The Shape of Things to Come

by Jim Kacian

Haiku has evolved beyond its early stages into something leaner, stronger, sharper. It requires a better poet to write good haiku today, and more often what a poet chooses to write is less likely to be normative. Or put another way, what was normative to the best poets of previous generations is no longer competitive for the best poets of the current generation. Journals and websites are gradually discovering this, and slowly accommodating the new practices. Increasingly we find more different kinds of haiku in these places, and readers are learning to parse them in new ways, just as poets are learning to exploit the new possibilities inherent in the new shapes. Not all will work-some will flare briefly and disappear forever. But by having a look at what’s currently being tried, it may be possible to deduce what the new shape of haiku is likely to be.

To begin we’ll consider a very brief history of haiku form. This will in no way be exhaustive, but suggestive as well as cumulative. We’ll follow with a more detailed study of the form I feel is likeliest to be the shape of things to come.

Let’s begin with the elephant in the room. It will be a long time, if ever, before the three-liner is displaced as the primary shape of haiku in English. There are many reasons for this: history, tradition, mimesis, not to mention the way the three-line haiku continues to supply a useful combination of technical opportunities for the poet to exploit. Haiku work well in three lines in English, and that first inspiration to render Japanese haiku in this fashion was a gift. The first three-liners in a Western language may date back to the 1600s, in Dutch, but we have no records to prove this. We do know that three-line translations were being made no later than the 1870s, and we must regard this as somewhat serendipitous, because it was no sure thing: the Japanese originals were, of course, single vertical lines, and if that verticality was certain to be adumbrated by our own horizontal writing process, the choice to mimic the tripartite internal organization in three lines was not so obvious. And, despite some other early contenders, the three-line model proved to be the most generally accepted, and so is the great-grandfather of contemporary haiku practice in the West.

Since the three-line haiku has become normative practice, any other form must be considered aberrant. The onus is on the outlier to prove the efficacy of its novelty: of course any variant form will provide a different experience – the question is, is it a better one? If any poem can be shown to work just well in the normative shape, then all the variant shape is doing is calling attention to itself, and to its author. Part of our consideration should always be, how does the shape chosen by the poet enhance the poem? And if it doesn’t, we must consider this to be a decision error on the part of the poet. I urge you to experiment with all the poems that follow, to see if their success is dependent on the manner of presentation, or if they might have been just as well served to begin life as more normative poems.

We needn’t reiterate the history of the three-line form here, since it is primarily the history you already know: from Aston to Blyth to Hass, from Lowell to Hackett to Herold, up to and including the current journals. So let’s agree to simply use the three-line form as the backdrop against which we might consider other shapes which have arisen.

Just as reasonable a choice in those first days of translation was a two-line, symmetrical or asymmetrical arrangement such as that employed by Basil Hall Chamberlain as early as the 1880s:

Haply the summer grasses are
A relic of the warriors’ dream. 1

– Basho

Another important Japanologist, editor and anthologist Asataro Miyamori also favoured the two-line rendering of Japanese originals in the 1930s:

A fallen flower flew back to the branch!
Behold! it was a flitting butterfly. 2 

– Moritake

Two later Western poets and anthologists, Kenneth Rexroth and Harold Stewart, also adopted the two-line format. Where the former achieves a very sharp lucubration, as in

Summer grass
Where warriors dream. 3

– Basho

the latter chose to make something more appetising to middlebrow taste, rhyming the poems and pulling the teeth of their observations:


The fallen blossoms which I saw arise,
Returning toward the bough, were butterflies. 4

–  Moritake

In truth, the two-liner has never really caught on in the West, perhaps because it too much resembled the rhymed couplets of Augustinian poetry without its familiar philosophical trappings. We do find the occasional exception, such as work by John Gould Fletcher in the 1930s:

Snowflakes rise and fall on the wind:
Even Winter has her white flocks of silent birds.

– John Gould Fletcher, verse V, From the Japanese, Visions of Evening (MacDonald, London, 1913).

Robert Grenier, in his experiments with short lines which are not necessarily haiku, offered this poem in the 1970s:


how big a gap can a line contain & go on

Sentences (Whale Cloth Press, Iowa, 1978).

He seems to be asking what exactly are the believable parameters for kire – how far afield can a poem go on the other side of the break? This is an age-old question in haiku, and the answer is always exactly what the poem supplies – in this case, all the way from the range of possibilities of “pulse” to a disquisition on the nature of . . . what? poetic practice? blood pressure? heredity? the universe? A most challenging poem.

Slightly less challenging but no less terse, and even tangier, is this 1980s poem

your hair drawn back
the sharp taste of radishes

– M Kettner (ant ant ant ant ant, 2002)

Two lines seems exactly right for this: no three-line arrangement approaches its strident acerbity.

This classic senryu is from the 1990s:

androgynous stranger
winks at me

– Karen Sohne, (Woodshavings, Spring Street Haiku Group anthology, 1994)

and Michael Facherty’s terse

in the wood pile
the broken ax handle

Black Bough 8 (1996)

dates from the middle of that decade. And from this new decade we have John Carley’s

sunlight spills     along the canal
another breath   of solvent

Frogpond 25:1 (2002)

and this from Jörgen Johansson

a ladybird
b5 to c4

A New Resonance 6 (Red Moon Press, 2009)

The two-line poem derived from the essentially two-part (content-wise) Japanese haiku makes some sense, even if it hasn’t enjoyed much popularity with poets in the West. The four-line version, however, doesn’t have the same easy continuity, and we should perhaps view it as an idiosyncratic product of Western haiku practice. Not surprisingly, it also has not been much favoured. A number of early American haikuists used four lines on occasion, notably Virginia Brady Young, whose first lines end in a colon and read like a title, L.A. Davidson, and Alvaro Cardona-Hine. Only one poet that I know of has made it his trademark form: Stephen Gill, who publishes under the name Tito:

Further down the cobble beach
the face of another
loses its copper glow

Blithe Spirit 7.4 (1997)

It is debatable what the four-line array accomplishes, beyond airing the poem out a bit. Tito’s poems do tend towards a greater syllable count than the prevailing norms, and perhaps the fourth line helps make them feel less weighted, more free-flowing. In most instances, the four-line efforts we might find published are aberrations from usual practice by their authors, and the lineage employed seems directly aimed at arriving at specific sorts of timings for the readings of the poems. Here, for instance, is an early example (1970s) by Larry Eigner:

w i d e – r a n g i n g
      cloud over
          somewhere enough for a storm

Windows / Walls / Yard / Ways (1994)

Eigner didn’t call his poem a haiku, though it is clearly related. Virginia Brady Young’s, also 1970s, was clearly in the genre:

at twilight
           the river

Haiku West 7:1 (July 1973)

There is certainly something gained with each line break, not to mention a slight suggestion of the hippo’s shape, in this poem, so we might decide the four-line solution here seems aptly chosen for the content. Shape also seems to be central to Robert Spiess’s poem (early ’80s):

a      square
of       water
r e f l e c t s
the     moon

Cicada 3:3 (1979)

LeRoy Gorman’s self-deprecating four-liner from the same time also seems to use the form to advantage:

Goethe & Graves

Frogpond 24:3 (2001)

In Dee Evetts’s haiku (late ’80s), the motivation wasn’t so much a four-line result, but a more organically pleasing presentation:

the river
             going over
the afternoon
going on

Mill House (Haiku Canada Sheet 1987-88)

And perhaps Martin Lucas’s poem is something of an anti-haiku, and so deviation from the norm feels appropriate:

Giggleswick and Wigglesworth
                    I am uninspired

Global Haiku, 2000

Perhaps the least practiced shapes haiku have taken are specific to individual poems, shapes we might term “organic”. A simple example is L. A. Davidson’s

stars beyond

Haiku Magazine 5:3 (1972)

Another famous stellar poem, by Raymond Roseliep a couple years later, approximates this same shape:

he removes his glove
        to point out

Sailing Bones (1978)

This shape perhaps suggest vastness, the third line moving away from the rest of the poem, the rest of what is known. The delay of the third line increases tension, especially when read. A more complex sort of order, but even earlier is called upon in William J. Higginson’s

sky-black gull
         the wave inland
against the cliff

Haiku Magazine 4:4 (1971)

One could mention Nick Avis, who is perhaps the most careful of haiku poets in placing words on paper, and Marshall Hryciuk, who is about the least careful!

Organic shape is not easily discoverable, and even when successful doesn’t automatically suggest “haiku” to a reader, particularly one not versed in the genre. Instead it conjures the realm of the short poem, and perhaps this is one argument that haiku is indeed simpatico with “mainstream” short form poetry.

Probably the best-known advocate of this organic form is Marlene Mountain. In addition to her shape poems, for example the typographical exercise she employed around the word “labium”, and her process poems, such as the leaping frog, she has created what is perhaps the best and best-known organic haiku, from the mid-70s:

on this cold
                                                                  spring 1
                                                               2 night 3 4

Moment, Moment /Moments (1978)

The felicity with which this shape causes the reader to re-enact the content of the poem is uncanny, and stands as a model for those seeking similar effects.

There are still occasional attempts at rather free-form haiku, but not many of them have been compelling in their execution. An interesting recent effort is Eve Luckring’s

c u m u l o
                                                 n i m b u s
                                                         d r i f t               the
                                                            d              a                 y
                                                          o      f      f
                                                       s     c    h    e   d   u   l             e

Another branch we might consider is concrete haiku. After a flurry of activity in the late 1970s to early 1980s, especially in Canada, concrete haiku have not been much practiced in English. The first efforts perhaps were by Paul Reps, whose earliest work dates from the 1930s, of which this is characteristic:



Square Sun, Square Moon (1989)

Two decades later the most famous concrete haiku was penned by Cor van den Heuvel


window-washer’s pail (1963)

There have been other one-word efforts, though none perhaps quite as successful, and certainly none so iconic.

The greatest early exponent of concrete haiku was Larry Gates. His series “Test Patterns” in the 1960s included such work as


Haiku Magazine, 1971

Then there are the oddities and the one-offs, most of which have had a single champion and no adherents. We can perhaps so consider this poem, considered the first successful haiku in English:


The apparition       of these faces      in the crowd :
Petals    on a wet, black bough.

– Ezra Pound, “Contemporanea”

Ezra Pound published this in Poetry in 1913, and it’s full of interesting quirks: a title, for instance, and is it meant to be counted as one of the lines? What of those spaces that separate the various phrases within the lines themselves: is this simply a guide to reading, a timing device, or is it following some supposed model? In the latter case, with its five sections, could it be – a tanka? But it has the unmistakeable feel of haiku, whatever its vagaries.

The same can be said of Wallace Stevens’s response to encountering haiku. What he wrote he would not have called such either, but it feels like a robust, aerated, Americanised version of it long before there was anything like an haiku community to say nay. Here’s one section from Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.


It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Harmonium (1917)

Elsewhere I have made the case that we might consider this poem the first sequence in English-language haiku.

Once journals and organisations had come to the West, and a normative practice began to be established, experimentation took more the shape of a response to the norm. Larry Gates, for instance, took the standard haiku model and rotated it ninety degrees, attempting to combine the three-line norm of the West with some feeling of the verticality of Japanese poems, as in this one from the 1960s:

As               a                             flashes
the              little                      white
falls            water-thrush

Modern Haiku 2:4 (autumn 1971)

In this case, Gates actually had a follower, as the poet Evelyn Tooley Hunt, who often published under the name Tao-Li, employed this shape in many of her poems. More idiosyncratically, Martin Shea used spaces and lines to create quite different layouts-and consequent emotional responses-to what usually were three-line haiku, as in this one from the mid-70s:

bolted                   space

the lights on the corners
click and change

New World Haiku 1:3 (1974)

At about the same time Alan Pizzarelli was working with a flexible lineation that followed the flow of the idiom, resulting in a seemingly artless, colloquial effect:

a spark
falls to the ground

that’s it

From the sequence “Tea Party”, Haiku Magazine (1974)

At the opposite end of the theoretical, anne mckay was seeking anything but a casual effect on the reader, organising her material for artistic impact, as in this poem from the late 1980s:

a clarity
                                        the night
                              her voice
                                              . . . singing

Frogpond 12:2 (May 1989)

Another Canadian with a penchant for formal experimentation is Michael Dudley. This poem from the 1990s is one of his most unusual.

a    purple    sky

                          dim          on the
                      figures         drive-in
                      appear         screen

Haïku: anthologie canadienne/ Canadian Anthology (1985)

The most recent attempt at fashioning a compelling new shape while keeping a traditional haiku feel and content has been made by Lee Gurga. The possibility his cruciform shapes contain is only beginning to be explored, but one of the more successful of his early efforts is the following, from 2010:

but probably enough

Frogpond 33:2 (spring/summer 2010)

A final anomalous shape I’d like to mention is the overlap haiku, what Nick Virgilio named the “weird”.


Global Haiku: Twenty-five Poets World-wide (2000)

This technique has not been used very often to my knowledge: perhaps a couple of dozen poets have published them in the past twenty years. A related style overlaps words to create compression. One of the best is this one by John Stevenson:


Frogpond 25:2 (2002)

The newest shape to make a bid for permanence in haiku practice is the vertical array. It’s not exactly a new idea: besides being the usual shape for Japanese haiku, we can find it in English as early as the 1950s, being the regular shape employed by Michael McClure, as in this example:


The Unswept Path (ed. Brandi/Maloney, White Pine Press, 2005)

And the verticality of Japanese haiku certainly inspired this poem by John Tagliabue from the early ’70s:

Ancestral Portraits


The Doorless Door (Grossman, New York, 1970)

Alan Pizzarelli offered a chunkier version of this idea:


floating down the gutter

a crimson leaf

a popsicle stick

a . . .

Karma Poems 1974

And Marlene Mountain provided this version:

leaf mold

The Old Tin Roof (1976)

But it wasn’t until Robert Spiess, in his The Cottage of Wild Plum (1991) that the vertical form was explored in depth:


Modern Haiku 22:2 (summer 1991)

One poet who picked up on the possibilities that might be found in what Spiess was exploring was vince tripi, as in this poem


The Path of the Bird (1996)

With the regular publication of the poems of John Martone, beginning in the mid-’90s, the full range of possibilities of the vertical array began to come clear. This poem, from his chapbook Heart Wood (1998), is typical:






Another poet quick to realise the potentials of this shape was Scott Metz. This recent one is among his most successful:




Modern Haiku 38.3 (autumn 2007)

All this by way of prelude: if something is to upend the hegemony of the three-line haiku, the clear favourite is the one-liner, which, if the pitch I’m about to make for it is true, is due for a term of its own. I would like to suggest: the monoku. What recommends it is its clarity: it says what it is. I also like its brevity, and the hybridity of its origins: a Greek prefix wedded to a Japanese suffix to create a new English term.

Haiku is not the sole province of one-liners in English poetry, but it is nearly so. Almost all examples of monostich are imported from other languages – the Russian of Bryusov, the French of Apollinaire. The practice of rendering links of renga in single lines (for space considerations, perhaps) may well have influenced poets writing haiku in English, especially those offering sequences, which have often had their individual elements arranged in single lines.

Like all these alternative shapes, monoku must be considered against the success of the normative three-line haiku. While some of these alternative shapes have specific applications, others seem simply idiosyncratic. Monoku, however, have not arisen out of a need simply to be different: they actually offer a range of technical and stylistic opportunities that are not available to the three-line haiku, nor even, so far as I am able to ascertain, to the Japanese single vertical line form. It offers resources that one just can’t find elsewhere in haiku, and where there is new territory, poets will colonise. I will detail some of these advantages as we proceed, but first I’d like to offer a brief history of the monoku.

