Emptiness is a characteristic common to the Zen-influenced arts. Consider for example, ikebana, Japanese flower arranging, with its paradoxical qualities of sumptuousness and austerity. Barbara Joyce, a well-known practitioner of the Sogetsu School, instructs her students to consider the unfilled space equally to the physical material. In truth, the unfilled space is actually the compositional focus of ikebana.

Does this not go to the heart of the following haiku by Anita Virgil? 2

the black spaces:
as much star
as star!

Eckhart Tolle, possibly the most influential contemporary populariser of Zen concepts, puts it this way: “You contact the all not only from within, but also in the silence between sounds and in the space between objects.”3 That probably explains why William J. Higginson, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Japanese haiku in English, had the insight to title a piece constructed of linked haiku, Interstices.

Take a look at this piece by Virginia Brady Young: 4

on the first day of spring
snow falling
from one bough to another

Young focuses our gaze. Instead of the large vista, we are asked to envision a space delineated by two boughs. The fact that snow falls from one to the other is an apt summation of the first day of spring – a proof of its coming. It is not uncommon for haiku to be constructed from this sort of equation.

Notice too, how the lines are broken in such a way that the middle line might either be read as completing the first phrase or beginning the second. Snow falling on the first day of spring is a disappointing event, but then we learn that what she really means is that it falling away from the trees. The last line functions similarly to the punchline of a joke.

While focusing on the space between things does create balance, as in ikebana, and contribute to the sort of spiritual stillness referred to by Tolle, perhaps of greater importance to poets, it has enormous expressive value. Consider this haiku by Marco Fraticelli:

between each wave
my children

Now, not all haiku are Zen – quite the contrary. In fact, as Hirosaki Sato wrote in One Hundred Frogs:5 “Haiku artists have … (always) … had less grandiose intentions than enlightenment. Haiku have been written to congratulate, to praise, to describe, to express gratitude, wit, cleverness, disappointment, resentment, or what have you, but rarely to convey enlightenment.”

Not all haiku are Zen, but Fraticelli’s “between each wave” is. It speaks of transience, the ephemera of existence, our contingency with nature. Each “space” in this haiku, that is, the cresting of each wave, contains consequence; each space is fraught with fear and anxiety – of breath held. And yet it is a poem of trust as the author allows his children to remain in the ocean, letting them go and allowing them to be free entities.

Space Vs. Place

But wait, if the subject is the area bounded by borders, be they physical or temporal, is that “space”? Because I am not Bashö’s buddy with their unlimited associative minds, but rather the daughter of Aristotle, I found it essential to know this. How is “space” different from “place”? Actually, this distinction is more than semantic sophistry. After all, to discuss the use of place in haiku is hardly an assignment worth doing. Haiku is the quintessential poem of place, one of its most common attributes if not, arguably, a defining characteristic, being the kigo, or seasonal word, which functions as a sort of dateline, specifying the particular time and location.

The question therefore becomes, how does one manipulate the quintessential poetry of place to encompass “space”? How can the three-dimensional field of everyday life be extended in a form prized for its brevity?

One way, to borrow a term often applied to the paintings of Edgar Degas, is to “break the frame”. He was the first painter, at least in the Western tradition, to “crop” in ways that implied extension or continuation beyond the composition. For example, by depicting only the thigh and forearm of one of his famous dancers, Degas left the viewer to complete the partial limbs mentally. This is, in a sense what the second of the great classical masters, Yosa Buson (1716-1783) is doing in this haiku:

field of bright mustard,
           the moon in the east –
the sun in the west

Buson was a man of a very different disposition than Bashö. Many scholars enjoy polarising them, even calling them “the two pillars of haiku”. Bashö, the mystic seeker, versus Buson, the worldly artist. Gentle, wise, Bashö versus brilliant, complex, Buson. Although in general such devices are false and derisive, of more use to scholars than to the service of biography, if one’s goal is to understand haiku as opposed to biographies, the conceit can be useful. It yokes the aspects of haiku that are concerned with heightening consciousness with those concerned with artful description.

Notice that in Buson’s haiku above there is just pure description, and sparse description at that. Not only must the continuation of the mustard field be supplied by the reader, so too must the emotional content, the sense of awe, or perhaps humility, the poem instils. By the way, take care not to read meaning into the moon coming before the sun. The haiku has been translated both ways.

