One-Part Haiku

First published in Geppo XLI:2, February–April 2016. Originally written in February of 2015. See also the more recent postscript at the end.

Consider the following poem, by Ruth Yarrow, which does not have a two-part structure that mirrors the most common Japanese practice of having a cutting word within the poem. Rather, it’s equivalent to putting the cutting word at the end, creating a one-sentence poem:

                the baby’s pee
                pulls roadside dust
                into rolling beads

English doesn’t have cutting words the way Japanese haiku do, so we never have them. Even if we did have them, in Ruth’s poem there wouldn’t be one because it’s a one-part poem, so the “cut” is seen as coming at the end. In a poem like this one,

                meteor shower . . .
                a gentle wave
                wets our sandals

the cut happens to be indicated by the ellipsis, but it’s also there if no punctuation were used, because of the grammatical independence of the first line from the rest of the poem (the “cut” in haiku is both a grammatical independence and an imagistic change). In Japanese haiku, when the cutting word appears at the end, the poem has the same effect as Ruth’s poems—reading as a single sentence. Here’s one of mine to give another example:

                an old woolen sweater
                       taken yarn by yarn
                              from the snowbank

This is not a winter poem. It’s spring, and birds are taking bits of yarn to build a nest (William J. Higginson included it under the season word for “nest” in his book Haiku World, an English-language saijiki, or season-word almanac, published in 1996). The one-part structure, when it’s used in Japanese haiku, tends to say “really think about this,” because something is implied that comes beyond or outside the poem. My poem makes no mention of birds or nest-making, yet that is its point. The cut
 in haiku, whether within the poem or at the end, serves to heighten some kind of implication. Poems with the “cut” at the end still have two parts; it’s just that the second part is implied, whatever it may be.

Postscript

Here are three more examples of one-part haiku, all taken from Philomene Kocher’s Singing in the Silo (Carleton Place, Ontario: Catkin Press, 2014):

                the wrinkled page
                in my journal
                where the tears dried

                the curve of the sidewalk
                remains
                after the tree is gone

                if not for the crows
                making a fuss
                I would have missed the owl

The first poem is particularly strong for its implication of deep emotion. We don’t know if the sad event that produced these tears also produced a journal entry, or if no journal entry was possible because the tears flowed too heavily. But clearly something intense is happening outside the poem, and we are left to wonder what it might be. Yet we do not need to know, because what the poem asks us to focus on is the depth of emotion, not what the emotion was for.
        In the second poem, the word “remains” carries great weight, alluding even to bodily remains. The poet clearly knows this tree, and knew it for a long time. The tree may be gone, but evidence of its existence remains in the sidewalk’s curve. But the tree’s memory also remains in the author’s mind and heart as well.
        It might be argued that the third poem has a very slight pause, as indeed it does after the second line, but I would suggest that this is not equivalent to the cut or pause produced by a cutting word (kireji), or its true equivalent in English. Nevertheless, there are degrees of cut, even in Japanese, and in English I would suggest that this would be the slightest of cuts. But it’s really not a cut at all, in my view, essentially saying “the crows are making such a fuss that I miss seeing the owl”—which clearly has no cut. Remember that the cut is not merely grammatical but also imagistic or syntactical, making much more of a leap than we see in this third poem. Yet here the single part is perfectly fine, in the way it clarifies an experience—that the owl was noticed. Why? Because of the crows making a fuss.
         A haiku should essentially never have three independent parts. Haiku is most commonly taught as having two parts, but, carefully done, haiku with just a single part, with an implied “juxtaposition” that lies outside the poem, can still be done effectively.
—22 April 2016, 7 June 2016