Bob Reed

The Caesura in Haiku

Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Summer 2002

Bob Reed

Bob's Haiku


The Caesura in Haiku

There are several ways to successfully execute a break, or caesura, in a haiku. I’d like to touch on some methods that work well, and also a couple that don’t, while citing specific works from Cor Van Den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology.

the shoeshine boy
snaps his rag

Alan Pizzarelli, THA, 147

The break is unpunctuated, but quite clear nevertheless. The first line is a solitary word, so we can’t help but isolate it as we read. Also, the word in and of itself is a sort of built-in caesura: Done. There is a certain finality to it, despite the fact that it begins the haiku. We see a graceful circularity in the work as well, as the snap refers right back to “done.”

fog . . .
just the tree and I
at the bus stop

Jerry Kilbride, THA, 100

With the ellipses, the reader doesn’t completely stop…but slows for a moment. One lingers for a while, like that weightless, selfsame fog. How thick, how far does it reach? Does it envelop the cityscape, turning skyscraper tops into castles on clouds? The ellipses with their gentleness lead us toward the desired contemplation and wonder, and evoke a sense of mystery, as well.

I tell him I’m not looking
for a prince

Alexis Rotella, THA, 168

This is beautifully constructed; we get the punchline, so to speak, in advance, but it still works. The caesura dash startles and brings us up short—there is deception on the way. This playful confession paradoxically encourages us to trust the poet all the more, as she guides us through the remainder of the poem. Additionally, the abruptness of the dash pairs well with the reader’s surprise of an author’s admitted lie.

the mirror fogs,
a name written long ago
faintly reappears

Rod Wilmott, THA, 276

Unlike the Kilbride haiku, which fog utilized ellipses, this fogging is merely a mechanism: a means to a name. This could almost be a passage lifted from Raymond Chandler, it reads so much like a detective novel (which is fine by me). Therefore, the comma for a soft caesura does not seem out of place. In this prose-like haiku, it serves as a conjunction that links narratively, as much as it separates (i.e., the third line “reappearance” can’t occur without the initial fogging mirror).

into the blinding sun . . .
the funeral procession’s
glaring headlights

Nicholas Virgilio, THA, 264

For me, this is a very deft usage of the ellipses; when a person is forced to squint into the sun, they shade their eyes and it takes a moment or two (symbolized by the ellipses) to adjust to the painfully bright light. Furthermore, the ellipses caesura gives the reader a moment to consider the discomfort involved—a universal experience.

sun brightens
snow slides off
the car bumper

Alan Pizzarelli, THA, 157

Of course, one needn’t even bother to read this, to know the break is immediately after “snow.” Except, it isn’t. Punctuation is called for because our eye automatically assigns a caesura between “snow” and “slides,” unless directed otherwise. A dash would be too assertive; a comma, or better still, ellipses, after “brightens” would work much better for me—the ellipses marrying the slowness of the sliding snow.

I look up
from writing
to daylight

William J. Higginson, THA, 78

It’s a wonderful image, romantic in its way, of a hard-working author grinding away at his craftthrough the night—probably having no sense of passing time until the early birds start chirping. However, there is no real caesura to speak of. Does he look up…from writing to daylight, or look up from writing…to daylight? In the former, there’s a switch: was writing/now looking instead. In the latter, he may still be writing even as he glances up toward daybreak.

Asparagus bed
silent in the morning mist
the wild turkeys

Robert Spiess, THA, 200

Something is less than entirely clear here. Is the asparagus bed silent (no people, no birds or critters), or are the wild turkeys silent? Are the turkeys abruptly shaking the silence with sudden gobbling, or are they themselves silent? A punctuation caesura, or perhaps a mere re-wording of the haiku, would more plainly set the break.

—Heather Aymer


©2002 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors