Sunday, April 7, 2013

To the Lighthouse: To Be or Not to Be a One-line Haiku?

                                        before after and inside me snowflakes drifting


                                       before after
                                       and inside me
                                       snowflakes drifting

The standard meter of classic Japanese Haiku is 5-7-5 sound symbols. In English language haiku, the common practice is to begin a new verse line after each metrical unit. However, as early as 1971, in Haiku Magazine, 5:2, Michael Segers published, arguably speaking, the first one-line English language haiku, "in the eggshell after the chick has hatched." 1 Praised for its pleasurable ambiguities, this "aesthetically innovative" form was later advocated by translator Hiroaki Sato and talented poet Marlene Mountain (Allan Burns, Montage, August 30th, 2009). Sadly, today there are only a handful of articles about one-haiku; among them, Marlene Mountain’s  "One-Line Haiku," William J. Higginson’s  "From One-line Poems to One-line Haiku," and Jim Kacian’s "The Way of One" are, relatively speaking, widely read. However, none of them deals with this issue from the perspective of the employment of cutting, except for a brief mention in Kacian’s article (“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”). 2 Marlene Mountain’s article mainly talks about the issue in the context of the aesthetic evolution of her writing career, showing a lot of her haiku examples. William J. Higginson’s resourceful essay gives a historical view of monostiches in the Western poetic tradition (mainly the French one), and then proposes a typology of one-line haiku, which is based on the degree of the smooth flow of a poem or on the number of (forced/marked) pauses. In “[his] efforts to regain something of what is attained by the original Japanese practice, “ Jim Kacian “has discovered some effects that, for a variety of reasons, are not available in Japanese: ‘one line - one thought’, ‘speedrush’ and ‘multistops.” In his article, Kacian says nothing about how to distinguish one-line “haiku” and other “one-line poems.” Most importantly, there is a big gap/structural issue completely neglected in all these articles: for the same poem text, why does a one-line haiku work better than its three-line twin? 

Below is an in-depth review of a one-line haiku, which demonstrates how to make this aesthetic and structural decision (Peter Harris, ""In a Sea of Indeterminacy: Fourteen Ways of Looking at Haiku," A Companion to Poetic Genre, pp. 285-6):

More rain the sisters slip into their mother tongue

Modern Haiku, 37:3

Scott Metz

Metz employs an unbroken line here in a way that generates velocity and a sense of simultaneity that is in tension with its subtlety. But if it were broken into three lines --

More rain
the sisters slip
into thier mother tongue

-- the pun on slip would have dominated and diminished the poem. As it stands, the single line puts the focus the elusive implications raised by the poem as a whole. What has the rain to do with the sisters returning to their mother tongue? Does it liquidity induce a fresh access of native fluency? Is the rain metaphorical, some fluid quality of language that increasingly permeates their intimate conversation? Is the "mother tongue" metaphorical, implying the sisters are like the drops of water dissolving in their origins? Are the sisters slipping rain into the mother tongue as one "slips" a drug into a cocktail? Though there is no way of proving it, one is tempted to say that this degree of semantic openness becomes more likely if, as Metz does, one focuses exclusively on the haiku form.


1 In his essay mentioned above, William J. Higginson emphasizes that it's van den Heuvel who first published the one-line haiku in a small letterpress chapbook called EO7 in 1964.

    a dixie cup floats down the Nile.

"This is certainly one of those poems that goes by so fast the reader hardly notices it, until, stopping short, one grins at the irony of the discarded cup and the great monuments of ancient Egypt juxtaposed, and laments the follies of humankind. I would almost call this a one-line senryu, rather than haiku, except for the bite of that river carrying us into deep time."

2  In his essay, William J. Higginson does briefly discuss the use of cutting. However, like most English-speaking haiku poets, he understands a cut as a syntactic break through the use of punctuation. For more information about cutting, see To the Lighthouse: Three Formulations about the Use of Cutting (in the classic Japanese haiku tradition),To the Lighthouse: Cutting through Time and Space (new/the fourth formulation about the use of cutting), and To the Lighthouse: Re-examining the Concept and Practice of Cutting .


  1. "this 'aesthetically innovative' form was later advocated by translator Hiroaki Sato"

    Below is Higginson's comment on Sato's one-line translation:

    Sato bases his theory of one-line translation on the fact that the usual typographic form of haiku and waka or tanka in print (and in old anthology manuscripts) is one vertical column, or, if a poem is more than one column in length (as waka and tanka usually are), it is often fitted to the space without regard to metrical form. This one-line approach to presenting haiku and tanka translations becomes most evident in Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson's landmark anthology From the Country of Eight Islands, first published in 1981 and subsequently reprinted by a number of different publishers. (An essential book for those interested in Japanese poetry, it is still in print as of this writing and can also be found in hardcover at online used book stores).

    When we take a close look at Sato's one-line translations, however, we discover that they are not what I am calling true one-line poems here. In fact, Sato usually marks each Japanese haiku's distinctive break with punctuation that effectively gives the poem a caesura. This accords with the traditional Japanese requirement that a haiku include a break, often marked with a kireji. For example, here are two among his versions of haiku by Issa; note the punctuation that could easily be a line-break in English:

    Blow on the burnt pilings and cool them soon, autumn wind

    Wait and see, the murderer too will turn into dew on the grass (8)

    As becomes evident when one examines Sato's waka translations, his versions actually reduce verse to prose. Here, for example, is his version of a waka by Ki no Tsurayuki (early 10th century), the greatest poet of his generation:

    About people, no, I don't know how they feel. In my home village
    the blossoms are as fragrant as they used to be (9)

    This may be poetic prose, but it is such prose as any poet might put into a letter, and a full sense of the verse of the original is almost completely lost. "Almost" because the original does indeed have a syntactic break corresponding to the end of the first sentence in the translation. I believe that, however much they may seem like prose, Sato's translations are as refreshingly accurate to the originals as any we have, with respect to the ordered meaning. His versions usually surpass those of other scholars in both literal accuracy and an overall sense of the original's swiftness and quality of language. I only wish he would present them as verse, and take advantage of the rhythmic control of emotion which verse allows.

  2. In his essay, William J. Higginson gives a lengthy discussion of Penny Harter's "one-line Haiku" below:

    A brief tour-de-force by Penny Harter illustrates yet another way to expand the meaning of a short poem:

    mallards leaving in the water rippled sky (20)

    At first glance, this seems to belong to the one-stroke haiku group, and indeed, if read that way the other readings may follow. (These categories are in the reader's mind, after all, and certainly may overlap; the poems may be read variously as various readers approach them.) Harter actually uses this poem in workshops to prove the importance of line-breaks, and offers the poem in a couple of other versions, as well as its intended version, above:

    mallards leaving
    in the water
    rippled sky

    leaving in the water
    rippled sky (21)

    Of course, a four-line version might also allow a similar range of meaning:

    in the water
    rippled sky

    But this breaks up the fluidity of the movement too much, forcing the reader to almost hammer on single words and short phrases. And either of the three-line versions pushes one or another aspect of the experience into the foreground, diminishing the other. So, for our purposes, Harter's haiku proves the importance of one-line haiku. Here we have the mallards, the fact of their leaving, the way their very leaving causes ripples in the water, and the "rippled sky" that is all we have left when they're gone—not as a series of stopped and examined experiences, but as one unitary flow of experience.

  3. I enjoyed reading Scott's beautifully-crafted haiku and Peter's insightful analysis. However, I wonder if "more spring rain" might enhance the poem. It's because of spring's symbolically rich meaning(s) and of the enhancement of the alliterative quality.

  4. I took out all the punctuation marks in my haiku.

    On Thursday, I'll publish a "To the Lighthouse" post, entitled "Revision, Revision, and Revision," on Neverending Story.

  5. Thank you for this very interesting post, Chen-ou. Although I am a complete novice when it comes to one-line haiku, the more I read them, the more I like them and have found myself writing haiku that seem to cry out for this structure. However, defining the reason for this is illusive and your essay has clarified things for me.

    Regarding Scott's 'sisters' monostich, I immediately thought of the girls coming in out of the rain and removing their wet clothes and thinking about 'slipping into something more comfortable' - which of course, now that they are indoors and don't have to make an effort to speak English, is their mother tongue. :)


  6. Marion:

    Thanks for sharing your thought on Scott's sisters monostich. It interests me a lot :)