Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Land of Long Nights

The snow has fallen on the tundra shore,
Tense winds shout, ice bound sea,
An aurora tapestry;
The timelessness of beauty

Friday, December 28, 2012

Fragmentation or Variation

Fragmentation or Variation

Now and then I wander around the web, looking at online sites devoted to syllabic verse.  I do this unsystematically.  One of the sites I sometimes give some time to is found at the Haiku Foundation.  The site has interesting and articulate articles, and some videos as well, on various aspects of Haiku.  When I go there I usually learn something valuable about current Haiku views and news.

There is a Forum at the Haiku Foundation.  I stumbled on a thread that deals with a subject that really interests me.  The thread is now four pages long; the last entry is November 25, this year.  It is a thread about the current situation of Haiku and what intrigued me is how some of the participants in the thread find English Language Haiku to have lost a sense of focus and clarity as to what Haiku means, or what its basic parameters are. 

You can access the thread here:

If my link does not work, you can go to:

That takes you to the ‘home’ page.  Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on ‘Forums’.

When you get to the Forums click on the “New to Haiku” section.  The specific thread is titled “And this is a haiku because . . . ?”  That will get you to the discussion I am referencing.

The discussion was initiated by a Haiku of Elizabeth Searle Lamb, a well-known and much admired Haijin.  The specific Haiku is:

the blind child reading my poem with her fingertips

There then follows a discussion about if this is a Haiku, which leads to a more general discussion about the state of English Language Haiku in general.  There are a range of opinions.  What I found valuable about the thread is how articulate the participants are and how they manage to express their differences without rancor; a truly admirable accomplishment.  It is a worthwhile discussion and if you are interested in views about modern English Language Haiku I recommend paying the thread a visit.

I am sympathetic to the sense of bafflement by some of the participants (I am thinking of Don Baird as a good example); the feeling that people can write anything they want, as long as it is short, and call it a Haiku.  And that there seems to be no agreed upon central core of meaning when referring to English Language Haiku.  As some on the thread put it, English Language Haiku is losing its identity and the problem is increasing.

It is my own feeling that what has happened is that the word “Haiku” now actually covers several different forms of poetry.  That is my personal resolution to the difficulties addressed in the thread.  The reason we don’t recognize this is because the differentiation happened slowly.  The different forms all have a common ancestor in Japanese Haiku, but over the years they have become more and more differentiated, more and more distant from each other.

In other words, my own feeling is that the world of English Language Haiku is not so much fragmented as that it has given birth to a number of different forms that have now gone their separate ways.  The situation resembles children growing up and leaving home.  It takes a while for the parents to really comprehend that the kids are gone and that they are now on their own.

For me, the big division is between what I call ‘Syllabic Haiku’ and ‘Free Verse Haiku’; though I suspect others would make different divisions, nevertheless this is where I see the strongest separation.  I have mentioned this frequently at this blog, but the thread at The Haiku Foundation has given me an excuse to summarize my views about this.  And since the year is coming to a close, I thought I would take the time to review how I see this separation of forms and why I consider them to be two different forms of poetry.  What follows is a series of contrasts that illuminate the differences between Free Verse Haiku and Syllabic Haiku as I understand them.

1.         Method of construction:  Syllabic Haiku begins by counting syllables; it is grounded in counting 5-7-5.  In contrast, Free Verse Haiku uses an uncounted line.  So right from the beginning the tools used to construct a Haiku are different and the Syllabic Haiku Poet and Free Verse Haiku poet will have a different mindset as they begin.

2.         Minimalism: Syllabic Haiku has not absorbed a minimalist esthetic and is not inclined to express itself in a language that reflects the canons of minimalism.  In contrast, Free Verse Haiku has adopted a minimalist view.  The result is that from the perspective of Free Verse Haiku, Syllabic Haiku look ‘overstuffed’, or ‘too wordy’, or ‘too long’.  On the other hand, from the perspective of Syllabic Haiku, Free Verse Haiku appear truncated, stunted, and at times anorexic.  The difference is that the two traditions have adopted different esthetic foundations and those foundations are reflected in their respective Haiku offerings.

