The Question of Articles in Haiku

      by Paul O. Williams

From the author’s book, The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics, Foster City, California: Press Here, 2001, edited by Lee Gurga and Michael Dylan Welch. This essay was originally published in Woodnotes #2, Summer 1989. See also “Tontoism in American Haiku,” the 1975 essay referred to the first sentence, and the book
s introduction.       +

Some years ago I published a small article in Dragonfly on what a friend and I called Tontoism in American haiku. It seemed to us that a number of haiku we had been reading sounded like Tonto conversing with the Lone Ranger. Articles were missing where they normally would be in idiomatic English. The result sounded stilted and at times vaguely campy.
        “Old man / digs potatoes / in rain” might be an example. It takes little effort to give the scene particularity.

                again the old man
                digs supper potatoes
                in the rain

Looked at slightly differently, it might become

                the old man
                digging his potatoes
                in a cold rain

or some other version of the perception. One friend, who has a strict sense of haiku, would maintain about the preceding two examples, I think, that the essential haiku is the first one, and the additions to it are unnecessary and potentially intrusive to the original moment. Because haiku is such a minimal form, such considerations ought to be thought about carefully.
        In the second version, the addition of “again the” suggests that the poet has seen a particular old man dig in the rain more than once, that perhaps the man is a neighbor who can be watched at his chores. Either he is very concerned that his potatoes are fresh from the earth, or some other condition, such as illness or failure to plan ahead, has forced him out into the muck and rain to dig before eating.
        Similarly, the use of “the” in the third version suggests a particular old man, perhaps a neighbor, whereas “an” would propose any old man, even one seen for the first time by a poet driving by. The article clearly shifts the perception. And would it be going too far to suggest that “the cold rain” seems colder than “a cold rain”? Somehow it seems to put the poet out into the rain, or just in from it.
        My strict haiku friend might well hold that a haiku ought to concern itself basically with what one might call “old manness,” rather than a particular old man, and that the basic haiku would allow us to build the poem according to our own perceptions. Perhaps some might conceive of an often drunk old man who finally realized that if he wanted to eat that night, he had better get out and dig some potatoes, rain or not. Another reader might conceive of a wholly different scene:

                whistling arias,
                the old man digs potatoes
                in a cold rain

        In addition, the basic Tontoistic haiku might leave the reader as cold as the rain. It might well be a “so what?” haiku. Is it so bad, one might ask, to sharpen the perception, perhaps giving it direction and poignancy, humor, or some other emotion?
        Articles are not simply empty signals in English, but serve, as the these examples show, to shift perceptions significantly and economically. Furthermore, if it is desirable to write haiku that flow naturally, in syntax that does not call attention to itself as odd, articles are often necessary.
        This is not to say that articles are all wonderful in haiku, of course. A poem can be overwhelmed by them. “The old man / carrying the basket / in the rain” plainly needs further work. Nor do I maintain that there is no room for minimalist haiku such as we often see effectively written. About it one might say that natural, idiomatic English has plenty of expressions that need no articles:

                summer sunrise—
                distant hammering
                starts again

One might also say that for many haiku poets, minimalism is the way they see and voice the form, and they have found ways to make it sound natural and not Tontoistic.
        But one also sees published haiku that use or omit articles without regard to idiom or any other apparent principle:

                old man
                digs potatoes
                in the rain

If “the rain,” why not “the old man?” or if “old man,” which is unnatural in English, why not “in rain,” which is not unnatural in English? I feel able to castigate this haiku, having written it, but one needn’t look far in current magazines to find examples one might well question oneself.
        Surely there will be disagreement on this question of articles in haiku, but it is my feeling that it needs to be thought about much more carefully than is typically being done today.