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haiku uncut: Blithe Spirit

Many thanks to David Bingham, editor of 'Blithe Spirit', journal of the British Haiku Society, for publishing the following article this month Volume 24 Number 3.

haiku uncut

Take a look through any haiku journal or anthology and the majority of haiku will be constructed from a fragment preceding a phrase, or vice versa. They might be composed over the usual three lines or along a single line. The kire, the cut or caesura, may be explicit in the form of punctuation, or suggested by line break, or by phrasal construction, as in this fine monostich example from ‘Blithe Spirit’ 24.2 where the natural breath pause after rock-and-roll is obvious when read aloud:

rock-and-roll she outdid me that summer

Frances Angela          

The American haijin, Jane Reichhold, was instrumental in articulating and disseminating this structure, both online[1] and in her accessible and informative handbook, Writing and Enjoying Haiku, A Hands-on Guide (Kodansha International 2002). American haiku poet, Michael Dylan Welch, also includes the following advice in one of his essays[2]: Giving your poem two fragmentary parts is also one of the most important things to do in haiku. And that advice can result in haiku like this deceptively simple and effective one, from the same issue of Blithe Spirit:

a cup of tea
he thanks me for the things
I wish I’d never said

Naomi Madelin

But what of the less common ‘uncut haiku’? Haiku that appear to be ‘all of one thing’. Haiku that read fluently from beginning to end with no punctuation, or explicit or implied pauses.  Are they as successful and effective as their fragmented siblings? How do they work on us? What choices have their creators made?

Take Jack Kerouac’s well known:

In my medicine cabinet
    the winter fly
Has died of old age  [3]

There’s no kire. No phrasal construction within the lines. We have a simple declarative sentence extended over three lines. Kerouac wrote this in the 1950s, decades before the fragment and phrase structure had been so firmly adopted. But does it still work as a haiku today? It does for me because there’s enough juxtaposition of image and idea within the haiku to pull me, intellectually and emotionally, in a number of ways.
There’s the irony of something dying in a medicine cabinet. There’s the moment where the human experience mirrors a no less insignificant experience in the insect world. There’s the suggestion that death comes to us all despite our attempts to keep it at bay. And there’s the precision of ‘my’ cabinet, making the moment personal, juxtaposed with ‘winter’ which contains and symbolises the universal experiences of ageing and death.
The haiku, unusually, also communicates the passing of time: for the fly to die of old age suggests that it has been there a while, perhaps during the passage of winter into spring. And the passage of time is also felt in the following uncut haiku by Ken Jones:

These hills
have nothing to say
and go on saying it

This complete sentence, combined with the personification of the hills, risk aphorism or, if you have some knowledge of Ken Jones’ background, the philosophical whiff of Zen. But what rescues the haiku from those pitfalls, for me, is the use of colloquial language in the final line. We talk about people ‘going on’ about things, about being on their soap-boxes, so the haiku comes alive as a natural part of our daily lives. The personification is diluted and convincing too if we have ever walked in silent hills and felt the business of our own minds drop away in their presence.
Is this haiku imbued with mu, the allegedly inexpressible mood that we try to express as ‘no-mind’? Perhaps it contains ma as well: the space for us to enter and to complete it in our own minds.

I have used the following haiku by Nick Avis in several writing workshops:

deep inside the faded wood a scarlet maple

This isn’t a sentence, due to the absence of a verb, but it still reads continuously from beginning to end. Read it aloud and notice the pattern of stressed/unstressed syllable repeated six times, or trochaic hexameter:

deep in/side the/ faded/ wood a/ scarlet/ maple/

The trochee is a fairly common metre in children’s rhymes which makes the line subconsciously comforting. But the haiku’s full effect is completed by the juxtaposition of lack of colour (faded) and colour (scarlet) and its opening words: deep inside. They read like a secret: an invitation to discover what is hidden from view.

My penultimate uncut haiku is by the late Martin Lucas:

Giggleswick and Wigglesworth
                             I am uninspired

Again, this is a complete sentence, arranged over four lines, but like the best free verse poetry it has an effect on us even before we begin to read it. The form is ‘all over the place’: it sprawls and hesitates, reflects the subject matter of a haiku poet hunting for inspiration in the landscape. And like the best comic writing it utilises specific techniques to entertain: playful language – the inarguably funny sounds in the names of two North Yorkshire villages – and the unexpected direction of the final line.

Roberta Beary’s haiku is a simmered reduction of seven words and ten syllables.

hating him
between bites
of unripe plums[4]

The absence of any pause between the lines allows for the concentration of emotion to be communicated, to be felt when we read it: from the breathiness of aspirated h, the punch of b and p and the sharpness of t. Anger, frustration, tension: they’re all contained in those sounds and their repetition.
            I am also persuaded by her decision to balance the present continuous tense with the plural of plums. The hate doesn’t end with the eating of one plum: it continues through the eating of several, perhaps many.
            There is no overt juxtaposition here, an element we have come to expect in haiku, but unpick the language a little more. Consider the eating of fruit, in particular a woman eating fruit, and we can’t help but think of the biblical myth of Eve blamed for humankind’s downfall in the Garden of Eden and all its associated ideas. Old Testament v 21st century: perhaps we’re not that far apart.

The uncut haiku asks us, as poets, to pay close attention to our craft: to the shape on the page, to rhythm and sound, and to the language choices we make in relation to what the haiku is about, what we want it to achieve and to avoid. And while there is still so much more that remains to be said within the confines of prescribed form, whether that is fragment and phrase or the more traditional 5/7/5 syllable count, departing from a recognised path to explore another offers its own rewards for the reader and for the continuing critical haiku debate.

[3] This and subsequent ‘uncut haiku’ examples all taken from Haiku in English, The First Hundred Years, eds. Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland & Allan Burns, WW Norton & Co, New York & London 2013.
[4] From The Unworn Necklace (Snapshot Press 2007 & 2011)

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