Adria Neapolitan

Haiku Spacing

Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2001

Adria Neapolitan


Adria's haiku

To Space or Not to Space:
An In-depth Comparison of Spacing and Form in Haiku


It is fair to say that haiku comes in various forms. There is the "typical" 5-7-5 syllable pattern in three lines as well as single lined haiku. Some haiku emphasize single words while others seem to follow a free verse approach with a looser form. This comparison paper will be discussing the format of different haiku, by different authors. In particular, spacing and how it affects the haiku, for example, whether or not the spacing adds or detracts from the haiku, or whether or not the spacing is essential to the haiku, are the issues that will be examined.

Representational Haiku

the shore
           the ship’s cat

(Raymond Roseliep, Haiku Anthology, 162)

walking the snow-crust
         not sinking

(Anita Virgil, Haiku Anthology, 246)

I have selected the pair of haiku above because both of these haiku illustrate the story being told, or the image being painted, in their haiku. Let me explain. The first haiku looks exactly like it is pacing. Roseliep uses indentations in the first and third lines, but not in the second to make the poem look as though it is pacing. The lines themselves move back and forth, representative of the pacing cat on the ship. He is using the spacing of these lines to create a more visual haiku. The content, or image, of this particular haiku is nothing special, but the spacing gives it visual appeal. In this case, I would argue that the spacing not only adds to the haiku but is essential to it.

Likewise, the second haiku by Virgil also has visual appeal. With the narrowing of the lines, created by centering the haiku and using smaller words or shorter lines, this haiku also does what it says: it sinks. Visually, it appears to be sinking into nothing, much like the person walking along the snow-crust. That person is playing a game, in a sense, because she/he is walking on the snow not knowing when or where she/he will sink. Whether or not it was the author’s intent to give the appearance of sinking, I do not know. However, I think that the visual impact adds to this haiku. If it was merely left-side justified on the page, I think it would lose a lot of its charm.
In comparing the two against each other, the Roseliep haiku seems to do a better job of creating the visual image to go along with the words of the haiku. The spacing in this haiku seems to be more obvious than the spacing of Virgil’s haiku. That is to say that Roseliep’s form appears to be more intentional than Virgil’s. Clearly no one but the original author knows the intent of the spacing, but it seems more likely that the Roseliep haiku is spaced to fit the context of the haiku.

One-line or Single Lined Haiku

Another element of format to be discussed, focuses on what I will call, single lined haiku. I consider single lined haiku to: 1) be one line long; 2) present one to two strong images; and 3) not be a complete sentence. I think that the best examples of single lined haiku contain spacing between words but no punctuation whatsoever.

leaving all the morning glories      closed

(Elizabeth Searle Lamb, Haiku Anthology, 103)

becoming a photograph      winter afternoon

(George Swede, Haiku Anthology, 209)

The first haiku uses spacing very well. It is almost as if the haiku is in three lines
or three parts. It could very well have read:

all the morning glories

but it does not. I think that it actually flows better when it is a single lined haiku, but this one does not necessarily have to be in this specific form in order for it to be a good haiku. Though it flows, there are two big pauses created by the spaces. I like that it is not a complete sentence and has no punctuation. In fact, the reader has the ability to interpret the haiku several ways when it is a single lined form. It can be read as written or "leaving closed, all the morning glories." Or perhaps even, "closed, leaving all the morning glories." But most importantly, it leaves out words and presents a vivid image, making it a strong single lined haiku.

The second single lined haiku follows everything mentioned above. The image is clear, the winter afternoon looks as though it has the potential to become a photograph. It is just so winter-like outside that the scene presented out the window would make a great photo. Again, a vivid image is presented in a single line, with a space, no punctuation, and it does not make a complete sentence. Both of these haiku are nice examples of the single lined form.

Comparatively, I would have to say that the second single lined haiku, by Swede, expresses itself more like a typical three lined, 5-7-5 syllable haiku. It creates just enough of the image to excite the reader's mind, allowing him/her to fill in the rest of the details about the scene. On the other hand, the first single lined haiku example is rather confusing in its interpretation. The spacing does not work as nicely because it leads to too many possible interpretations. The image is not as clearly presented as it is in the Swede haiku. Also, the spacing does not need to be in single line form for the first haiku to work best. However, the Swede haiku needs to be in the one line form to create its complete image; it just would not work as well as a "typical" three line haiku.

