Haiku Monostich

One of the Haiku writers I’ve been reading, Hiroaki Sato, talks about how in Japanese haiku and tanka are written as a single line poem.

The three lines are a product of translation, and are an interesting discussion about ‘what makes a poem a poem’ and how that can change between cultures and languages.

In English the requirements for poetry have become less rigid over the years, especially in the last 100. Blank verse, free verse, prose poetry are all poems. But the same would not have always been true. Forms exist because there were rules about what made a poem a poem, and line breaks and stanzas were a major part of that.

Rhyme as well was a major piece of English poetry through most of its history, and as such you’ll see some older haiku translations include rhyme (A B A is the most common scheme I’ve seen). Since almost every word in Japanese ends in a vowel, rhyme is not a defining part of Japanese poetry.

So if haiku in Japanese is a single line poem, should it be translated as such? Sato thinks so, and his books have them as a single line.

I’ve been trying to write haiku, and have started writing them as a single line after reading Sato, and it works well for composition.

One of the principles of haiku that I’ve been working on is the poem is two parts. Usually this falls at a line break in translation, but that is not a requirement. By composing in a single line I can worry more about having the parts, independent of the line breaks, which impose an artificial constraint.

The other thing it does is it removes the initial urge to be rigid about the syllable count. (And yes, there is another translation discussion about English syllables and Japanese ‘sounds’ to be had)

For example, if a poem has 17 syllables, but you would have to beak a word to have a 5-7-5 line break, did you succeed? More importantly, would you have even picked that word if you were forcing yourself to have the line breaks?

For a constrained form, removing some of those constraints during composition, pushing them to editing, has helped. Because a haiku isn’t a 17 syllable poem, 5-7-5; it is a comparison of two things with a turn and seasonal word that has a syllabic constraint.

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