3.         Padding and Trimming:  Syllabic Haiku is as likely to add words to, that is to pad, a Haiku during the process of revision as to trim, to remove words.  There are examples I know of where Syllabic Haiku poets have added words in the process of revision; some of these are publicly known as the first, shorter, version was published, and then later versions of the same Haiku were later published with added words.  Syllabic Haiku poets will add words to fill out the count, to make a smoother rhythm, to clarify an image, to elicit a specific poetic effect such as alliteration, assonance, rhyme, etc.

In contrast, Free Verse Haiku revision process consists almost entirely of trimming.  The overriding principle, in accordance with the minimalism previously mentioned, is that ‘less is more’, the fewer words the better.  At one online forum I now and then attend I have never seen anyone suggest adding additional words to a Haiku offered for comment; only trimming is suggested.  This makes sense when one’s view of Haiku is shaped by both free verse and minimalism.

4.         Metaphor:  Syllabic Haiku poets have no reluctance in using metaphor in all of its types and variations.  In contrast, Free Verse Haiku poets are reluctant to use metaphor, though exactly why is not clear to me.  My suspicion is that using metaphor looks to Free Verse Haiku poets like a kind of padding; too many words.  But I’m not sure about that.  Whatever the reason, metaphor is explicitly rejected by a number of Free Verse Haiku poets in their manuals for Haiku composition.  This isn’t universal among Free Verse Haijin (Jane Reichhold is an exception), but it is widespread enough to warrant mention here.

5.         Personification:  The same applies to personification.  Among Syllabic Haiku Poets there is no reluctance regarding personification.  Among Free Verse Haiku poets personification is often considered a flaw and should be avoided.

6.         Other Poetic Effects: As previously mentioned, Syllabic Haiku poets will craft their Haiku in accordance with the traditions of English Language Poetry and that includes assonance, alliteration, rhyme, and meter.  I have observed how some Syllabic Haijin will, at times, take a metrical approach to their composition; this is particularly true if they routinely write metrical poetry in other forms.  In other words, Syllabic Haiku views itself as embedded in the long tradition of English Language Poetry as much as, perhaps more than, the tradition of Japanese poetry.  A good example of this is that Japanese poetry does not use rhyme as a defining element of form.  While Syllabic Haijin have not defined their Haiku via a rhyme scheme, they have at times incorporated rhyme in ways that resemble the usage of rhyme in traditional English language poetry.

In contrast, Free Verse Haiku eschews the usage of most poetic effects.  My sense is that the conscious use of poetic effects is considered a distraction by many Free Verse Haijin.  In addition, the conscious use of poetic effects will, usually, result in, from the perspective of their tradition, padding.  Padding runs counter to their minimalist commitments.  Free Verse Haiku, it seems to me, is rooted in English Language Free Verse markers more than it is rooted in Japanese poetry.  My sense is that the absence of rhyme in Free Verse Haiku has more to do with the rejection of rhyme by the free verse tradition than it does with the absence of rhyme as a constructive element in Japanese poetry; it just happens that the two coincide.

7.         Relationship to the English Language:  Syllabic Haiku accept the English language as it is and shape the English language in accordance with its central syllabic focus: into phrases of 5-7-5 syllables.  In contrast, Free Verse Haiku proposes an altered English that is in accordance with their minimalist commitments.  At times this results in the construction of an actual alternative grammar of Free Verse Haiku.  Again, this is not universal among Free Verse Haijin; but it is mentioned often enough to comment on.

8.         Pedagogy:     What finally convinced me that Free Verse Haiku and Syllabic Haiku are two different forms is that I could imagine teaching them in a class on modern forms as completely different, even contrasting, forms of poetry.  Just as I could in a class teach the Sestina and the Villanelle, so also I could teach Syllabic Haiku and Free Verse Haiku.  If I were to teach Syllabic Haiku I would start with counting syllables.  Then I would talk about phrasing, grammar, juxtaposition and contrast, seasonal reference, trimming and padding, etc.  If I were to teach Free Verse Haiku I would start with the minimalist view, follow with examples of free verse haiku, talk about how to trim a line, seasonal reference, etc.  Notice how the starting points differ and that the tools for crafting also differ.  There is some overlap: for example the seasonal reference is an important aspect of both traditions.  This is because Free Verse and Syllabic Haiku have a common ancestor and they still share a few traits: just as siblings will share a few traits from their parents but also differ from each other in important ways.

Like many of the people on the thread over at The Haiku Foundation, I went for years becoming more and more confused, baffled, and sometimes irritated, at the lack of any central core of meaning for the word ‘Haiku’ and the ‘anything goes’ feeling.  It’s not that I am opposed to experimentation.  It has more to do with why I should accept that many of these experiments are Haiku.  As Don Baird wrote on the thread, “When asking folks what a concerto is . . . , to this day, they can quickly outline its basic characteristics.”  But the situation with English Language Haiku is so varied and so confusing that one is hard put to site even a single characteristic that is agreed on.  Perhaps ‘shortness’ might be accepted by everyone; but the problem with ‘shortness’ is that there are countless short poems that are written in other forms, such as Lanterne, Crapsey Cinquain, single verse Quatrains, etc., and I think we can agree that they are not Haiku, though they may contain some Haiku-like qualities.  So even shortness is not a distinctive marker for the Haiku form.

As I mentioned above, the resolution of this confused situation was to simply accept that we are, in fact, dealing with a number of distinct forms.  I have focused on just two of them (Syllabic and Free Verse) because my main interest is in syllabics.  But it is possible to differentiate other forms as well.  For example, the monostitch, sometimes called a monoku, is a snappy one line form that is derived from Free Verse Haiku.  I would suggest that the monoku is a distinct form in itself.  Since it is not syllabically shaped, I won’t spend time on it here.

The personal effect for me of accepting that we are dealing with different forms of poetry was a grateful relaxation.  Tension in the English Language Haiku community often revolves around attempting to get others to write in the parameters of the form one has chosen.  If you can imagine a Sestina poet trying to get someone to stop writing Villanelles and to come over to the Sestina side, then you can imagine how frustrating that would be.  The two factions, the Sestina faction and the Villanelle faction, would for the most part talk right past each other.  The solution is to let the Sestina be a Sestina and let the Villanelle be a Villanelle; to recognize the legitimacy of both forms.

Similarly, I suspect that Syllabic and Free Verse Haiku have reached a point in their development where they simply need to acknowledge that they are more different from each other than what they have in common; to bid each other well, and to go on and live their own lives.  Both traditions have produced excellent poetry.  But they have done so using different methods and esthetic criteria.

I admit that my view is eccentric in the sense that it is not shared by very many other Haijin, Free Verse or Syllabic.  That’s OK; I can live with that.  I offer it here thinking that perhaps others will find it helpful.  Perhaps elements of this view will be illuminating, perhaps not.  But for me it has offered a way of getting past the frustration many English Language Haijin express: it isn’t that there is no core to our Haiku.  Rather it is that Japanese Haiku is a plant that has sprouted many seeds and some of those seeds have taken root in the English speaking world.  The result is a variegated garden, a garden of numerous forms.  As this year comes to a close, I wish all the forms good growth in the New Year.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


Winter comes slowly
To coastal California --
Neighbor's Christmas lights

On the brand new wooden fence
Mysterious graffiti

She feels sympathy,
She has had the same problem
For several years

Light from the full moon appears
Duller in the city smog

Late at night he slogs
His way through an old novel
For English Lit.

While all his friends have seen fit
To play at the city pool

Some say "Love's a fool,"
But when they are holding hands
The world's coherent

The beauty is apparent
In the apple tree's blossoms

They are just customs;
Shaking hands, waving goodbye,
But there's comfort there

The calendar page declares
Scorpio has come and gone

"What's that other song,
(I can remember one verse)
We used to sing it?"

Fall leaves turn, they begin it,
And my hair is turning gray

Saturday, December 22, 2012


The frost-filled garden
Under the deodar tree
A child sweetly sings

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Descent of Grace into the Whole Body

On the solstice
Gifts are arriving
Gifts are departing
Festivals of lights
One more year has passed by
I send cards to absent friends
Greetings from across the country
It is a time to reconnect
To find out how people are doing
To find out if someone has passed away
To rekindle the light of relationships
To strengthen those bonds which so easily slip
To once again rediscover the holy
That descends upon all from a source above,
To open the heart to waves of lovingkindness
To remove the anger that constantly blinds us
To pray for the welfare of all living beings
To drink once again from the infinite stream of love.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Time Shift

Time Shift

There is a technique used by many Haiku poets where the poet takes a specific image and then shifts to a much larger context.  Or the technique can be reversed: the poet can start with a very large context and then narrow the focus down to a single object.  In Jane Reichhold’s “Writing and Enjoying Haiku” she talks about this technique:

“This is a device that was often used by the Japanese master Buson because he, being an artist, was a very visual person.  Basically what you do is to start with a wide-angle lens on the world in the first line, switch to a normal lens for the second line, and zoom in for a close-up in the end. . .

the whole sky
in a wide field of flowers
one tulip”

(Page 58)

There are many Haiku that use this kind of shift.  Two-tiered examples are also available where the Haiku has a single, focused, image and then shifts to a larger context.

