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Verbless Haiku: A Lesson

by Ferris Gilli

There is sometimes a concern that haiku without verbs are considered less admirable or worthy than haiku that use verbs, or are even against the “rules”. I’ve never heard of a “rule” that says every haiku must contain a verb. If such a rule ever did exist, it is one of those that has “come and gone”.

When I use the term “verb” by itself I am referring to a verb form that functions as a verb. In other words, it is in the part of a haiku that is in sentence form. A sentence, whether in prose or verse, contains a subject and a predicate. “Predicate” is the term for the part of a sentence that contains the verb and includes the verb’s objects, complements, and adverbial modifiers. If a haiku contains a sentence, you can be sure it uses a verb.

A haiku may contain a verb form that functions as something other than a verb, such as a noun or adjective. But if it does not also contain a verb form that functions as a verb, then I consider the haiku to be verbless.

Two examples of haiku that contain a predicate (and therefore a verb):

diving board
she measures the end    
with her feet

Cindy Tebo

The second part (the body) of Cindy’s poem is in sentence form.  “Measures” is an active verb, the subject “she” is performing the action.  “End” is the direct object of the verb/action.  So “measures the end with her feet” is the predicate.

end of an illness
the pond is lively
with tadpoles

Ferris Gilli

“Is” is a linking verb. “Lively” is the subject complement, and describes the subject.  “Is lively with tadpoles” is the predicate.

Examples of verbless haiku:

damp hair
the faint scent
of marigolds

Cindy Tebo

spring storm
the speed of swallows
with the wind

DeVar Dahl, note: “Speed” is a noun.

spring thunder –
from the centre of a pine stump
a pine

naia

against my cheek
the rough bark
of a live oak

Mary Lee McClure

spring moon
the scent of you
so near

Marjorie Buettner

pine grove:
the cooling touch        
of shadows

Stephen Amor, note:  “Cooling” is an adjective.

a familiar voice
through the screen door   
last summer’s friend

Carol Raisfeld

Each of the next three verbless haiku contain a participial phrase.  A participial phrase uses present participles (the “ing” form of the verb) or past participles (ending in d, ed, n, en, or t) in a phrase that describes something – therefore, while the phrase contains a verb form, it does not function as a verb.  Instead, it always functions as an adjective.

oak leaves
uncurling in this heat wave
my new hairdo

Kirsty Karkow

“Uncurling in this heat wave” describes the oak leaves and functions as an adjective.

setting sunlight
spread across the sidewalk
green maple chaff

Don Socha

“Setting” is an adjective. “Spread across the sidewalk” functions as an adjective, describing the sunlight.  As it is a pivotal line, it could also describe the maple chaff.

While preparing this lesson, I studied the latest issue of an eminent haiku journal, paying particular attention to the presence or lack of verbs in the poems.  Out of the total number of 15 poems that appear on the first three pages of haiku, I found only three poems that contain a verb form functioning as a verb! It will be interesting to similarly research other leading haiku publications.

Smooth Flow, Articles & Line Order

“Flow of language” is an important topic in the study of haiku.  Often beginning haiku writers are confused by guidelines that give instructions to “be brief and leave out all unnecessary words”, and at the same time urge us to “keep a natural rhythm and flow”.  Confusion when attempting to simultaneously heed both admonitions can produce results such as these:

a burning field
a vulture hangs steady
in the warm thermal

field
vulture hangs
in hot air

beside a mountain spring –
the gourd dipper rests
on a flat stone

spring
gourd dipper
on stone

the lambing begins –
the gentle music of rain
tapping on a stovepipe

When reworking those poems to sharpen and strengthen them as haiku, I must keep this guideline in mind:  Every word in a haiku should be essential; that is, if a word is removed or changed, the haiku as a whole will be affected.  Say you have written a haiku and are wondering whether you can improve it.  One of the things you can do is to literally look at each word and ask yourself if its removal will affect the haiku in an undesirable way. Will its removal diminish clarity, change the meaning, or disrupt the rhythm or flow?  If the answer is “no”, then my bet is that you can safely remove that word.

a burning field
a single vulture hangs steady
in the warm thermal

I can safely pare that to this:

burning field
a vulture hangs steady
in the thermal

This next one is too full:

beside a mountain spring –
the gourd dipper is lying
on a flat stone

but this pares it too much:

spring
gourd dipper
on stone

I want readers to know that the setting is in the mountains, and I prefer to keep the focus on the dipper and its relationship to the spring.  It is not important to the haiku that the stone is flat; however, by removing not only the verb but all prepositions AND articles as well, I have turned it into something worse than “Tarzan-speak”.  I need to back up and leave in those words that lend rhythm and smooth flow:

mountain spring
the gourd dipper
lying on a stone

Note:  “Lying on a stone” is a participial phrase that functions as an adjective, and modifies (qualifies the meaning of) “dipper”.

Can this be written more concisely and with smoother flow?

the lambing begins –
the gentle music of rain
tapping on a stovepipe

“The” at the beginning doesn’t do anything for the haiku; “begins” is not necessary and doesn’t add anything of value, since “lambing” by itself is a spring kigo. And now that dash no longer seems vital. “Music” is enough without the addition of “gentle,” which seems like padding. “Tapping” is superfluous; it is not necessary to say that the rain is tapping. Readers will know that on their own. I ask myself whether removing “the” will affect the reading as a whole:

lambing
music of rain
on a stovepipe

Yes, for me it does. Its absence makes a subtle change; now the haiku does not focus enough on the sound of the rain.  Only a subtle difference, but I make the call to keep it in:

lambing
the music of rain
on a stovepipe

Hmm.  I wonder if an ellipsis after “lambing” would be effective . . . ?  And so it goes as the haiku poet strives for concision and smooth flow, carefully weighing every word and mark of punctuation.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared as a lesson text on the World Haiku Review site in 2001 (Hibiscus was the name of the tutor group). It appears here, in a somewhat modified form, with the kind permission of the author. To see the original text go here.

Ferris Gilli is a well-known American writer of haiku and its related forms. She recently retired as an editor for The Heron’s Nest and has also been haiku editor for Treetops (World Haiku Review). Her 12-lesson haiku guide Exploring Haiku was translated into Romanian and was used in the Romanian school system. Ferris lives in Marietta, Georgia, in the United States and is a keen birdwatcher.

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