Haiku . . . The Smallest Talk

The following letter to the editor was written in January of 2008 and published in The Writer’s Chronicle 40:5, March/April 2008, page 32. Michael McFee is the author of the book of one-line poetry, The Smallest Talk, available on Amazon.

I enjoyed Michael McFee’s liberating article in The Writer’s Chronicle (“One Line Poems,” February 2008, Volume 40, Number 4), not the least because it presented examples new to me. However, whether by accident or design, it didn’t mention the longest tradition of one-line poetry—one that, for its output and longevity, vastly overwhelms all other traditions of monostich poetry in the rest of the world put together. That, of course, is the haiku. In Japan, where an estimated seven to ten million people practice the art on a literary level every month, haiku appear in a single vertical line. (Although meant to equate to the three parts in the monostich Japanese haiku, the three-line form in English is a Western convention.) Translator Hiroaki Sato has long advocated a single line for haiku in English, and Ginsberg’s “American Sentences” are a one-line adaptation of haiku (albeit ignoring the season word, cutting word, and other details essential to literary haiku). While haiku is predominantly three lines in English, many leading American haiku poets write their haiku in one line. Indeed, excepting that haiku deliberately do not have titles, McFee’s article, point for point, thoroughly applies to haiku. Alan Watts called haiku a “wordless poem,” too! One point of argument might be paragraph #17, if some readers think that haiku is a sort of Zen adage. Haiku has indeed been associated with Zen (thanks to R. H. Blyth and the Beats), but haiku is not a Zen art, as commentators such as Haruo Shirane have emphasized. So, because it is written in the spirit of a single line of poetry, I propose that haiku, too, is among the smallest talk.

        And to explore one-word poems (beyond Aram Saroyan’s notorious “lighght”), readers need only look up Cor van den Heuvel’s “tundra,” and see Geof Huth’s anthology &2. Poetry? Yes!

        Michael Dylan Welch

        Sammamish, Washington