The Way of One

by Jim Kacian

The Japanese, almost without exception, write their haiku in a single vertical line. The consequence of such practice is considerably different from what has become the standard form in Western haiku — three lines creates its own set of expectations and timings.

In my efforts to regain something of what is attained by the original Japanese practice, I have discovered some effects that, for a variety of reasons, are not available in Japanese.

To make my findings public (I am, as Ezra Pound insists serious poets do, taking “the risk of printing the results of [my] own personal inspection”), I have written a short book (though not a book in one line, as perhaps my critics would prefer) on the topic.

This chapbook focuses on three of the more interesting effects to be found in one-line English haiku, which I tentatively term “one line – one thought”, “speedrush” and “multistops”. Of course there are other effects, and the use of one does not preclude the use of others in any given poem.

Many of the poems I provide as examples are indeed not so simple as to be classified even within my own system.

In this online synopsis of that book, I include a few new examples, but none of the poems from the print volume. This is because that book seeks to persuade as a book of poems, as well as a primer in this technique, and must be taken whole.

This version, on the other hand, hopes to whet your appetite, to think more deeply on the topic at hand, and perhaps to seek out that other book. In any case, I hope my study will prove a stimulus to other poets for further experimentation.

One way the English-language one-liner achieves its affect is through “one line – one thought”. Rather than a piling up of images upon the imagination (phanopoeia — Pound again), a single image is extended or elaborated into a second context, stated or implied.

Think of the scene near the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey where the ship is hurtling through the atmosphere of some unknown planet: the astronaut is a single image, but the context around him is changing all the time — that’s the kind of effect we get from one line, one thought, Kubrickian rather than Poundian.

riffing on Wittgenstein one train hides another 

the endless loop of the men’s room towel this morning 

the whirr of the hummingbird all i could see 

A third way Western languages can exploit the one-line haiku to novel effect is through the use of multiple kire, or cutting words. Certain critics, such as Hasugawa Kai, feel that kire is the most critical poetic technique exploited by haiku.

The advantage of one-line poems in English is that any of several stops can be made by the reader, even a different stop or stops each time through. Multiple stops yield subtle, rich, often ambiguous texts which generate alternative readings, and subsequent variable meanings.

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.

subverting itself October snow 

iron stains the roadkill of the godless month 

walking among old stone cattle out in the rain 

This is not advocacy for the one-line technique for all English-language haiku. The needs of each poem must be determined individually, and those needs met. However, the one-line technique offers some very cogent reasons to consider it in the right circumstances.

after millions of floating-point operations a tomato i grew myself 

And what techniques would you say are at work in poems such as these?

in heavy fog light as particle and wave 

mulling it over the legs of the brandy 

the raised napes of wolf and I to I 

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Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Roadrunner X:2  and appears here with the kind permission of the author.

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.

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