by Jim Kacian
Poetry, like music, unfolds over time. The manner in which we present a poem has an impact on the way it is read, heard and received.
We unconsciously acknowledge a series of conventions every time we read a poem in English: we begin at the top left of the page; we read from left to right; we pause a bit after each line (unlike prose where we simply continue on); and most of all, we read and listen with a different attention than when we’re reading something like the newspaper.
Everything within the presentation of a haiku matters: where one line ends and another begins; where we place our words; where we insert pauses. This is because we know that poetry, being heightened and compressed, requires different tools to read it well. Poetry is performance. And if poetry is performance, then poetic form is its stage. When we look upon the stage we willingly suspend our disbelief, if only for a moment, and accept the conventions which permit its magic and truth to become available to us.
Presenting our poems well, with a clearly identifiable stage, allows the reader to prepare himself for what comes next, to know what role he is to play in the communication which is to follow. At the same time, once we acknowledge the stage, we want it to disappear, so it doesn’t interfere with our direct interaction and enjoyment of what is presented.
So, too, with haiku: ideally, we would like the vehicle of the moment (the poem) to interfere as little as possible with the transmission of the moment itself. Form is the transparent scaffolding which supports the poem by which we transmit the moment. There have been a variety of forms which have been utilized in haiku in English. All of them have some historical claim to authenticity, and good poems have been written in each.
It might be useful here to consider the classical Japanese form, since it has been the model for all the English-language varieties. Classical Japanese haiku were most often written in single vertical lines (contemporary publication of Japanese haiku still utilises this layout) in 17 “on” (an on is a sound unit, like ga, wa, tsu or no, which, combined, form the words of the Japanese language). Although line breaks were not physically apparent, it was apparent from internal considerations (and from the voiced punctuation available in the Japanese language) that most poems were divided into 3 divisions, the first of 5, the second of 7, and the third of 5 on, with a grammatical pause after either the first or second “line” (and less often in the middle of the second “line”).
This tripartite form, with its asymmetrical grouping of either 5-12 or 12-5 on can be considered the standard format of Japanese haiku, and when the poem was being assimilated into English, attempts were made to emulate this form in different ways.
At the same time, concessions were made to accommodate the vast differences between the Japanese and English languages. Differing emphases result in the proliferation of forms in English, and each of them brings something unique with it.
Let’s consider each of them.
dragged through lily pads –
We may consider the three-line, short-long-short form to be standard in English. One recent study suggests that over 90% of all haiku published in English in the past three decades has appeared in this format, and there is no evidence to suggest that this is changing. In imitating the classical Japanese poem, the divisions of the pattern were accepted by early translators as justification for line breaks. What this offers in English which is less apparent in the Japanese is an interesting use of enjambment as a sort of corollary for the Japanese kireji, or cutting word. Overall, this form has satisfied the needs for most poets in English for the principal time of its practice.
Besides the form shown here, with all three lines flush left, variations of indentation of any of the lines is often noted, especially as modelled by Blyth in his copious work.
after the fall moon shadows under my eyes
a purple evening in the window she folds her underwear
This form is usually called a one-line haiku, or a one-liner, and is clearly an imitation of the Japanese practice of writing the poem as a single vertical line. Also, the customary display of a poem’s transliteration into romaji (the English syllabary rendering of the sounds of a Japanese poem) is today conventionally laid out in a single horizontal line, as is the transcription of the poem in its original katakana or hiragana syllabaries. This can be cited as further evidence that haiku are intended to be one-line poems. What this does not take into account is that in Japanese the one-line is composed of three distinct metrical lines, and is perceived as such. Sometimes in English additional space is used to signify slight pauses, as in the second example. The one-line form is the second most practiced form of haiku today in English.
in the woodpile
the broken axe handle
Our next example is correspondingly called a two-line haiku. While two-line haiku are relatively rare in classical Japanese practice, many examples, especially from translation, may be found in English to justify this choice. An early and important collection of translated classical haiku by Asataro Miyamora in 1932 employed the two-line form. It was also the form of choice by such early important personages in the haiku world as Lafcadio Hearn and Harold Stewart. A large measure of the transmission of haiku understanding is due to the work of translators, and we cannot dismiss the considerable influence these people have had on not only the content and ethos of haiku, but also its form.
As we shall see later, haiku is most often the juxtaposition of two elements, and on the surface the two-line form might seem ideally suited to the haiku. What it loses, however, is the sudden shift, the “surprise” element which English haiku may have in their third line. They also lose the asymmetry inherent in the Japanese original, where the 5 on of the first line is poised against 7 and 5 on in the second phrase, or else 5-7 posited against the final 5. The English 1 line against 2 lines, or 2 lines against 1, is the closest approximation we have of this effect. Most often, two-liners seem more like epigrams (which one early translator, Basil Chamberlain, called them in his most influential study of the form) or couplets than haiku as we have come to know them. They remain a relative rarity.
we step back
to make room
for her perfume
Nancy S. Young
Further down the cobble beach
The face of another
Loses its copper glow.
The four-line form is another rarity, but has been seen a bit more often recently in the work of poets from the United Kingdom. Though the first example (a senryu) uses the fourth line as a means of surprising the reader, most often the material of a 4-liner might have fit into three, as in the second example, and so is a style choice. Occasionally it may indicate the poet has need for additional words and/or ideas; this sort of packing is at least a debatable issue within this form.
Additional considerations must take into account by the poet when deciding on the right form for his or her poem. The next three models all emphasise different aspects available within the form.
The names of the dead
sinking deeper and deeper
into the autumn leaves
The first of these is a three-line poem with an emphasis on syllable count. As mentioned before, classical Japanese haiku were usually written in 5-7-5 on. The intent of the form of this poem is to mimic this count pattern in English syllables. The syllable and the on are not equivalent, and so to treat them as equivalent is simply an aesthetic decision. This may be considered a sort of maximum format for haiku, and the poet needs to take care that the language does not become padded to accommodate the count, and that extraneous information is not brought into play, as often happens. When caution is taken, this form has been used to create many beautiful and lasting haiku, though it is not seen as any more essential to the form today than these other formats by a large majority of practitioners.
on the padlock snow melting
Next is the converse of the 5-7-5, the minimal haiku. Here emphasis is placed on the greatest compression possible. The dangers here is that not enough information or detail is offered by the poet, and the poem therefore becomes hermetic or overly private. Minimalist poems seem, by their very nature, to be experimental, and few have shown great lasting power, unless they have also employed other elements, such as a visual appeal, as well. Nevertheless, some excellent examples, as the one shown, indicate that in the hands of the best poets, very much can be done with very little.
“HONK TO SHOW
Our next example is a visual poem. The intent is to convey the experience of the moment in a visual as well as verbal and/or auditory fashion. These have proven to be very difficult to do, at least in part because maintaining a just balance between verbal and visual surface is an extremely challenging task.
Sometimes these formal choices are combined, as, for example, in one-word haiku such as “tundra” by Cor van den Heuvel, and “shark ” by Alexis Rotella. In both of these examples, a single word is arrayed against the solid whiteness of a whole page. Both are dependent upon context (or lack of context) for their impact, and so are more visual than one-line in function.
on this cold
2 night 3 4
Finally, we have the organic form. This form owes least, perhaps, to the Japanese models, and arises instead out of the free-verse tradition, while still maintaining the way of functioning which haiku affords. Space and arrangement of the example poem reminds one more of William Carlos Williams than Basho, and yet the import of the poem is decided by the revelation of a moment through the juxtaposition of images. This technique has not been explored to any great degree yet in Western haiku, but seems to be a natural amalgamation of traditions, and holds much promise for the future.
Content aside, all of these poems fall into an acceptable form of the haiku as it is practiced today. Further, all of them have historical precedents which date back for, and have been refined over, several centuries. All, therefore, have at least some claim to being authentic forms of haiku, and not merely innovations brought about in adapting the form to modern practice or modalities.
What can we conclude from such varied practice within the single form of haiku? And how do we make choices as to which of these formats, or another, best fits our poem?
A haiku should be as long as it needs to be, and as short as it can be. Its arrangement should depend upon the needs of the poem, not the needs of the tradition.
While there are arguments for each of the various forms illustrated, no one form is best for all poems. An organic approach is more flexible than any formula can be, and permits us to shape the poem according to the needs of mood and content, rather than to the demands of something as extraneous as the number of syllables in a line.
Choosing the form best suited to the material at hand is one of the challenges to mastering form.
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared as part of a much larger “primer” on haiku on the f/k/a website, which includes further reading on haiku, and appears here with the author’s permission.
Jim Kacian is a former president of the Haiku Society of America (HSA), past editor of Frogpond, co-founded The Haiku Foundation, and is owner and publisher of Red Moon Press. He has won numerous awards for his haiku and his work is published around the world. Two of his poems appear on the Katikati Haiku Pathway. He lives in Virginia in the US.