Does English Language Haiku Require Its Own Grammar?
As I continue my explorations of the differences between Syllabic Haiku and Free Verse Haiku I return over and over again to the way the two traditions handle English grammar and syntax. I have a strong memory of first encountering the Haiku of Richard Wright and being immediately struck by the fact that the Haiku of Wright are written in a normal, flowing, standard English. I think I actually said out loud, “Wow! Haiku in the English language!!!”
The reason I was so impressed is that Free Verse Haiku has cultivated a distinct manner of speaking, a distinct usage, that consciously differs from the English we know, read, and use in other areas of our lives. Poetic discourse often treats English freely, changing normal word order, sometimes inventing words, crafting regular lines in accordance with metric or syllabic counts, rhyming, etc. From this perspective it is not that unusual for Free Verse Haiku to cultivate a special type of English usage.
Here is an example of non-standard word order usage found in Emily Dickinson:
I never saw a Moor.
I never saw the Sea –
Yet know I how the Heather looks
And what a Billow be –
I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven –
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given –
(Page 355, Belknap Harvard Edition, R. W. Franklin, Editor)
Lines 3 and 7 have a reversed syntax. The normal word order in English is subject-verb-object. But in these two lines the verb precedes the subject:
Line 3 as written: Yet know I how the Heather looks
Line 3 standard: Yet I know how the Heather looks
Line 7 as written: Yet certain am I of the spot
Line 7 standard: Yet I am certain of the spot
This kind of reversal is common in English poetry. It is a usage that is not heard often in speech, but which is nevertheless understandable by an ordinary English speaker. That is because all of the grammatical elements are still there and they are in close proximity to each other. In this specific case, Dickinson uses the odd syntax in the 3rd line of each quatrain; and each line starts with the word ‘yet’. So the odd syntax adds an overall unifying element, bringing these two lines into resonance.
Is Free Verse Haiku usage like this? My sense is that Free Verse Haiku usage of English is different. I think it is different because it changes the grammatical features as such, rather than reversing the order of those features, or regularizing those features in terms of metrical feet or rhyme. What Free Verse Haiku has created is more like a distinct dialect, a separate style of usage that only those educated in its structure fully understand. I refer to this dialect as Haiku Hybrid English, or HHE for short.
Fortunately, there is an excellent Free Verse Haiku poet, Lee Gurga, who, with his usual clarity and skill, has written about the distinct manner of using English in what I call HHE. In Gurga’s book “Haiku: A Poet’s Guide” the author helpfully has a section called “Haiku Grammar” which focuses on this aspect of free verse Haiku composition (see pages 79 – 83).
Gurga opens this section with a discussion as to which verb forms are best used in Haiku. Gurga advocates for the primary usage of present tense forms, “Because haiku almost always present a moment in the present tense, the forms of verbs available are generally limited to present-tense verbs and participles.” (page 79) Gurga does allow for exceptions, but the emphasis should be on the present tense.
So the first distinction between HHE and standard English is a diminution of tense range, a narrowing of time down to the present tense.
This whittling away of verb forms is so strong that Gurga suggests that a Haiku can reject a verb altogether, “In fact, a verb is not absolutely required in haiku, and some poets enjoy the starkness of juxtaposing two images stripped down to the barest of nouns.” (Page 81) Needless to say, standard English requires a verb.
Closely allied to this diminution of a verb presence in HHE is the feeling that Haiku is noun-based. Gurga writes, “Haiku is a poetry of nouns . . .” (Page 79), and “With nouns we are most clearly able to convey our experiences without interpretation.” (Page 48) Discussing this view would take this essay too far from the central point I want to discuss. But I want to point out that behind this non-standard emphasis on nouns there is a metaphysical view which is controversial; the idea that the world is made up of things, that things are primary. Philosophers such as Whitehead and Bergson would not agree; for these philosophers the world is primarily process, which in English would be expressed using verbs in all their parameters. For now I just want to point out the controversial nature of this metaphysical position; I hope to have more to say on this in the future.
The second aspect of English grammar Gurga deals with is “modifiers” (page 82). If I am reading correctly, Gurga’s view is that Haiku poets should not ‘overstuff’ their Haiku with modifiers; the fewer the better. This is particularly the case when the modifiers are redundant. Gurga offers as an example the line ‘muggy summer night’. Gurga argues that “’Summer’ is unnecessary – ‘muggy’ lets us know the season.” (Page 82)
Again, notice how HHE differs from normal English usage. Redundancies are common in ordinary English. We often say things like “white snow”, even though the listener knows that snow is white. Or we might say the ‘colorful autumn foliage’, even though autumn foliage implies colorfulness. Why do we do this? I think it is because redundancy helps to increase communication, adds emotional emphasis, and in general increases the clarity of what we are trying to say. And is Gurga right that “’muggy’ lets us know the season”? Can’t we have a muggy autumn night? Or a muggy spring night after a spring storm? Generally speaking, it’s true, ‘muggy summer’ contains a redundancy, but not a complete redundancy; using both makes it clear to the listener, or reader, what is being referred to.
The third aspect of English usage Gurga addresses are “Articles and Possessive Pronouns” (Pages 82 & 83). Here Gurga takes a “just right” approach, advocating for neither too few nor too many. Gurga recommends as an exercise, “After writing a haiku, try taking all the articles out. Then add them back one by one until you get the right number.” (Page 83) (I tried this exercise and found it rewarding.) In general Gurga seems to advocate usage that is more consistent with standard usage in this case. With one exception: the opening line of some haiku that consist of a noun. Gurga quotes “trysting place” as an opening line, but seems to have the view that the lack of an article, or possessive pronoun, is good haiku usage. Standard English would require one of these, and Gurga recommends inserting various possibilities to get a feel for how such usage changes the meaning (another exercise I found helpful). But here’s the thing: Gurga doesn’t site the absence of an article or possessive pronoun in the original as a flaw, implying that for HHE the absence is acceptable.
This is what I have observed in a lot of free verse Haiku; a general attitude that articles and possessive pronouns should be avoided, minimized. Again this is in contrast with standard English where articles and possessive pronouns are common.
So let’s summarize what we have found out about HHE:
1. Most verb forms are either disqualified or used very sparingly. The two exceptions are the present tense and present participle.
2. There is the possibility of eliminating verbs altogether.
3. Modifiers are minimized.
4. Articles and possessive pronouns are minimized.
Again, my suggestion is that such a usage constitutes a dialect of the English language. It is not a natural dialect like that heard in Liverpool, Boston, Sydney, Delhi, or Singapore. A ‘natural dialect’ is not attributable to any specific individuals, or even a specific institution. Rather, natural dialects arise spontaneously through regional usage and the impact of outside influences on a specific region.
HHE resembles a constructed language; say the constructed languages of Tolkien or the Klingon language heard in Star Trek. HHE has its own rules of usage that are distinctive. They are distinctive enough that a newcomer has to learn them; that’s one of the reasons Gurga wrote his book, so newcomers could learn the rules of HHE. Only after some years does someone learn to use HHE with ease. To a significant extent, becoming a free verse Haiku poet is learning how to use HHE correctly. (As an aside, there is more that distinguishes HHE from standard English than these four aspects, including absence of metaphor, and a narrow range of acceptable subjects; but for now I want to keep it simple. I might have more to say about these other aspects in future posts.)
HHE as a specific English language dialect has implications. First, only those who are learned in the dialect really understand it. Learning this dialect grants you access to others who have adopted the same dialect. Like any dialect, HHE creates a sense of community. Just like those who grew up speaking the Bronx dialect have a sense of camaraderie with others who speak the same dialect, HHE generates a sense of communal affiliation.
But there is a price to pay for this sense of community. The price is that it isolates those who use HHE from those who use standard English and have not learned the ins and outs of HHE. It has the effect of keeping free verse Haiku in its own isolated enclave. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Every group has its own peculiar usages, even if those usages are confined to specialized nouns. The thing is, does the poet want to communicate to people beyond the group that uses HHE? Or does HHE act as a gate to the free verse Haiku community?
The contrast between syllabic Haiku English usage and free verse Haiku usage of HHE is thorough. Let’s take the four points and see how syllabic Haiku approaches them:
1. Whereas HHE minimizes the range of possible verb structures, syllabic Haiku has no such limitations.
2. Whereas HHE can generate verbless Haiku, such usage is extremely rare in syllabic Haiku and is not an ideal or advocated.
3. Whereas HHE minimizes modifiers, syllabic Haiku makes full use of modifiers and often incorporates the redundancies found in standard English usage.
4. Whereas HHE is cautious in its usage of articles and possessive pronouns, and tends to minimize their usage, syllabic Haiku has no such hesitancy and uses both in a way that resembles standard usage.
My personal preference is for the standard English usage found in syllabic Haiku, but I can understand the appeal of HHE. But I believe that these differences in English language usage make a case for my view that free verse Haiku and syllabic Haiku have become different forms. The Haiku of people like Richard Wright, James Hackett, Susan August, Mary Jo Salter, Edith Shiffert, Johnny D., and many others, does not use HHE. Their relationship to the English language is different; they are shaping English differently. The difference is that syllabic Haiku is not using a distinct dialect; rather syllabic Haiku is shaping an already given standard English. Syllabic Haiku does not propose rules of grammar that are different from the rules of standard English.
One practical effect of this, to my mind, is that when a free verse Haiku poet who uses HHE, critiques a syllabic Haiku poet they will almost always miss the mark. Those who use HHE when looking at a syllabic Haiku poet will find verb usages not allowed in the HHE dialect, more modifiers than HHE would approve of, etc. But that’s the point: the two usages are distinct and based on different standards. The standards of the HHE dialect do not apply to the standard English used in syllabic Haiku. It’s like someone criticizing an apple for not being a cucumber. Or, perhaps more accurately, it resembles someone from Sydney criticizing the Bronx dialect because the Bronx dialect has different usages. That doesn’t make sense and I would suggest that critiques of syllabic Haiku by those using HHE don’t make sense either, and for similar reasons.
In closing I would like to repeat that I can understand the appeal of HHE and if it appeals to you, I say go for it. In addition, it is possible for a poet to use HHE and compose free verse Haiku, and then at another time compose syllabic Haiku using standard English. This is because, again, they are two different forms. Just as a poet can write a Villanelle and a Sestina, so also poets can write both free verse and syllabic Haiku. My only hope is that we recognize that fee verse Haiku and syllabic Haiku have become, over time, two different verse forms and that they should be evaluated on their own terms.