Let Rhyme Be
by Cyril Childs
Each year the Ito En tea company of Japan runs an international haiku poetry competition. The winning haiku (there are several) earn a place on the labels of some of the company’s various bottled teas. One of the winners in the 2006 competition was Jeanette Stace, much admired in New Zealand as a poet and as a person, who died in October 2006. In 2007 a package from Japan was received by her family in New Zealand. It contained bottles of tea bearing her winning poem
In the park
looking up at the tree
the same age as me 1
Not immediately obvious for some time, to me at least, was that this is one of the rare contemporary haiku in English that contains end-of-line rhyme, “tree” and “me”. Yet the rhyme does not seem contrived: there has been no sacrifice in the choice of the best and simplest words, and no unusual arrangement of words to force the rhyme.
In recent years considerable efforts have been made to define (“redefine” is perhaps a better word) English-language haiku. It is not a subject that excites everyone, but it does stimulate discussion and potentially increases understanding of the art of haiku. Jeanette Stace’s haiku provides a focus for one aspect of definition: whether reference to rhyme should be included or not.
In 1973 The Haiku Society of America adopted an “official definition” which was recommended to dictionaries. For many years, up until the end of 2004, Frogpond featured a slightly edited version of this definition at the beginning of each issue. The second word of both the 1973 definition and the Frogpond version was “unrhymed”. I have also seen the words “non-rhymed” and “non-rhyming” in other attempts at definition. Whether Frogpond was the reason for this or not I don’t know, but there has been an impression among some in the haiku community that rhyme is undesirable, even taboo, in haiku.
James Hackett, renowned American haiku poet, published a delightful book of Bug Haiku in 1968 2. Towards the end of the book there’s a list entitled “Suggestions for Writing Haiku in English”. Suggestion #7 is “Avoid end rhyme in haiku. Read each poem aloud to make sure it sounds natural”. This is really two suggestions, not necessarily related. As Jeanette Stace’s haiku shows, a rhyming haiku may indeed sound natural and uncontrived.
I smiled when I noticed that the very last haiku in Bug Haiku – immediately opposite suggestion #7 – reads
In the greens of this tree
a squawk of blue is playing
hide and seek with me.
Indeed, “tree” and “me” are the same two rhyming words Jeanette Stace used in her haiku.
Kenneth Yasuda gives many examples of rhymed translations of Japanese haiku in his book The Japanese Haiku – Its Essential Nature, History and Possibilities in English.3 He implies that haiku poets writing in English have all of the “poetic resources of the language available to them, of which rhyme is one of the greatest”. Many haiku poets, however, will feel that something is lost when rhyme is overused, or appears contrived or forced, as in this translation of a Basho haiku:
The autumn moon is bright;
Sea-waves whirl up to my gate,
Crested silvery white.
Yasuda goes on to define “masculine rhyme” (which ends on a stressed syllable) and “feminine rhyme” (which ends on an unstressed syllable). He suggests that one or the other may be best suited by the meaning the poet is trying to convey. For most of us, this will come down to how well what we write approximates to what we are trying to convey: whether the haiku “feels” right.
Testing boundaries even further, Australian Harold Stewart has used rhyming couplets—many of them attractive and memorable—in reforming translated Japanese haiku. These two4 were originally written by Issa:
The previous tenant’s hardships, how he dwelt:
I know it all—even the cold he felt.
I must turn over, crickets, so beware
Of local earthquakes in the bed we share!
Most haiku poets, including me, would struggle to regard these as falling within the ambit of “haiku” as currently understood in the English-speaking world. However, it is worth recalling a statement made by Hiroaki Sato in 1999: “Both in form and content, all you can say is that a haiku in Japanese, English, or any other language, is what the person who has written it presents as a haiku”.5 I interpret this as another way of saying there is no unequivocal way of saying what is, and what is not, a haiku.
Recently I rediscovered a copy of an article written by Raymond Roseliep, “A Time to Rime”.6 Roseliep was one of the most respected and talented haiku poets in North America over many years until his death in 1983. His well-titled article appeared in the very first issue of Frogpond. Roseliep gives some examples of haiku in which rhyme is an important part of the beauty and credibility of the poem.
