Global Haiku
Millikin University, Fall 2010

Samantha Parks on Emotion Reflected in Haiku Form

Sam Parks
Samantha Parks

Sam's Haiku



Emotion Reflected in Haiku Form: Pizzarelli, Boldman, and Mountain

Haiku can be surmised as the art of saying more with less. That being said, many contemporary haiku authors have strayed from the strict rules of traditional Japanese form in favor of haiku that evoke emotional responses through the bending of the haiku’s structure. Traditional haiku is typically thought of as a strict form composed of three 5-7-5 syllable lines, respectively. However, the translation of ancient Japanese haiku into English and the subsequent westernization of haiku has altered the way haiku is received. While most haiku poets still adhere to the kigo, or seasonal word, other stern guidelines such as the 5-7-5 syllable pattern have fallen into decline. Many authors, such as Marlene Mountain, Bob Boldman, and Alan Pizzarelli have styled their writings to use the very structure of each line in order to saturate their words with added meaning. The combination of powerful, concise language and equally careful form lends readers an intense and thoughtful experience when experiencing these uniquely crafted verses.

The added layers of meaning found in haiku by these and similarly adaptive authors seems to be possible through a unique form of metaphor known as “ iconicity-a mapping between the structure of a poem and the meaning or image it conveys” according to the article “’Blending’ and Interpretation of Haiku: A Cognitive Approach” by Masako K. Hiraga (465). The article discusses metaphorical conventions used within poetry, and how these conventions have been applied in Western haiku. The article states that “Metaphors are primarily a con-ceptual phenomenon rather than a verbal phenomenon. Moreover, what is insightful and powerful in this view is that metaphors are based on the concepts that emerge from our bodily experiences such as space, location, and physical movement” (Hiraga 464). This seems to be an important part of the reason structural alteration in poetry is so affective when done correctly. Consider that Hiraga essentially states that people inflect meaning from “conventional metaphors” based on their own spatial and physical experiences. From this, it can be reasoned that any spatial alteration of a line or verse must twist how a reader interprets the otherwise familiar metaphor because such changes, whether subtle or drastic, distort the way a reader relates the convention to their own experience. In some cases, such alteration can go so far as to eliminate the need for the written metaphor itself. In other words, the verse may remain free of a metaphorical cliché simply because the metaphor is not spoken but remains in the background, silently holding together the image or meaning of the haiku at the back of the reader’s mind.

According to an article by Ian Marshall and Megan Simpson entitled “Deconstructing Haiku: A Dialogue,” haiku is an incredibly unique poetic art because though haiku is constructed from language, haiku is not merely a verse but ideally an image.  Thus, the authors’ claim that attempts to deconstruct or otherwise analyze haiku through strict literary analysis of language is nearly impossible despite “certain assumptions inherent in the form and built into every haiku” (118). It seems important to remember, however, that haiku are images in more than one way. Ideally, when writing a haiku, the haiku poet attempts to remove the barrier of language from the “haiku moment” (118). Playing with form is one way to remove such a barrier. Consider seeing one rushed line of syllables squeezed together so that certain words and sounds became apparently evident while others did not. Such a haiku is likely to convey an atmosphere of anxiety, pain, or excitement without having to spell out such emotions within the haiku itself.
For example, consider this haiku by George Swede from Almost Unseen (97):

As a reader, the first words that seem to stand out are graveyard, us, kill, deer. However, a second reading or a different reader could instantly interpret the words as graveyard, dusk, killdeer. These two distinct interpretations are mainly determined by how the reader takes in and relates the metaphor of the rushed words as a visual image. If the close syllables are seen as a metaphor for anxiety and pain, the words us, kill, and deer are more likely to stand out; the unique shape of the haiku thus determining a reader’s emotional response to the verse as one of adrenaline or fear. However, if the close syllables are seen as shock or excitement, killdeer might stand out as a singular term. Killdeer are birds that hide in tall brush and raise a lot of commotion when feeling threatened. From yet another perspective, if a reader related the close syllables to feelings of unity or singularity, the reader is more likely to interpret the line as “graveyard, dusk, killdeer,” because this reading forms a mental image complete with time, place, and subject. None of these readings are wrong interpretations; likewise, none of them should necessarily be considered complete. The emotional complexity of this haiku lies within the ability of the written words to form a concrete image on the page. The haiku is thus much akin to a Rorschach or ink-blot test, with multiple layers of meaning added through the reader’s personal reception of the structure.

There are multiple ways to play with structure in a haiku. For instance, consider this haiku by Basho.

The old pond—
A frog leaps in,
And a splash.

~Basho, Matsuo Basho, 53

The haiku is written with a very standard structure and incorporates a frog, a creature prized for its song across Japan and often idolized in traditional haiku. The fact that this haiku focuses on the silence of the old pond and the splash of the frog rather than the frog’s song was likely very significant to the readers of Basho’s day. Compare this to the emotional effect of Marlene Mountain’s haiku featured in The Haiku Anthology:

                                                            o                                  g         
                                        f                                                                   frog

~Mountain, THA,132

The haiku is very unique in that it only has two words, or rather, the same word repeated twice. In the grand tradition of haiku, the author has captured the beauty and simplicity of the frog with one easy breath and as few words as possible. The silent tension of the old pond's waters can still be sensed as readers see the frog extend in a noiseless leap signified by the stretched letters. Then, in a splash of noise and color, readers simply get the word frog, plopped down on the page. Though in its words the haiku lacks setting, feeling, and action, in its design the haiku has rich color and action; its form unveils the deep greens and browns of the frog and the swampy waters of the pond, the sound of water splashing, and the feeling of freedom and power as the frog crashes down.