I’d like to suggest that the same can happen with time.  A single moment is depicted, followed by a shift to a larger context of time.  I mentioned in a previous post that I find these time-shift Haiku particularly attractive.  Here I would like to explore how various Haiku poets have done this.

Here is an example by Charles Walker:

Still and silent dawn
The aroma of wood smoke
Other times and places

(Page 65)

Line 1 gives us a present moment in time; a still and silent dawn.  Line 2 gives us a focus on a particular; my sense is that this depicts camping, hence the aroma of wood smoke.  In Line 3 we have the time shift to ‘other times and places’.  The Haiku places the moment into a larger temporal context through the usage of Line 3.  The setting stimulates a recollection of other times, and other places.  Line 3 also gives us a larger sense of place.  Perhaps there have been other camping trips, or perhaps the quiet contemplative scene recalls other events of quiet and rest.  Line 3 is open as to content and spacious in both a temporal and geographical sense.  I particularly enjoy the way the shift is done so smoothly.  There is a wonderful elegance about this Haiku which makes it a really fine example of this kind of shift.

James Moore is another Haiku poet who uses this kind of time shift in some of his Haiku.  Here is Haiku 389:

The familiar path
Across the field disappeared
With the first light snow

(The Haiku Companion, Page 78)

Line 1 is an image of a path, perhaps through a forest, perhaps in a park.  In Line 2 we get the time shift; it is done very gently.  Line 1 shows us a path, but in Line 2 the path has disappeared.  Why?  Line 3 tells us it is because of the first light snow.  So the reader moves from a single moment of visualizing a path, to an extended moment, a process, of the path slowly disappearing during a light snow.  The shift is from a single moment to an extended moment of a process with duration.  And it is very nicely done here.

Moore is sometimes more explicit about the extended moment.  Here is 106:

Today’s snow is down
Tomorrow’s is yet to fall
I walk between them

(Page 22)

Line 1 offers us an image of a snowscape that has just happened.  The snow has finished falling and we are looking at the result.  Line 2 gives us a future; perhaps we have read the weather report or we are attuned to the kind of sky that generates a soon-to-come snowfall.  Line 3 gives us a present moment: walking through the snow.  But the present moment of Line 3 is understood by the reader to be embedded in a field of time, an extended duration, which encompasses both a past and future snowfall.  This is one of the few Haiku I have read which explicitly names the three dimensions of time: the past in Line 1, the future in Line 2, and then ties them together in the present moment in Line 3.  The shift happens from the larger context depicted in Line 1 and 2 to the present moment depicted in Line 3.  This example of time shift strongly resembles Riechhold’s example of a shift in focus from a broad angel vision to a particular object.  In Reichhold’s haiku, quoted at the beginning above, we move from a broad focus in Line 1, “the whole sky”, to a narrower, but still general, focus in Line 2, “in a wide field of flowers”, to a single object in Line 3, “one tulip”.  In Moore’s example we move from the past in Line 1, to the future in Line 2, and then to a specific act in the present in Line 3, “I walk between them”.  The two Haiku both have a three-part structure, and both end in a specific image after opening in a larger context; but Reichhold’s Haiku is embedded in space, while Moore’s Haiku is embedded in time.

Perhaps the Haiku poet who uses this technique the most frequently is Edith Shiffert.  In her collection of Haiku, “Kyoto-Dwelling” I counted 28 Haiku that use time shift.  This is out of about 372 Haiku in the collection.  That’s about 7.5 %.  They are scattered through the collection.  Sometimes the time shift is very gentle.  Here is a Haiku from the ‘April’ Chapter:

Now it is morning
the birds have come to be fed.
Last night’s faded moon!

(Page 51)

Lines 1 and 2 gives us a present image; feeding birds in the morning.  Line 1 even begins with the word ‘now’; a strong placement in the present.  Line 3 shifts the sense of time to the past, ‘Last night’.  What I sense here is perhaps a sleepless night, a night spent watching the moon in restlessness, like the birds coming to be fed.  This is an example of the juxtaposition of time.  Line 3 suddenly adds a temporal dimension to the present image.