Here are just a few of those examples:
Just soaring higher
until it becomes the sky
with an eagle’s cry
Of this haiku Rosliep notes that the “…the rhyme words both reinforce the moment of union… [between] …bird and… [sky] …and seal for… [the reader] …the oneness in nature’s world”.
A crimson dragonfly,
As it lights, sways together
With a leaf of rye.
Roseliep notes here that rhyme “…is the wedding ring and again we are made to feel the sealing of the bond in the world around us”.
In a similar way the rhyme in Jeanette Stace’s haiku is the wedding ring that heightens the bond between herself (“me”) and the “tree”, intensifying the haiku moment and the beauty of the poem.
balanced on the woman’s head
Roseliep notes here that after “…giving us rhymes which keep the bread and the head together… [the poet] …stops rhyming and we feel immediately the bobbing of light upon… [the]… woman and food which is the staff of her life”.
So slowly you come
small-snail… To you,
how far is the length of my thumb!
Of this Roseliep comments that the rhyme points to the contrast between “…the pace of a human being and a… [snail and] …also endows the poem with a nursery-rhyme quality… [which is] …highly appropriate when an adult talks to a garden snail”.
To my mind, these four haiku are well-written and enjoyable. I don’t know whether the poets who wrote them intentionally introduced rhyme, nor whether, having written the haiku, they recognised they had inadvertently introduced rhyme. If the former, we might applaud them for their skill and choice of words. If the latter, I like to think that they might have smiled wryly and inwardly reflected, “I wonder what they’ll make of that?”
It should be emphasised that Roseliep advocated the occasional use of rhyme, not the continuous employment of it. One implication is that if overdone, the use of rhyme might become hackneyed. As the examples above show, rhyme can contribute to the quality and beauty of a haiku, whether it is read in silence or aloud. However, rhyme is unlikely to benefit a haiku if it appears forced by choice of words or their arrangement. It is likely to be most effective when used sparingly and reserved for those occasions where rhyme increases resonance and depth of meaning as in the examples given by Rosliep.
The poet writing a haiku is, and should be, the only person who can decide whether to use rhyme or not. It is encouraging that none of the several recent discussions of new definitions of “haiku”, appropriate to those written in English, make reference to rhyme at all;7,8,9 and another concluded that any inclusion suggesting that haiku “…avoids poetic devices such as metaphor, rhyme, etc” was unnecessary.10
I’m rather glad that Jeanette Stace did not eliminate rhyme, whether or not it arrived intentionally, from her haiku.
Author’s note: My thanks to Sandra Simpson for comments on a late draft.
1 Stace J: Green Tea – Haiku and Other Poetry, Bearfax Publications, Wellington 2007.
2 Hackett JW: Bug Haiku, Japan Publications Inc., Tokyo 1968.
3 Yasuda K: The Japanese Haiku – Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English, with selected examples, Charles E Tuttle Co., Tokyo 1989.
4 Stewart H: A Net of Fireflies, Charles E Tuttle Co., Tokyo 1960.
5 Sato H: The HSA Definitions Reconsidered, Frogpond XXII:3, p 71-73, 1999.
6 Roseliep R: ‘A time to rime’, Frogpond I:1, 1977, p.18-20.
7 Missias AC: ‘Struggling for definition’, Frogpond XXIV:3, 2001, p.53-63.
8 Childs CW: ‘On defining ‘haiku’’, Frogpond XXVIII:1, 2005, p.49-55.
9 Verhart M: ‘The essence of haiku as perceived by western haijin’, Sommergras (in German), Summer, 2006; available in English: Hermitage (ed. I Codrescu), Summer, 2007.
10 Swede G: Global haiku: Twenty-five Poets World-wide (ed. G Swede and R Brooks), Mosaic Press, 2000.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared as a print article in Five Bells, Vol 15, No. 3, 2008; p 27-29. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.
Cyril Childs (1941-2012) was a former president of the NZ Poetry Society and a well-known writer of haiku and haibun. He edited the NZ Haiku Anthology (NZ Poetry Society, 1993) and the Second NZ Haiku Anthology (NZ Poetry Society, 1998). Read Cyril’s Showcase page.