Mountain uses techniques similar to this often when writing haiku. Her verses often consist of one line and feature non-traditional spacing to evoke added imagery or emotion. Another particularly interesting haiku by Mountain reads:

my neighbor's rooster hops the             i throw

~Mountain, THA, 133

Perhaps because "hop" is not the strongest verb, or perhaps due to heightened angst focused on the neighbor's obnoxious rooster, Mountain raises the word "stick" from the rest of the line. This emphasizes the rooster's movement, and because the reaction is so exaggerated, the force with which the stick was thrown at the rooster also seems amplified. Suddenly, the haiku takes on more emotional depth. A stick accidentally tossed at a chicken does not need emphasis; it is likely to fall short of the bird. However, a stick lobbed loathingly at a creature adds drama to the image. Suddenly, there is a hint of deep rivalry and unebbing hatred; it becomes much more important that it’s the neighbor's rooster. Eventually both the stick and the rooster come back down, and there is a sense of simmering defeat--the unnamed subject of the haiku is right back where they started, staring down their neighbor's rooster.

However, not all haiku that play with form are constricted to one-line verses. There are many other ways to manipulate or exaggerate emotional responses by playing with form. Adding an extra line to a traditional haiku can add an uncanny or tired, dragging atmosphere to a haiku. Extra space between select words of an otherwise traditional three lined haiku can also evoke an intensified reader response. For instance, another of Marlene Mountain's haiku uses added lines to slow readers and make them experience the slow, seeping cold. Note that this five line form is not completely foreign to haiku tradition, but is often seen in tan-renga, where authors cap off a three line haiku in order to alter the meaning or perception.

                                                leaf mold

~Mountain, THA, 133

Also consider Bob Boldman's use of form here:

                                    the priest
                                                   his shadow caught
                                           on a nail.
                                                                        ~Boldman, THA, 15

Here, Boldman extends the second line of the poem "his shadow caught" from the end of the first line "the priest" as if the line is the actual shadow of the priest. Thus, the off-center placement of the third line emphasizes the fact that the shadow is caught by the nail, holding the priest back. The structure does not serve to shorten the word-length of the haiku or twist the meaning of haiku, but builds upon the feelings and images evoked by the words of the haiku within the reader's subconscious.

Other examples of Boldman's approach to haiku form include frequent shortening of the three-line form into two lines, as might be featured in a link of kasen-renga. For example, take time to read and reflect on this haiku:

the fingers of the prostitute cold

~Boldman, THA, 15

The haiku uses something uncommon to the form, capital letters. This screams out to the reader's emotions like a headline or a shout and sets up an atmosphere of urgency. Following this, the second line brings the haiku abruptly to a close, leaving reader's wondering how this happened, unable to shrug January first off as just another day.

Not all haiku use such drastic changes of form to make their message more poignant. "The taffy pullers" by Alan Pizzarelli, for example, sticks primarily to the three line form.

the taffy pullers         
            the taffy pullers
the taffy pullers

~Pizzarelli, THA, 153

By indenting the middle line out from the first two, Pizzarelli adds meaning to an otherwise pointless repetition of words. The slight shift in structure brings out the motion of stretching and folding taffy, and recalls the monotony of an industrial worker's life.

In similar style, Pizzarelli writes:

nothing to write

but this

~Pizzarelli, THA, 148

The haiku once again stays true to the tradition of having three written lines; however, special spacing has again been used for emphasis. The added space between "nothing to write" and "but this" exaggerates the emptiness the author is feeling, making the verse all the more bittersweet for readers. Here is an author whose mind is blank, still trying to get his message out there. Often, added space within otherwise traditional work stirs feelings of loneliness. The misspelling of tonight to match write is common of a lot of contemporary poets and is yet another change that Western haiku poets have brought to the genre.

Keep in mind that space does not have to indicate loneliness. The metaphor within a haiku's structure is still partially dependent upon the words of the haiku itself and on reader experience in order to be truly effective. In a similarly structured haiku by the same author, the space seems to symbolize a completely different feeling.

hottest day of the year
a breeze in the distant treetops
its here!

~Pizzarelli, THA, 151

Here, the space encompasses the slow, languishing heat of the summer day. As a reader, it is a pause for the readers to close their eyes, and await the breeze as the thick warmth of the haiku soaks in.

Language as an art is incredibly interesting because it presents so many opportunities. This is especially true in the art of writing haiku. A look at the works of Alan Pizzarelli, Bob  Boldman, and Marlene Mountain only provides a brief introduction into the vast multitude of ways manipulating haiku form can alter emotional response. Countless other haiku poets have a unique approach to haiku form. Some call to mind the strongest images with the simplest structure, while others use words, form, and wit to weave a slower-forming, more thoughtful response. Many of the authors studied here seem to use form as a tool. Adding or altering a line of haiku can serve to deepen the haiku experience; however, the best haiku authors seem to know intuitively when tradition versus experimentation is most provocative.


Works Cited

Boldman, Bob. "Bob Boldman." The Haiku Anthology. Ed. Cor Van Den Heuvel. New York: W.W Norton and Company, 1999. 12-15. Print.

Hiraga, Masako K. "'Blending' and Interpretation of Haiku: A Cognitive Approach." Poetics Today 20.3 (1999): 461-481. JSTOR. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.

Marshall, Ian and Megan Simpson. "Deconstructing Haiku: A Dialogue." College Literature 33.3 (2006): 117-134. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.

Mountain, Marlene. "Marlene Mountain." The Haiku Anthology. Ed. Cor Van Den Heuvel. New York: W.W Norton and Company, 1999. 128-135. Print.

Pizzarelli, Alan. "Alan Pizzarelli." The Haiku Anthology. Ed. Cor Van Den Heuvel. New York: W.W Norton and Company, 1999. 144-157. Print.

© 2010 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors
last updated: December 21, 2010