Shiffert sometimes accomplishes this time shift by noting the cyclic nature of what she is looking at in the present.  Here’s an example from the ‘November’ Chapter:

Without any leaves
the oak stands in the coldness
again this winter

(Page 106)

Through the single word ‘again’ in Line 3 Shiffert gives us an example of time shift.  Line 1 and 2 are in the present; an image of an oak in winter.  In Line 3 we get the shift; she has seen this before, the oak has looked like this before in the past.  Thus the simple image of Lines 1 and 2 is placed in a larger temporal context.

Here is an example that resembles the three part sequence Reichhold talks about regarding spatial placement, and also used by Moore; from the ‘October’ Chapter:

A week of dark clouds
and now this clear blue sky.
Dogs stretched out, at ease.

(Page 97)

Again, we move from a larger temporal context of a week, to a generalized present through the use of ‘now’, to a specific present in Line 3.  Lines 2 and 3 use the technique of Reichhold outlines of moving from a larger visual context to a specific visual context.  So this Haiku elegantly combines both temporal and spatial shifts.

Sometimes Shiffert’s temporal shifts are given an introspective dimension.  Here is one from the ‘June’ Chapter:

Knowing life will end,
blueness of hydrangeas.
I am satisfied.

(Page 63)

This is a lovely Haiku on the theme of impermanence; life will end, but the blueness of the flowers is, even so, satisfying.  Flowers are an image of impermanence themselves, so Line 2, in the present, resonates with Shiffert’s interior contemplation on her own passing.  Line 1 is the future, Line 2 shifts to the present, and Line 3 leads us into an interior present.  In this Haiku the world of nature, seen in the flowers, and the interior introspective world of the poet, are porous to each other.  I think this is beautifully done.

Sometimes Shiffert will express a time shift by explicitly naming it; from the ‘May’ Chapter:

Just a thousand days,
or just a thousand more years –
just that, nothing more.

(Page 58)

This is a Haiku on the relativity of time, how one instant can be ten thousand years.  Or how a thousand days and a thousand years resonate with each other.  Line 3 brings us into the present, again, with the poet’s introspection.

Time shifting can be vast, covering eons, or it can be a relatively short period of time.  Here is one where the time period is brief, from the ‘October’ Chapter:

The sky this morning
completely empty and bright
from a week of rain.

(Page 97)

Lines 1 and 2 are in the present; a morning sky empty and bright.  Line 3 shifts the time to the recent past; ‘a week’ is presented for the reader’s consideration.  There is a causal connection made between the time period of Line 3 and the present moment of Lines 1 and 2.  This causal linkage places the present moment in a larger temporal context.

Haiku that use some kind of temporal shift are my favorite type of Haiku.  I have a special fondness for them.  For me there is something really sparkling and attractive about them; they unpack the present as embedded in a larger context, a context that we often forget as our mind shrinks its range to present concerns.  There is something healing about bringing that larger context back to awareness.  I find Haiku ideally suited for this kind of temporal shift and placement because of its brevity.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the brevity of a Haiku combined with an expanded sense of time is what I call ‘provocative’; I mean by ‘provocative’ that it stimulates a larger awareness and understanding of how a brief moment is a moment in a vast field, the vast field of time.

In Haiku a season can be named, by saying ‘winter’, ‘spring’, etc., or an image that is embedded in the season can be used, such as ‘frost’ for winter, or ‘crocus’ for spring.  Similarly, time shifts can be named by using temporal words such as ‘last week’, ‘eons ago’, ‘a few months ago’, etc., or an image can be used from a different period of time.  Here’s an example of my own:

The silent traffic
Crossing the polluted stream
Herds of ghost mammoths

The Haiku starts with a present image.  In Line 3 the time shift takes place by using the ‘mammoths’ image, an image from a distant past.  The stream is the constant; present in the present and present in the past. 

In closing here is another introspective Haiku from Shiffert, from the ‘December’ Chapter:

Night after night
we watch these same stars
and bit by bit we age.