In this haibun by Penny Harter,6 the subject is most definitely a specific place. Yet it draws its emotional content from the concept of space.

During the summer of 1987 my husband and I were fortunate enough to spend the night in a pilgrims’ dormitory on Mount Haguro in Yamagata Prefecture, Japan. When I entered the room, its entire far end open to the sky, I quickly crossed the space to the edge of the tatami-matted floor and opened my arms:

fingertip to fingertip
and still more sky –
Mount Haguro

Harter has made several admirable choices of diction here. As is true with all poetry, this can be an essential key to appreciating a piece. Unlike the piece from Buson, Harter’s haiku is not framed by the sky, but by her own reference. To convey this she has not chosen “hand to hand” or even “arms open wide”, but “fingertip to fingertip”, as much as a mere human can physically encompass. And not only is there “more”, there is “still more”.

Notice too the inclusion of the word “fortunate” in her prose. This contributes to the sense of wonder and delight. Moreover, it is an expression of humility frequently invoked in haiku. Harter has captured the moment truly and naturally. Specifically, she has captured its spontaneity. Spontaneity, for which there is no apt synonym, is another element – if not the subject – of some of the best haiku.

When the technique of “breaking the frame” is applied not to the strictly visual, as was the case in these two examples, but to the conceptual, the reader is led towards something further. Here is a piece by George Swede, a professor of psychology, in which the “border” is broken literally and figuratively:

passport check:
my shadow waits
across the border

At first glance the poem appears somewhat humorous, a sort of glib visual notation, but a second glance is merited. The word “shadow” is laden with connotations that move this poem into the Swede’s particular realm – the psychological. Because there is always something inherently uneasy about having one’s identification checked, just as there is about moving beyond one’s own known and safe borders, there is something eerie about the shadow taking the lead here; it is as if one moves inexorably beyond oneself.

Another method of breaking the conceptual frame is to point towards the future. Buson did this when he wrote dozens of haiku beginning with the kigo “the short night”, which is to say, the short summer night. He always chose the early morning as his subject, looking forward towards what would come next. The luminous clarity of these haiku sometimes remind of paintings by Edward Hopper:

    the short night –
on the outskirts of the village
    a small shop opening

Nicholas Virgilio, an early pioneer in exploiting the emotionally expressive capacities of haiku, especially in his famous series dedicated to a beloved brother lost in Vietnam, provides a strong example:

adding father’s name
      to the family tombstone
           with room for my own

By striking two notes simultaneously – his father’s death and his own impending one – Virgilio creates a minor chord. Note how he has chosen to layout the piece, with each line taking subsequent steps to the right, inevitably marching on.

Every Yin has a Yang

As effective as haiku can be at expanding beyond itself, it is equally as effective at the opposite. Just repeat this one-line haiku of Cor van den Heuvel’s aloud twice, as is the traditional custom with haiku:

raining at every window

and see if you do not instantly feel more circumscribed. This is a very universal notation, so much so, that van den Heuvel recognises he need not provide any further information for us to rush immediately to our own private and very accessible association. Articulating a transferable association – capturing a moment and sharing it – may actually be the primary goal of haiku.

Observe this piece by Betty Drevniok:

snow at dusk:
our pot of tea
slowly  darker

In her first line she employs not one but two images that suggest a quieting, a shutting down. It is a bit reminiscent of Bashö’s piece about the unfinished bridge. With the two elements – snowfall and nightfall – amplifying one another, it is clear to the reader that no one is going anywhere soon. A simple, homey, pot of tea – a substance that requires time and enclosure to come into being – provides an oasis of warmth. Note too how Drevniok has spaced her final line, leaving room, taking time, moving onward toward ultimate darkness.

Another effective method to achieve spatial reduction is to scrutinise the minute. If Buson’s “Field of bright mustard” may be thought of as shot through a wide-angle lens, then certainly he has attached his telephoto to create this one:

      white dew –
one drop
      on each thorn

Here is another one-liner from Cor van den Heuvel:

the shadow in the folded napkin

To bring to consciousness this humble element, this play of light that the less-present mind would almost surely overlook, is a characteristic of the artistic tradition of Zen, and is often attempted in haiku. Bringing our attention to this “negative space” as the visual artists would say, quiets us and allows us a brief pause.

For similar reasons, one can find a great many haiku exploring silence. (Oddly, there are almost no haiku about noise, that is, obnoxious, distracting noise, despite the fact that it is so much part of the fabric of contemporary urban existence. Perhaps it is fertile soil for poets interested in breaking new ground.) Here, in this haiku by Lorraine Ellis Harr, silence is used as a device to evoke distance:

after the snowfall . . .  
    deep in the pine forest
          the sound of an axe

Another technique often found in haiku is the yoking of two disparate elements, perhaps something enormous to something miniscule, or something spiritual to something mundane, for each to reflect upon the other. This is another Zen-influenced expressive technique because it emphasises the interconnectedness of all things and elevates the ordinary.

Take a look at this haiku by Gary Hotham:

distant thunder –
the dog’s toenails click
against the linoleum

Far is contrasted to near. Both images – thunder and a dog’s toenails – come to us from nature, but one is the huge, impersonal nature to which we are subject, and the other is our darling companion animal. Like Ellis Harr, Hotham is using sound to express distance. The intimate sound of the near-by dog is a comfort as the storm approaches.

Here is a poem by Elizabeth Searle Lamb in which far and near are played against each other by depicting them as mere illusion:

the far shore
drifting out of the mist
to meet us

“Space” is actually the subject of this haiku, and – like many poems by Emily Dickinson – it wonders at the disjunction between our perception and reality. The sense of the knowable, the trustable, is here undermined by nature.

Whereas in this haiku by Clement Hoyt:

down from the bridge rail,
     floating from under the bridge,
          strangers exchange stares

space is contained, at least “bounded” by the passing glance of two strangers. One looks down from the bridge, one looks up to the bridge, an imaginary line is created, and as swiftly as the next play in renga, dissolved, as the boat floats beneath the bridge.

In both poems, something is present and by the time you’ve observed it, present no longer. The manipulation of space allows these authors to pull off conceptual disappearing acts.

Haiku and White Space 

Like the codified kigo of traditional Japanese haiku, the liniation of text does not culturally translate. Japanese is, after all, written vertically and Japanese haiku are generally expressed in a single column of symbols that can be apprehended instantly together, as with an illustration. Early English-language translators broke the lines into onji, or sound symbols, which led to our presumption of the three-line form. Like kigo, Western haiku poets have questioned this presumption and created a variety of solutions.

A poem from the third of the triumvirate of classical masters, Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) demonstrates the point:

               the snow is melting
and the village is flooded
                with children

At this time, Issa is beloved above all other haiku masters in Japan, and it is perhaps for this reason, that his biography and the interpretation of his work are sentimentalised. In general, Issa is characterised as a country bumpkin with a terribly sad life. Unlike Bashö, schooled in a noble’s home, or urbane, cultivated Buson, Issa was a bumpkin. At least he was born in a small mountain village and lived a life of real – not affected – poverty. But at closer look, Issa can only be thought of as a true country mouse if forced into a comparison with Bashö and Buson. Viewed independently, one sees a boy who was shipped off to the city at the age of 14 and spent his life in travel, much of it in cities.

Notice how the poem sets up its first two ominous lines and then cuts, like a punchline, to its resolution. In Japanese, Issa would have had a variety – nearly 50 – ways to punctuate the end of the lines to build toward the joke, then to let us know it was time to relax and smile. Western poets, on the other hand, have about four end punctuations from which to choose. There is the dash, the ellipses, the comma, the colon. As we have seen in Virginia Brady Young’s “On the first day of spring”, line breaks are often used to effect associations between images or, as in the break between the second and third lines of Ellis Harr’s “After the snowfall”, to create a pause.

We have also noted how Betty Drevniok has spaced her third line to slow it and convey a certain inexorable quality. Nicholas Virgilio achieves a similar effect by indenting each line just a bit more deeply than the previous one. Clement Hoyt uses the same technique to suggest motion. Finally, there have been two examples of fine one-line haiku by Cor van den Heuvel – perhaps attempts to capture some of instant apprehension available in the Japanese form.

Cor van den Heuvel has, quite famously, pushed this envelope. He once reduced the form to its essence with his “tundra” haiku in which the single, uncapitalised word was centred on an otherwise large blank sheet. The “internal comparison” in this case is between the concept and the page.

Marlene Mountain is another haiku poet renowned for pushing the envelope. Her work – especially her vividly imagistic longer pieces – have engendered debates about whether they may truly be considered haiku. Here is one of her many memorable concrete pieces:

dr p

Personally, for me, this crosses a line. I would not consider this a haiku, but rather a very charming and witty concrete poem. It lacks internal comparison, transcendence of the physical, or translatable experience, which in general, are the content of haiku.

On the other hand, this almost purely concrete piece by Alan Pizzarelli:

    flinging the frisbee
skips off the ground
curving up        hits a tree


does merit the term because it captures a translatable moment. That is, like van den Heuvel’s “rain in every window”, this piece conveys an image that is accessible, relateable. The layout supports a sense of play. Pizzarelli has dropped two lines before his last word not only out of whimsy, but to anchor it. The voice tends to drop when reading the final word aloud. The Frisbee has settled and come to earth. The moment is over.

It is fun to compare the following two pieces by Michael McClintock and Anita Virgil respectively.

a poppy . . . 
a field of poppies!
The hills blowing with poppies!

walking the snow-crust
not sinking

The simple, unabashed, joy of the McClintock piece is pellucidly expressed. Obviously the poem is constructed by building layers of repetition. The physical layout creates a hill, the punctuation – heavy for a haiku – is decorative, a suggestion of its floral subject. Yet the temporal necessity of apprehending English slows the unveiling of the poppies. We are left to discover them – and delight in them – for ourselves, as if panning a camera or walking a trail. The experience is successfully transferred.

Virgils’s “walking the snow-crust” reverses the strategy. The lack of punctuation adds to the suggestion of snow cover. Not sinking/sinking economically creates a tension which resolves into humour. Physical reality is reflected with the eye’s steady thrust downward.

The Nature of Elastic

From these examples it is clear that haiku is a surprisingly elastic form. That is to say, there is a spaciousness within the confines of the form not generally appreciated by readers unfamiliar with contemporary haiku. A piece may be considered haiku for no other reason than that it is fundamentally minimalist and relates a translatable form. Three lines of long-short-long, one of them being a season reference, are common, but not always present.

In this way, haiku bears comparison to the American blues. Deceptively simple at first appearance, both forms manage to provide containers for a wide variance of tonal modes, from the sabi of Bashö and Robert Johnson, to the giddiness of Michael McClintock and James Brown. Just as the blues encompass work songs from the Delta and dance songs from Chicago, a range of tempos are possible to achieve in haiku. From Betty Drevniok’s slowly steeping tea to Alan Pizzarelli’s crashing Frisbee, the words fall from our tongues at different rates. Finally, like the blues, a variety of forms, from avant-garde concept pieces to collaborative linked renga, are engendered by contemporary haiku. After all, is it not the nature of elastic to stretch?

Resolving Not to Resolve

In so many ways – from encompassing the infinite to page layout – contemporary haiku is exploiting its inherent quality of incompletion to lead the reader beyond the scope of the poem. Because, by its very nature it is a trailing off – an arrow pointing to nowhere:

winter burial:
a stone angel points his hand
at the empty sky

– Eric Amann

Because it is brief, it expands beyond itself:

i end in shadow

– Bob Boldman

The intentional ellipses of haiku allows, indeed forces, a moving forward toward what is next. Stubbornly, it resolves not to resolve.



1 Translations from The Essential Haiku: versions of Bashö, Buson & Issa, edited by Robert Hass (The Ecco Press, 1994).

2 Poems appearing in this essay originally appeared in A 2nd Flake (publication of author: 1974).

3 The Power of Now (New World Library, 1999).

4 The vast majority of haiku in this essay have been taken from The Haiku Anthology edited by Cor van den Heuvel (Second edition, Simon and Schuster: 1986). Permissions to reprint were obtained from individual authors when possible. In all cases, repeated attempts were made to locate the individuals who hold the rights.

5 For an informative and entertaining history of Japanese renga, see One Hundred Frogs: From Renga to Haiku in English, Hirosaki Sato (Weatherhill, 1983).

6 Information about Ms. Harter’s books is available from her blog.

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in an original, longer, form on the Tripolopia website (no longer available). After that publication it won 1st Place for nonfiction in the 2004 Springfield Writers Guild  competition and an Honourable Mention in the 2005  CNW/FFWA competition. It was abridged for publication on Haiku NewZ with the permission of the author.

Tracy Koretsky lives in Berkeley, California.  You can hear audio chapters and read excerpts from her award-winning novel Ropeless.