Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Padding in Haiku

One of the tools of traditional Japanese Haiku is the use of ‘kireji’, often translated as “cutting words”. (This Wikipedia article is a good introduction to Kireji: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kireji ). Kireji are words which have no significance in terms of naming; that is to say they do not refer to some object, or feeling, in the world. Kireji have a grammatical function; they separate two grammatical clauses when a kireji appears between such clauses. Often they appear at the end of a Haiku and in that case their grammatical function is more obscure. Different Kireji have different emotional weight, but even here the exact meaning of the emotion is not altogether clear. Because there is no equivalent in English grammar to Kireji there is a kind of fascination about them, once a Haiku poet, writing in English, makes their acquaintance.

I would like to suggest a function of Kireji that I have seen mentioned only in passing. I suspect that one function of Kireji is padding; that is to say Kireji are used to fill out the syllable count of a Haiku when the count falls short. From this perspective Kireji resemble syllables used in song to simply fill out the melody; words like “Fa-la-la-la-la” or “Sha-na-na-na”. There are many examples of this kind of usage in song.

In song these kinds of syllables fill out the shape of the melody; the composer/singer wants to retain the shape of the melody, but the words of the verse don’t fill out the shape. So the singer inserts some syllables just to fill in and retain the melodic shape. Similarly, Japanese Haiku poets will fill out the syllabic contours of a Haiku by using Kireji if the poetic material does not fill the syllabic shape. I think this is particularly true of Kireji used at the very end of a Haiku. In fact I have read on several occasions reviews of Japanese Haiku that end in “kana” (a widely used Kireji) where the reviewer states explicitly that the poet probably used “kana” just to fill out the count.

I agree with that assessment, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. In fact, I think it is a wonderful tool. I wish that English had such a tool for filling out a line that was a syllable or two short.

If one looks at Kireji in this way it opens up the possibility of a non-minimalist approach to Haiku in English. English language Haiku has been dominated by a minimalist approach; “less is more” is the doctrine and trimming is the method. This has given rise to Haiku that at times seem to me to be anorexic; so slim as to be unhealthy. Adding a word or two for the purposes of rhythm, alliteration, assonance, or general flow would allow for a more full bodied Haiku. And such an approach would be consistent with one of the functions of Kireji as used in traditional Japanese Haiku.

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