(Page 112)

Line 1 gives us a sense of cycle, the daily cycle.  Line 2 shifts to a visual image, the starscape at night.  And line 3 concludes with an introspection from Shiffert.  We are watching the same stars while we age with each passing night.  The Haiku opens with a vision of vastness, then concludes with a specific comment.  In some ways it resembles the three-part structure Reichhold notes, but the concluding Line 3 is an interior image, a thoughtful observation from the poet.  The shift is from the cyclic ‘night after night’ to the present in Line 3; how the vastness of the starscape impacts the poets thoughts in that moment.  Again we see how the world of nature and the interior world of the poet are porous to each other in Shiffert’s Haiku.

The past is present in our lives, and the future is too, though in a different way.  The present moment is a confluence of all of these dimensions.  Haiku has the capacity to articulately expand our awareness of these dimensions.

Monday, December 17, 2012


Long day
Busy holidays
The shoppers want a lot of help
With each passing hour we empty the store shelf by shelf

Sunday, December 16, 2012


It's difficult to talk about Jesus.
Ev'ryone seems to have an opinion.
With so much conflict where does that leave us?

Academics and all of their minions
Present theories like a fashion statement
That will alter with the coming season;
And theologies just breed discontent
(Perhaps because they are based on reason).

The beauty of a sunset cannot be
Proved.  And the waves that come in from the sea
Sing a song whose origin lies beyond
You and me to a deeper, heart-sourced bond.

"God is love" means that God is of the heart;
That's the path from which we must not depart.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


We are being pulled into the future.
I mean that the future really exists.
Like a cataract that pulls the current
Far upstream where we drift lazily and,

Unaware of the rapids and boulders,
We think the river will always consist
Of this easy glide.  As a deterrent
We could beach ourselves, resting on the sand.

But for most of us stasis is torture
And it's difficult for us to resist
The river's song or to hear the torrent,
As if on moving water we could stand.

The future, in a way, is not unknown --
Over the falls, into the sea, the river flows.

Friday, December 14, 2012


The air, cold and still,
A light frost on the windows
Catching the sunrise

A long hug in the kitchen
After a long night of love

He reluctantly
Returns to the world of work,
The world of deadlines

Counting the days, weeks, and months
Leading to the vacation

She has decided
To reduce her commitments,
To spend time strolling

Among the many colors
Of the leaves in the crisp air

A possum scurries
Along a row of bushes
Next to the orchard

Where the rows of apple trees
Are blossoming in the wind

He pauses and looks,
Contemplating the beauty,
The soul of the world

A cloudless and moonless sky
And numberless scattered stars

The sound of crickets,
A chorus for the cosmos,
On this summer night

She wanders in the grotto
Of emptiness and dreams

Thursday, December 13, 2012


The early morning sun
Is casting cold shadows
On the battered sidewalk
Two old friends stroll and talk

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Manner of Speaking

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:

Poem 800

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.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Forest House With Cat by Edith Shiffert: A Review

Forest House With Cat
By Edith Shiffert
A Review

I discovered Edith Shiffert earlier this year.  I wrote a review of her haiku collection ”The Light Comes Slowly”, and posted her 100 Verse (Hyakuin) Renga from “A Return to Kona”.  I have continued exploring Shiffert’s poetry since then.  And I have come to the conclusion that Shiffert is a major resource for syllabic haiku poets.  Her work, written over many decades, informed by a long stay in Japan, is beautiful, substantial, and inspiring.

Here I want to make a few comments on her haiku collection “Forest House With Cat”.  This was published in 1991.  “The Light Comes Slowly” was published in 1997.  Both of them use the same large scale framework for placing the haiku: a calendar of the twelve months.  Each book begins with January, and then continues on through the calendar months, concluding with December.

Each month is about six pages of haiku.  This makes it possible to read one month at a time; each month is self-contained.  The effect of grouping the haiku this way produces what I think of as a ‘haiku collage’; wherein each haiku could be read as a stand-alone, yet the overall effect of grouping them generates a picture or understanding that is greater than simply the sum of the parts, or in this case, the individual haiku.  Sometimes the connection between two successive haiku is very close; almost renga like.  At other times the connection is more distant.  But the overall feel I get is that each haiku in a monthly series represents a brushstroke in a larger painting.

There is another effect from this kind of arrangement.  Because Shiffert’s haiku are syllabic, there is a steady pulse as one moves from haiku to haiku.  This underlying pulse is a felt unity that holds all of the images and observations together.  You can’t get this in free verse haiku where line count varies so greatly from poem to poem.  But when you place a series of poems together like this, where they all have the same syllabic contours, the reader naturally starts to feel the pulse, the rhythm, that they all embody.

I admire Shiffert’s ability to use formal haiku in a wide range of subjects.  I am particularly fond of Shiffert’s haiku that encompass extended time.  Here’s one from the Chapter ‘April’:

Remembering someone
as though seen just yesterday –
but sixty years gone!

A clear take on how subjective the passing of time is.

Here’s one from ‘May’:

Graceful pavilion
perched on the side of the lake.
A thousand years passed.

Here I think Shiffert is focusing on the feeling of timelessness we sometimes have when in the presence of a beautiful scene; we kind of shift into timelessness and an instant becomes a thousand years.

And here is one from ‘August’:

Becoming a rock
waiting ten thousand seasons.
Summers. Winters.

I get from this an aspect of nature not often found in haiku; that natural forces and processes unfold over long periods of time.  It might take ‘ten thousand seasons’ for a rock to become an actual rock.  Such an observation puts our own human lives, of such brief duration, into perspective.

I am very fond of haiku that encompass what I call ‘extended moments’.  They are not easy to pull off, and only a few haiku poets I know of have done it well.  But when they are done successfully I find them very striking.  The juxtaposition of a very brief form combined with the vastness of the time indicated can be highly provocative, in a good way.  The haiku lasts only a few seconds, but the topic is an extended period of time and the intersection of the brief moment of the haiku when it is embedded in an understanding of time as vastness is rich in implications.

Here’s a final example of this kind of haiku, from ‘October’:

Flower patterned rock
with red dragonflies resting.
Once a sea was here.

Shiffert has plenty of traditionally themed haiku.  Here is one from November:

Full moon brightness –
as though a frost were gleaming
on every surface.

And from ‘July’:

Almost dark but then
a cool breeze, the clouds turn pink.
Now a pale new moon.

And, of course, there are plenty of cats in this collection.  One from ‘July’:

A leaf of bamboo
drifts down to the balcony,
the old cat bites it.

There is a delicate, deftly woven tapestry, an interplay between image-centered haiku, extended moment haiku, and more everyday haiku like the ones about her cats, or dogs, or haiku about old age.  Each kind of haiku can be found in all twelve months/chapters.  Because the placement of the haiku is done carefully the shifting from one kind of haiku to another never feels jarring; rather the effect is of an easy ride.

This is yet another gift from Shiffert to English language syllabic haiku.  A well crafted, thoughtful, and lyrical collection of haiku poems, Shiffert has an assured grasp of lineation.  Run-ons are almost nonexistent and her standard approach is to use natural grammatical divisions at line breaks.  Shiffert also has a feel for punctuation and how it can assist in structuring a haiku.  Many of her haiku contain two sections defined by full-stop periods.  Shiffert also uses dashes, commas, and other available markers to good effect. 

If you have a chance, find a used copy.  I think you will enjoy it.

From ‘December’:

While going to sleep
remembering all the years.
The moonlight is cold.

Time and Season

Warm days in December
Feels a little bit strange;
Somewhat like dreams I've had --
A mirage mountain range

Sunday, December 9, 2012


The churches are crumbling all around us.
They have lost their moral authority.
They aren't the place where we can put our trust,
They have become altogether worldly.

It's too bad, I guess, that this has happened,
But there's nothing in this world that endures;
The greatest building will soon be flattened
And granite cliffs will turn to dust for sure.

We're all addicted to appearances,
To all the things of this world that attract;
The one thing that runs interference is
God's mysterious love that never slacks.

Beyond all certainty, beyond all doubt,
God's love is like a cooling rain that ends a long enduring drought.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Geography of Time

The glistening frost
Under the December sun
Blooming red roses

Friday, December 7, 2012

Lost in Space

A flock of sparrows
Flying through December rain --
Like my memories

Thursday, December 6, 2012


A break in the rain --
Leaning against the garage
A rake wet from rain

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


Framed by bare branches
(Her children left long ago)
Sunset quickly falls

Monday, December 3, 2012

Toughing It Out

The gnarled apple tree
My morning medication
And the morning frost

Sunday, December 2, 2012


Constellations drift
Thirty thousand years ago
Moonlight in the mist

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Keeping Track of Time

Of the moon --
When I've time to look
Appointments marked in my datebook