Monoku have been offered as an alternative normative version of haiku from the beginning. One of the first translators of classical Japanese haiku, Lafcadio Hearn, working in the 1890s, proffered one-line versions such as:

The voice having been all consumed by crying, there remains
only the shell of the sémi

– Bashô, translated Hearn, Shadowings (1900)

As we have observed, competing models were also offered, and of these, the three-line form gained the most traction early on, and this has affected practice ever since. But not everyone was entirely convinced. In his seminal volume The Country of Eight Islands, Hiroaki Sato, in collaboration with Burton Watson, supplied single-line translations of haiku and tanka, arguing that such versions provided a closer experience to the Japanese originals. Though Sato is less prolix than Hearn, we can feel a certain kinship in poems such as this:

The sea darkens, and the voices of ducks faintly white

– Bashô, translated Sato, The Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry (1981)

However, poets writing haiku in English were not quick to follow these examples: normative practice for haiku in English for the first half of the 20th century was decidedly three lines. Kerouac, as was so often his wont, was the first to experiment with a single-line format in the 1950s. His comrade-in-arms Allen Ginsberg, seeking to incorporate a Western attitude into an Eastern genre, created what he called “American sentences”, 17 syllables punctuated as usual. This was as much an outgrowth of his own work with long flexible English poetic lines as any theoretical statement of what lay inherent in haiku itself. Here’s a typical example:

A dandelion seed floats above the marsh grass with the mosquitos.

– Allen Ginsberg, White Shroud: Poems 1980-1985 (1986).

This model was largely ignored by other poets inside and out of the haiku community, which began organising itself shortly thereafter. The first monoku that received widespread acceptance was Michael Segers’s:

in the eggshell after the chick has hatched

Haiku Magazine 5:2 (summer 1971)

What it chiefly is noticing, seemingly, is an absence, though one might argue for shadow or whiteness or some other characteristic But the curiously truncated manner in which it presents itself, in medias res, is not to be found again until Robert Grenier’s “Sentences”, such as

except the swing bumped by the dog in passing

Sentences (1978)

Once the idea of a single line containing the whole of a haiku came into consciousness in the haiku community, it spread quickly. George Swede took up the gauntlet, producing several monoku such as this:

at the edge of the precipice I become logical

A Snowman, Headless (1978)

An atypical poem by Lorraine Ellis Harr from around the same time:

an owl hoots darkness down from the hollow oak

Cicada 2:3 (1978)

R. Clarence Matsuo-Allard was one of the first to go on record publicly espousing the single-line format, with poems such as this one, from 1979:

an icicle the moon drifting through it

Cicada 3:2 (1979)

The same year saw Marlene Mountain’s paean to concision:

pig and i spring rain

Frogpond 2:3 (November 1979)

More efforts found their way into print in 1980, such as this one by John Wills:

dusk from rock to rock a waterthrush

Amoskeag 1 (1980)

and this from Robert Boldman:

leaves blowing into a sentence

Cicada 4:4 (1980)

Nearly all the leading haiku poets of the day found the single-line form worth exploring. At about the same time one by Peggy Willis Lyles:

Before we knew its name the indigo bunting

Brussels Sprout 2:2 (1981)

This from James Kirkup also in 1981:

the blood of my shadow poured up the steps

Dengonban Messages (1981)

Elizabeth Searle Lamb tried her hand:

cry of the peacock widens the crack in the adobe wall

2nd, Harold G. Henderson Haiku Awards (Haiku Society of America), 1981

and Ruby Spriggs as well:

my head in the clouds in the lake

Frogpond 6:2 (1983)

And, a bit later, one from Hal Roth:

dove song shortens the lane where she waits

Her Daughter’s Eyes (1990)

All this occurred within the confines of the haiku community. At the same time, however, a very surprising thing happened: one of the major contemporary American poets, John Ashbery, inspired by Hiroaki Sato’s one-line translations from the Japanese, published 37 haiku in his 1982 collection The Wave. These poems were quite different from the majority of poems being published in haiku journals, and indeed set a challenge to haiku poets to engage in a larger discourse with so-called mainstream poetry. Here’s one example:

A blue anchor grains of grit in a tall sky sewing

Sulfur 5 (1981)

No one immediately took up this challenge, perhaps because it was so daunting, but more likely because haiku poets were not even aware of it. In the following decade a handful of poets published monoku, most of them only occasionally. Since the beginning of the new century, however, all that has changed. Most major haiku poets since 2000 have tried their hand at monoku, and while some have decided it doesn’t suit them, most have included at least a few in their collections as well as in journals. In rough chronological order , the past decade has seen work by:

Chris Gordon

a love letter to the butterfly gods with strategic misspellings

Apparent Definition of Wavering (2005)

Dietmar Tauchner:

deep inside you no more war

Roadrunner VI:4 (November 2006)

vincent tripi (1996):

Ah water-strider never to have left a track!

Paperweight for Nothing (2006)

Stuart Quine:

bolted and chained the way to the mountains

Presence 31 (2007)

Allan Burns:

Kind of Blue the smell of rain

Acorn 20 (spring 2008)

Jeff Stillman:

hazy moon hung over the new year

Blithe Spirit 18:1 (March 2008)

Lorin Ford:

their wings like cellophane remember cellophane

Roadrunner IX:2 (May 2009)

Karma Tenzing Wangchuk:

stone before stone buddha

Stone Buddha (2009)

Charles Trumbull:

such innocent questions – sunflowers

Roadrunner IX:1 (February 2009)

Scott Metz:

only american deaths count the stars

Modern Haiku 40.1 (winter-spring 2009)

Martin Lucas:

the thyme-scented morning lizard’s tongue flicking out

Presence 39 (September 2009)

Giselle Maya:

the cuckoo’s voice has opened a white iris

Modern Haiku 41.3 (autumn 2010)

John Barlow:

the wind being farmed the wind that isn’t

Presence 41 (May 2010)

Eve Luckring:

cocktail party that one closed door

A New Resonance Volume 6, 2009

William Ramsey:

fate: a leaf falls but with improvisation

More Wine (2010)

and Christopher Patchel:

we turn turn our clocks ahead

1st, HaikuNow! Contest (The Haiku Foundation), 2011, innovative category

And of course I myself have found many resources in the monoku, writing my first at the end of the century (though not published until 2004):

a W of geese not quite the end of summer

Simply Haiku 2

and scores more since. In 2011, at the request of the Dutch publisher ‘t Schrijverke, I wrote a monograph on the topic, entitled where i leave off, which seeks to identify several strategies that monoku employ, and provides examples from my work.

I would like to focus on three of the more interesting techniques readily available in monoku but only rarely, if at all, in normative haiku, or even in other formal schemes. Of course there are many more than three such techniques, and the use of one does not preclude the use of others in any given poem. Many of the poems above are indeed not so simply parsed that a single technique can be said to account for the whole of its effect.

It’s my contention that early monoku, up until at least the Segers poem, and many after as well, employed no technique that is unique to haiku presented as a single line. The one-line translations seek to render a more just experience of the Japanese original, not to expand the range of technical advantage the monoku might offer in English; while poets writing in English seemingly didn’t discover these technical advantages until the form was much more established. If we consider the examples above by Hearn, Sato, and Ginsberg, we would probably agree that all might have been presented in three lines with little loss to the poem had the translator or poet chosen that form. And we might say the same of the original poems of Matsuo-Allard and Bostok.

But in the Segers poem, and many of those that follow, something else is happening: re-presenting in three lines becomes more problematical, and the results lose something of the effect of the original poem. Segers truncates the poem in such a way that we actually omit the fragment part of the usual fragment/phrase layout: the poem might have been more traditionally written with a first line of, say, “in the henhouse”, if aiming for one kind of effect, or perhaps “darkness” if aiming for another. But by dispensing with it altogether the poet forces the reader to do more work, more imagining, and this serves to open the poem to all sorts of interesting results. Rather than a piling up of images upon the imagination, what Pound called “phanopoeia”, a single image is extended or elaborated into a second context, often implied. This omission of fragment comes to be one of the most commonly used techniques in the toolbox of the emerging monoku. Other examples of it from our list include the poems by Boldman, Spriggs, Gordon, Lucas, and Ford.

