HaikuTip #1

I keep finding myself wanting to write longer posts than are appropriate for Facebook, so I think I’m going to start blogging again, with mostly very brief writing tips jotted down while reading submissions. This is the first.

#HaikuTip: Connecting words are not cutting words! There are no real kireji in English—accept it.

In the Japanese tradition, kireji work like spoken punctuation or tense modifiers, but there is no equivalent in English. By tying the two images/ideas together instead of leaving them cleaved, you greatly weaken the power of the poem.

I can’t use examples from submissions, so here are some examples of how to ruin famous poems, starting with the most famous haiku ever:

ancient pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

This is, of course, Basho—I don’t know whose translation, I think in my head I’ve combined my favorite version of each line. But notice how “ancient pond” can exist there on its own plane. It doesn’t need anything else, nor does the frog. The frog and the pond can be completely separate from each other in time and space—in a way, the haiku is blending all of time into a single, timeless unity. The pond is every pond, and the frog is every frog—or it’s this pond and this frog. It’s both. And that’s pleasurable and interesting and Zen-like to ponder. But what if instead we did this:

ancient pond where
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

This was the original Basho:

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

That “ya” is the kiregi, and according to the Wikipedia entry “implies an equation, while inviting the reader to explore their interrelationship.” As a cutting word, it really operates more like “is” than “where,” but so many English haiku poets seem to be using “where”-type words in its place, and you can see how that one word choice obliterates the Zen of it.

Here’s another Basho poem that we can ruin, this one of my favorites:

wrapping dumplings in
bamboo leaves, with one finger
she tidies her hair

This is Sam Hamill’s translation from The Sound of Water. A quick search doesn’t give me the original Japanese, but I’m sure the kiregi is after line 2. Let’s ruin it:

wrapping dumplings in
bamboo leaves, with one finger while
she tidies her hair

See how we’ve connected the two images with “while”? She’s wrapping dumplings at the same time as she tidies her hair—suddenly it’s just one person doing something, rather than this interesting blending of actions that could each be happening to different people in different centuries. Don’t do this in your haiku! The beauty and mystery of haiku lies in the tension between two images/ideas that at once connect and don’t have to connect. By using a connecting word between them instead of a cutting word, you make them only connect. Avoid it, so I don’t have to decide whether or not it’s worth asking you to edit.

I’m not an expert in haiku by any stretch, but I know poetry, and I know this is a tendency that’s making a lot of haiku less than they could be.