Second Line (Single Word) Emphasis

only letting in the cat
the morning star

(Penny Harter, Haiku Anthology, 71)

snow falls from trees
of passing boxcars

(Alan Pizzarelli, Haiku Anthology, 156)

I paired these two haiku together because their second line was only one word long. I think that spacing has a great deal to do with control and word choice/usage. The second line of a haiku is the second image or glimpse into the haiku. Therefore, it needs to be strong. What’s stronger than the use of a single word to represent the second image?

In the first haiku the second line "until" completely slows down the reader and the meaning of the haiku. Having lots of the white space after the word "until" makes the reader pause when reading, forcing the emphasis of the haiku on the last line. Because there is a break in reading, the last line needs to be stronger than the second to complete the image of the haiku. In the second haiku, the reader can practically feel the "rumble," in addition to seeing the "rumble" in the falling of the snow from trees. But it is not until the last line that the reader can find out where the rumble comes from. I think that the use of single words in a line of haiku is a great idea and these two poems illustrate how to use a single word wisely.

Upon comparison of these two haiku, the Pizzarelli haiku seems to be the more effective haiku. Giving pause to the word "rumble" by putting it by itself on the second line, stresses the importance of the word more than "until" in the first haiku. The reader actually gives pause to "rumble" to think about where the rumbling could be coming from. The word also appeals to two senses, sound and sight. I can hear it and see its affects. "Until" is not as effective in the first haiku. But the spacing and placement of the single word in the Pizzarelli haiku seems more thought-out, more intentional, thus making it more effective.

Loose Form or Free Verse Haiku

on this cold
               spring 1
             2 night  3    4

(Marlene Mountain, Haiku Anthology, 131)


         the girl
                 loosens her bra
         starts peeling off panties


(Alan Pizzarelli, Haiku Anthology, 149)

I paired these two haiku together because they are just pure fun. There doesn’t really seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why these haiku are spaced like they are, at least I have yet to find a reason. I like to consider these haiku to be comparable to the poetry of e. e. cummings. The form of the poem tells a story of its own. It can have meaning behind it or not. Meaning in form would have to come from the author though, I would not want to assume the meaning behind their use of form, particularly in this looser form.

These two haiku are very different in their use of spacing, particularly the first haiku. This haiku could probably have been just as effective in three lines. However, the "loose" form makes the haiku fun, as does the use of numbers. After much critical thinking, I feel that I have finally come up with the most reasonable explanation for the numbers: it refers to the number of kittens in the rain. The author or character in the poem is counting the kittens as he/she is telling the story. It is sort of a mental inventory because our brains have a tendency to think about multiple things at any given time. While taking in the scene of the rain, the author/character is counting the kittens, taking inventory, and including that counting as part of the haiku. But then, this is merely the most logical explanation for the numbers that I have come up with; I have yet to completely determine what the numbers represent in this haiku.
Unlike the numbers in the second haiku which clearly stand for the amount of money needed to view the porn show. The use of a "title" (or is it part of the haiku) in the second haiku is interesting. To me, "PORNO MOVIE" above and separate from the rest of the haiku, looks like a title. It is also capitalized, separating it further from the haiku. Spacing throughout the rest of the haiku seems fun rather than having any specific purpose. I think that this unusual style (in both of these haiku) forces the reader to put emphasis on the whole haiku, rather than a single word as exhibited in the haiku that place a single word as a line. This loose verse style, can be compared to single lined haiku in that respect. The reader must concentrate on the whole image presented; it cannot be broken down into separate images, which may occur in "typical" haiku. The reader has to focus and interpret the entire haiku.
It is easy to see the differences between this free verse style of haiku and the other forms previously discussed. However, it is difficult to compare these two haiku to each other. They are so different from each other that to choose one as a better example of the form is impossible to accomplish. Honestly, I like both haiku and think that they both represent this form well.

Concluding Remarks

As far as spacing is concerned, I like how unique it makes the haiku look, but I do not think that it works for every haiku or every author. As an author, one must know how to use spacing to their advantage. I think all of these authors have, in wonderful ways. Through their use of a more free verse style of haiku, to one or single lined haiku, these authors demonstrate effective uses of spacing, formatting, and white-space. This experimentation with forms of haiku other than those containing the 5-7-5 syllable and three line format, makes reading and interpreting haiku more interesting, not to mention more enjoyable.

—Adria Neapolitan


©2001 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors