Hands up who Likes One Liners?

By Janice M Bostok

Ikehara Gyomindo, when editor of the haiku magazine Shikai, had mottos printed on the pages.  For example: “Free haiku should first of all be a good one-line poem.” 1 Of course, a “free haiku” in English may not appear to be a haiku. So we must be careful.

One of Atsuo Nakagawa’s ideas was to develop haiku in English as a brief one-line poem. The convention of three lines in haiku is said to have been started by William N Porter and continued when haiku were further translated into English by Kenneth Yasuda, Harold G Henderson, RH Blyth, and James Hackett. This placed the three Japanese phrases or sections, in three lines.

Mr Nakagawa states that Professor Hiroshi Hayakawa has proved in his study of haiku in translation that most translations in 17 syllables are paraphrased to excess. This is to help Occidentals experience the haiku in similar poetic expressions to which they are accustomed.

When discussing the single rhymed couplet as a form for haiku advocated by Harold Stewart, Mr Nakagawa suggests that the Western ear perhaps feels the need for rhyme, but it would “sound intolerably strong in a language in which all syllables but one end in a vowel”.  Harold Stewart’s translation of Basho’s old pond poem:


The old green pond is silent; here the hop
Of a frog plumbs the evening stillness:    plop!

It sounds rather comical because of the rhyme and length it adds.

Ken Ikeda’s theory is that translations of Japanese haiku in English should merely be a free verse rendered in no more than four lines.  This method would give a closer more faithful translation of the original. It would not, however, provide the basic structure for the haiku to develop into a regular form in the English language.  A haiku poem would possibly become very irregular.

Mr Nakagawa mentions a study by Dr Kochi Doi in which it is found that Japanese speak three to nine syllables in one sound group (or pause group, breath group, or rhythm unit) and two to four sound groups in one breath.  As an example he cites Basho’s poem:

sub-rhythm units sound group
Furu ike ya: 3 1
Kawazu tobikomu: 2 1
Mizu no oto:  2 1

“This makes it clear that the counterpart of haiku or epic lines in the Japanese language is the hexameter in English and other languages.”

To sum up what he is saying:  The haiku form can be in three lines of 2-2-2 (1-1-1) sound groups;  two lines of 3-3 (1.5-1.5) sound groups;  or in one line as hexameter of three sound groups—all ranging from 12 to 18 syllables.

It is also interesting to note that Mr Nakagawa says that while English-language haiku poets use punctuation to approximate the traditional “cutting words”, cutting words were used only rarely by the classic haiku poets. Modern, contemporary haiku poets don’t use cutting words, nor do they use punctuation, according to Mr Nakagawa.

As part of the body of his text on the haiku form Mr Nakagawa discusses the form of Tao-Li, a poet few Australasians would have heard of it.  An American woman, Evelyn Tooley Hunt, invented an “Oriental” form in three columns of words down the page.  She used the pseudonym Tao-Li (which I believe is a male name).

She stated that she had more haiku published in this pseudo-Oriental form written by a supposed Oriental gentleman, than she did in three lines written by an American woman. As an example of her form I will rewrite one of my own haiku.




closing    the
hours   my    rush
of  eyes     



 driving   continues   traffic

The first and third lines need to be equal in length for balance.  Mr Nakagawa suggests that it would be more closely Oriental if each syllable was placed on its own and the poem written in two vertical columns:  one with the break and the other two reading on.

eight                clos-
hours               ing
of                      my
driv-                eyes
ing                    con-

Mr Nakagawa discusses James Kirkup’s one-lined poems as one direction which haiku in English might follow in its development. The ideal length should be about 10 syllables. It has been stated that Mr Kirkup’s early three-lined poems do not sound like haiku in English, even though he sticks to 17 syllables. (Today,  no one would dispute that James Kirkup’s three-lined poems are haiku.)  His one-lined poems are a different matter. The interpretation is that they may be one-lined poems, one-lined haiku, or even prose. But perhaps having been written in Japanese, or in a Japanese cultural mind, for example, we may not understand fully what he says or means in our Western mind. Some examples:

Cold wind, fresh tears.

A wild boar smiled at a butterfly.

The headless man choked back his tears.

Excess of anything is always nothing.

First snow, a pastel sketch of winter.

Stone garden winter:  frozen ripples.

Splashing through rainpools:  Japanese language.

All are described as “haiku-like”, although  I believe some are haiku, to our Western minds. At about this same time in the mountains of Tennessee Marlene Mountain was developing her own one-lined haiku.  Some examples:

pig and i spring rain

one fly everywhere the heat

at dusk hot water from the hose

old towel   folding it again   autumn evening

in her old voice the mountains 3

Ms Mountain has gone on to add much political and social comment in her one-lined poems, yet I will defend her to the end. Her poem

one fly everywhere the heat

is a classic “Japanese” haiku.

What do we have?  Three sections:  “one fly”  “everywhere”   “the heat” with  “everywhere” the classic pivot (line).  It turns your thoughts from one fly to the heat. One trick which I learned a long time ago was if you wanted to test the pivot line, merely read the sections in reverse: “the heat”   “everywhere”   “one fly”.  Makes perfect sense.

One of the traps into which one might fall when writing one-lined poems seems to be that they end up as epigrams. This doesn’t have to be so, and many now write one-lined haiku with the pure essence of haiku.

At this time in its development in English it seems that the three lines have continued to outweigh the other forms in popularity — even though one might not be blamed for thinking that “development” as such is slow.

Many Japanese poets writing in Japanese and translating their work into English use the one and two-line form.

Studies on English Haiku was published in 1976.  If we look at our counterparts writing in English (who have been developing the form for a number of years in seriousness and quantity) they don’t seem to have developed far from the poem in which the form and style faithfully follow the classic Japanese haiku as it is translated into English.  This does not necessarily mean that this type of haiku is the ideal that should be aimed for.

If one reads the bulk of haiku published in specialty magazines, they appear dull and lifeless; thin reflections of their Japanese origins.  I don’t believe haiku in English should read as translations of classic Japanese haiku.

Most of mine have already been published, but I would like to repeat a couple to perhaps stimulate some writers.

fox slinks into pampas grass plume trembling

party i wish everyone would leave the night dark

chest pain the chill of autumn deepens

wet night the cat curves about itself

a slight rocking as mother’s embrace lets go



1: All quotes are taken from Atsuo Nakagawa, Studies on English Haiku (Hokuseido Press, Tokyo, 1976).

2: Harold Stewart’s poem is taken from the book One Hundred Frogs, edited by Hiroaki Sato (Weatherhill, New York, 1995).

3: The Old Tin Roof by Marlene Mountain (1976).

Editor’s Note: This article in its original, longer form, first appeared in Stylus, an Australian on-line poetry journal, and appears here with the kind permission of the author.

Janice Bostok (1942-2011) was an internationally renowned haijin and haiku editor for Stylus and paper wasp. Among her books are Amongst The Graffiti, collected haiku & senryu; and Also Songs Once Sung, collected tanka. She lived in Australia. Read more about her life here, White Heron: The Authorized Biography of Janice Bostok is by Sharon Dean.