The second technique we find commonly in monoku that differs from normative haiku form is sheer speed. The rushing of words past the imagination’s editor results in a breathless taking in of the whole, only after which the unexpected “sense” contained within the imagery asserts itself. The pivot of a poem might occur in the first word, but having met it so early in the reading the reader can hardly be blamed for not recognising it as such. And another might work in exactly the opposite way, postponing its pivot for the last word, and then asking the reader to decide how to read it.

The first such poem on our list is Marlene Mountain’s “pig and i”. In five words she limns the entire scene, and the reader or listener really has no alternative but to take it whole. Only afterwards is it possible to unpack it, by which point the entire sensation of the poem is embedded within us. Boldman’s poem operates in a similar fashion, as do the poems by Lyles, Spriggs, Tauchner, Burns, Metz, and, in a slightly different way, Patchel.

There is no parallel for this effect that I can find in normative haiku. The line breaks ensure that the reader slows down, and momentum is lost, which for most poems is not a loss, but for these special kinds of poems, removes much of their impact.

A third technique endemic to monoku is the use of multiple kire, “cutting”. Some critics, such as Hasegawa Kai, feel that kire is the most critical poetic technique employed by haiku. The advantage this kind of monoku has is that the break can occur in one of several places, and each possible break point yields a different reading. Most often the sense of the poem remains similar, but different emphases create subtle shifts in meaning. We might think of such haiku as cut gems: each slight turn catches the light a bit differently; each facet contains its own inherent gleams and prismatic effects. Multiple possible caesuras yield subtle, often ambiguous texts which generate alternative readings, and subsequently richer poetic experiences. Each poem can be several poems, and the more the different readings cohere and reinforce each other, the larger the field occupied by the poem, the greater its weight in the mind. My poem is one such example, with others being the Metz, Wangchuk, and Stillman.

In addition to these three techniques let me briefly add the monoku’s ability to enact its content, a kind of shape poem, as in the Wills; a more direct imposition of images in Lamb’s; the creation of a kind of unexpected animism all the more direct for its form, as in the Roth; a vehicle for apothegm and epigram, in the tripi and Ramsey; and the irreducible, through-composed poem which a three-line treatment would render cumbersome, as exemplified by Lucas. There are special effects as well, such as Patchel’s word repetition which deepens the significance of the observation, and the management of disjunctive elements that might feel too loosely constrained in a less lapidary form, such as the Ashbery and Boldman.

And so on.

This is not advocacy for one-line technique for all English-language haiku. The needs of each poem must be determined individually, and those needs met. Nor is it any indication of all that’s possible within a one-line treatment – I believe we’ve only begun to explore how the monoku might expand the range of English-language haiku. But it is an argument that one-line form is no longer a variant form – the monoku is, and has been for some time, a fully-fledged form of the genre, and with an exciting exploratory period just ahead. I look forward to participating in that exploration, and expect many of you will be involved as well. It will not be the very distant future when we will define haiku as a brief poem, most often in one or three lines. Only then will our explanation have caught up with the reality.


1: Basil Hall Chamberlain. “Bashô and the Japanese Poetical Epigram,” Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, XXX, 1902
2: Miyamori Asatarô, trans. and annotator, An Anthology of Haiku, Ancient and Modern, Chugai Printing Company, Tokyo, 1932
3: Kenneth Rexroth, trans One Hundred Poems from the Japanese (New Directions Books, New York, 1955)
4: Harold Stewart, A Net of Fireflies: Japanese Haiku and Haiku Paintings (Charles E Tuttle Co, US & Japan, 1960).

Editor’s note: This article was first presented at Haiku North America, held in Seattle in 2011. It has subsequently been edited and published in Modern Haiku 43.3 (autumn 2012). It appears here with the author’s permission.

Jim Kacian is a former president of the Haiku Society of America, owner of Red Moon Press and founder of The Haiku Foundation. Two of his haiku feature on boulders on the Katikati Haiku Pathway.