Emotion in Haiku

By Dee Evetts

Recently a friend of mine asked me if I consider that haiku are capable of expressing strong or deep feelings. During the conversation that followed it became apparent that she was inclined to think not, given the extreme brevity of the form. This has put me on the back foot, so to speak, and caused me to re-examine much that I was taking for granted. While thinking about this, I came across this statement by the haiku poet and editor Scott Mason: “An effective haiku is one that positively engages its reader or listener on an emotional basis”. This is certainly plain speaking, and I hope that I can substantiate his view to some degree in this essay.

I think it has to be conceded right away that in a conventional poem (which for present purposes I am defining arbitrarily as having 10 lines or more) there is scope for a beginning, a middle, and an end. Which is to say, there is space for development. This permits elaboration, reiteration, the accumulation of images and phrases, and room for several metaphors, or at least one extended one. The result can be a drumbeat of gathering force, leading to — that most challenging line — a conclusion. Readers may bring to mind their own discoveries of deeply felt and strongly articulated poems. Since space does not permit me to present examples here, I would like to recommend two outstanding poems that are only a click away. These are: One Art by Elizabeth Bishop, and The Wound in Time by Carol Ann Duffy.

Bishop’s poem is a model of understatement, opening with a casual and humorous chronicle of her tendency to lose things. These items become perceptibly more weighty and absurd, in no way anticipating the closing line, where she switches abruptly to confession of a grievous loss. By contrast Duffy’s piece (with just 14 lines) eschews development in favour of a relentless accumulation of raw images interspersed with pleas for humanity, achieving an almost oxygen-stealing intensity.

How can haiku compete with poems such as these? The short answer is that they cannot. Not on those terms, at least. They have to succeed on their own terms, and with very little room for manoeuvre. In a haiku there is no space for elaboration, the poem being all over within as few as 10 or a dozen words. What it has to do, therefore, is to awake corresponding feelings in the reader by vividly presenting a situation or observation that is in some way charged. There is a proviso, of course. What touches a memory or association — a sympathetic chord — in me, may not do the same for you, due to our differing personal histories and predilections. This is a hazard that the haiku poet must take on board. I want first of all to contrast these two poems by Marcus Larsson:

    alone                  hospital park
    on my brother’s property         the birdsong
    autumn deepens             becomes too much

I may be in the minority in assuming that the brother of the first poem is no longer alive. It can of course be read quite differently: as caretaking the property, for example, or visiting to make sure that all is in order. If it is not in fact about bereavement, the feeling conveyed is nonetheless introspective and compelling. The second poem is unequivocally a struggle with strong emotion, whether grief or apprehension — or a mingling of these. It is rarely in life or in literature that bird song is shunned, and this makes a powerful statement.

The next two examples are profoundly different from one another, both in tone and effect. The first was written by Pranita Gulyani, the second by Roberta Beary:

    long hours…             family vacation
    the way the moonlight          in the museum corner
    fills her scars             uncle’s hard kisses

Gulyani’s haiku offers the briefest of sketches; we can only guess at the history behind those scars, while the sense of caring is palpable. By contrast Beary’s poem is a slap to the face. Haiku are seldom as explicit as this, or as shocking. Confusion, fear, and above all powerlessness pervade this piece; anger comes later, for the poet (I would guess) and reader alike.

We have visited some dark places in the foregoing poems. Following are two lighter-themed haiku that I find are no less moving. The poets are Dimitar Anakiev and Nanneke Huizenge:

    garden work—            A man and a woman
    talking to each other           each sheet they fold
    back to back              brings them together.

As readers we cannot know what the relationship of the pair depicted in the first poem is, whether they are a couple, or siblings, mother and daughter — or simply friends. And we do not need to know. Regardless, the poem is suffused with feelings of easy rapport and companionship. Huizenga’s poem meanwhile conveys a sweet intimacy that needs no elaboration. It has in addition a timelessness that makes it in my opinion a classic.

It is worthwhile noting that haiku can sometimes turn brevity to singular advantage, where the feelings involved are mixed or complicated, even ambivalent. Here is an example from Karen Sohne:

              fifteenth birthday
              my son’s eyes no longer
              exactly blue

We have here a subtle blend of enduring love and letting go. Of evolving love, that is to say. There is an evocation for me of general laughter around a crowded table, with the poet-mother quietly making this observation to herself. We may also admire the construction of the poem, with the line-break after “no longer” giving a slight hesitation (and thereby a momentary lingering) before the next line’s categorical “exactly”. If a haiku can be termed a masterpiece — and why should it not? — then this is surely one.

I want to sum up, or at least move towards that, with this declaration by William Carlos Williams: I would say that poetry is language charged with emotion. . . A poem is a complete little universe. It exists separately. Any poem that has worth expresses the whole life of the poet. It gives a view of what the poet is. At first reading there seems to be a logical leap — almost a reversal — between the third and fourth lines. How can a poem be its own universe, and at the same time express the whole life of the poet? It has taken me some while to conclude that there is no contradiction in what Williams asserts.

Preferring to end this essay with poetic work rather than with commentary, I close with two haiku that convey (along with whatever else) an emotion that we have not yet touched upon: Awe. I look forward to discussing these poems in some future context. They are by Raymond Roseliep and Penny Harter respectively:

    he removes his glove          distant thunder
       to point out             overhead a satellite
             Orion           moves in the dark

Editor’s note: This essay was first published in tsuri-dōrō issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2021) and appears here with the author’s permission.

Dee Evetts is co-founder (with David Cobb) of the British Haiku Society and a former secretary of the Haiku Society of America. In 1992 he started the Spring Street Haiku Group in New York, and in 1995 curated the Haiku on 42nd Street installation. He was for a number of years co-editor with Jim Kacian of the ongoing series A New Resonance, and one of the editors for the annual Red Moon Anthology. He currently writes for the online journal tsuri-dōrō, as well as for troutswirl (The Haiku Foundation blog), while continuing to write and publish his own work, which increasingly includes tanka. An award-winning haiku poet, Dee’s most recent collection is Home After Dark (King’s Road Press, 2002). After having lived in the US for some years, Dee now lives in Cambridge, England.