Monthly Archives: December 2016

Why You Can’t Write Haiku in English

Have you ever noticed how the best translations of haiku often pay little attention the conventions of writing haiku? Seventeen syllables? Who’s counting? Three lines? Who needs ‘em? Consider this translation by Kenneth Rexroth of a haiku by Basho (from his book One Hundred Poems from the Japanese):

Autumn evening—
A crow on a bare branch.

Only twelve syllables and two lines. Or this from the same book, a haiku by Issa:

In my life
As in the twilight
A bell sounds.
I enjoy the freshness of evening.

Twenty syllables and four lines!

So what’s happening here? Japanese poetry is very rule directed, but its rules and conventions evolved out of the structure of the Japanese language. As a result the rules don’t make a lot of sense when taken directly over into another language, say English. Why? Because some of these rules and conventions are built on structures that have no counterpart in English.

Consider, for example, the use of what are called pillow words. A pillow word is a little bit like a euphemism in that it is used in place of another word. Unlike a euphemism, however, a pillow word is not intended to lessen the impact of the avoided word. “She passed away” hits us rather more gently than “she died.”

A pillow word is very different. It has well known and recognized associations with the word it replaces, and so it suggests the power of both words while using only one. For example, ashibiki, tiring to the feet, is a pillow word for yama, mountain. The skillful use of the first in a poem instead of the second invokes the fatigue of climbing a mountain. There is nothing even remotely like this in English, and so the power of the pillow word just disappears in translation.

And so it goes. Very few of the principles, even the core principle of the correct number of syllables, do not come over unblemished into English. This is not all that strange, when you consider how radically different English is from Japanese. Thinking in the other direction, how would you write a sonnet in Japanese? Since almost all syllables in Japanese end in a vowel, rhyme is unrecognized. It is almost automatic. And since there is very little difference in emphasis from one syllable to another, the strong rhythmic nature of English disappears. So where is your 14-line iambic pentameter poem with a regular rhyme scheme?

I would suggest that it is no more possible to write genuine haiku in English than it is to write a genuine sonnet in Japanese. And for the same reason: the structures and conventions of the two languages prevent it.

And yet people translate the one into the other. And yet people are moved by these translated haiku, at least the good translations. And yet, moved by those translations, people write, in English, what they call haiku, and many of these poems are also very moving. What’s going on here?

I think that what is going on here is that the form of a short, evocative poem exists in most, if not all, languages. Consider, for example, this famous one by Carl Sandburg:

The fog comes
On little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
And then moves on.

So all is not lost. I’d prefer that we not call such poems haiku, and I’d prefer that we not try to mimic the conventions of Japanese poetry in English. But maybe that’s just me. I don’t think of myself as doctrinaire or pompous, just careful. And I do want to encourage people to write their own short evocative poems however they wish to and to call them whatever they wish. Personally, I prefer the phrase “in the Japanese style”. Here are two of mine, taken from my recent book How To See Deer (available from Amazon or directly from me).

Pear blossoms in mid-winter
Falling as white as sea foam
Meditation bell rings

Raven in cedars;
Hoarse laughter;
Old bullfrog croaks.