School of Haiku 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson Eight
To Question Caps and Punctuation

Those persons using punctuation in their haiku, will often find themselves making a dash after the fragment and hopefully nothing, not even a comma in the middle of the phrase, even if there is a breath of the possibility of one.  Sometimes, the haiku will sound like a run-on sentence because the author is too lazy to rewrite the fragment clearly and thus, has to add a dash forcing the reader into the obligatory break.
For me, this is a red flag that the writer didn't stay with the rewrite long enough to solve the problem properly.  Frankly, I see most punctuation as a cop-out.  Almost any haiku written as a run-on sentence, with or without its dash, can be rewritten so that the grammar syntax forms the one necessary break.  Or the author forms places where the reader can decide where to make the break and thus, give the haiku additional meaning. From this philosophy, I view haiku with punctuation as haiku which fail to fit this basic form.
You may find a haiku written in one line as imitation of the Japanese method as previously mentioned.The author will then add in punctualion in substitution of the natural pauses and breaks at the end of the lines.
Occasionally a haiku is written that is so full of possible divisions into what is the fragment or the phrase that writing it in one line is the only way that offers the reader the complete freedom to find the breaks. And with each new arrangement the meaning of the poem varies. An example would be:

mountain heart in the stone tunnel light

Over the years I gradually gave up, and easily abandoned, the dashes, semi-colons, commas and periods in order to incorporate ambiguity in the haiku, but it has been hard for me to let go of the question mark – which is rather silly, as it is so clear from the grammar that a question is being asked. Still, and yet . . .  I mention this, so new-comers to haiku understand that rules are not written in stone, but something each of us has to work out for ourselves. It is an on-going job and one I hope, will never end.


The Use of Capital Letters

            As writers have become more comfortable and knowledgeable about composing haiku, they have seen that a haiku is not a sentence and slowly come to the realization that it perhaps should not be treated like a sentence. In an effort to simplify the written poem, many have abandoned the initial capital letter that usually begins a sentence. Thus, at this time, the continued use of caps has become an indication of either a beginner with the form who carries on the practice from previous poetry writing or someone who refuses to rethink the changes the form has made.
            Most people have been able to give up the period at the end of the poem rather easily because they see so clearly that the haiku is not a sentence and should not close down. Still, there are persons who are unable to stop using the initial capital letter. It seems more a reflex out of habit than a carefully thought through technique.
            Some persons, believing that the use of ‘i’ for the personal pronoun ‘I’ represents the proper haiku humility, have adopted this practice. It may work for them, but for others, the jerk and jolt feeling when seeing the wrong use of ‘I’ seems to add importance of the human element by deliberately calling attention to the mistake. Others have taken the need for commonness to the point that all words within the haiku are written without caps, including days and months and proper names and places.
            Writers who do retain the caps of proper names are often confused about whether to capitalize the names of the season – usually they are not, and of species of animals and flowers (again, usually not).

            Because haiku is a form genre – a kind of poetry that is built on certain rules, one must adopt some rules in order to write it. There are several methods of figuring out which rules to use to write haiku.
            One can join a group whose leader proposes a set of rules that is agreeable to you. If you follow this person, you will have a ready-built audience who agrees with you completely about what a haiku is. It can be very comforting to share agreement with a group which is united under one goal with a loyal attachment to a leader. Often these masters are rather autocratic, but for some persons, this kind of leadership lends credence to their goals. Often the leader of these groups also publishes a magazine so that the members of the group could be assured fairly easy publication, which is sometimes not easy with haiku. In this way, the ‘student’ is competently led along a certain path and the leader could take some pride in having a certain number of writers who not only agreed  with his or her rules but also extended haiku literature in this chosen style – which was very ego gratifying. In these days of the Internet, it is possible to find web sites lead by persons who expend a great deal of energy and time to promoting their idea of what a haiku is. They are willing to teach beginners their methods, defend them against all other theories and offer a system of sharing the poems among the like-minded.
            Because, at some level, haiku is related to a spiritual practice, some of these masters espouse their theories with a religious fervor and the groups take on many of the aspects of a church. In the same way some persons are most comfortable within an organized religion, the same is true for haiku writers.
            Another way to find out the rules one wants to follow is by reading the work of others and deciding which poems one admires the most. Then consciously or unconsciously, the new writer begins to imitate that style which was created by a certain set of rules.
            Very often persons feel that if they are going to learn a new genre they will study first the old Japanese masters and follow their example. In many aspects this is a wise decision except for the reality that most translations are transliterations – not the words of the original.
            This results in a stilted style similar to that of persons who write poetry based on inspiration of the Bible so that those poems result in using King James grammar such as “thou” and “hath”. Yet today many translations follow the archaic rules of poetry which the translator learned in grade school instead of offering the haiku as they truly are, in word-for-word cases or in the context of modern poetry.
            For the person just learning haiku in today’s world, doesn’t it seem advantageous to follow the form as defined by today’s usage and in your own language? To do this one needs to read what other poets are doing with the form by purchasing an anthology to study and serve as inspiration. Out of this, your own set of rules will evolve. That does not mean this is this is the only way to write a haiku but should be seen as a starting place for your own thinking and exploration.

This brings us to the next job you may have - picking your own rules of haiku.

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Early translators of haiku, recognizing that this foreign form was poetry and wishing to make Japanese poetry seem more like English poetry, worked to form the English translation into rhymed lines. The most celebrated proponent of this style was Harold Stewart’s books: A Net of Fireflies and A Chime of Windbells (1960) which in 1986 was in its twenty-fifth printing. He set his versions, under a title, in a couplet with the two lines ending in a rhyme.

Autumn evening: on a withered bough,
A solitary crow is sitting now.

            Many people who know much about haiku react in exaggerated horror at this work, because in order to accomplish this radical change he has had to add extraneous information or made changes in the line order that is not in the original.
            The use of rhyme in haiku is not that far wrong when one understands that in Japanese, due to the constructive use of the vowels in the language, one has a one-in-six chance that any two lines will rhyme. Thus, the Japanese haiku often have not only a line-end rhyme but often one or more internal rhymes. And the writers used this ability to strengthen their poems. Because rhyme occurs so easily it is easier to ignore because the syntax is not shaped to cause the rhyme as must be done in English. As in the example above, one can feel and see where Stewart made a change to get the rhyme.
            It can happen that a person’s first version of writing down a haiku will naturally contain a rhyme. At this point the author can decide whether to keep it or to find synonyms to avoid the rhyme.
            One thing to think about in making this decision is the feeling that when lines end with a matching rhyme, there is a feeling of the poem ‘closing down’ or seeming to be finished. We are so trained that rhymes occur at the end of a line that when the ear hears the rhyme, the mind automatically signals that the poem is ended. In haiku, we want exactly the opposite situation – the poem should open out, leaving something else to be thought. The reader should carry the words farther – to continue to think about it, ponder what has been said in order to arrive at the reader’s own understanding of the poem.
            Also, when a series of haiku are rhymed, their very shortness will lead to a sing-song feeling of repetition that quickly becomes monotonous. Because English has been called a rhyme-poor language, our options for rhyme are greatly curtailed as we have less choices than other languages.
            For these reasons, and to separate haiku from the styles of Western poetry, it has always been a basic rule that haiku are not rhymed.

Harold Stewart. A Net of Fireflies. Tuttle: 1960. Page 88.








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