Haiku . . . Under the Bedsheets: Juxtaposition and Seasonal Reference

First published, in a slightly different form, in South by Southeast 11:1, 2004. Both poems quoted, by permission of the poets, from The Haiku Calendar 2003, Liverpool, U.K.: Snapshot Press, 2002. See the new postscript at the end. Also see the essay “Up with Season Words.”       + 

When I was younger, we used to play a game with the names of church hymns or other song titles. The idea was to say the name of the hymn and then add “under the sheets” at the end. “When the Saints Go Marching In . . . Under the Sheets.” “A Mighty Fortress . . . Under the Sheets.” It was a way for us, as children, to begin understanding our own sexuality, making a joke out of it to try to keep the onslaught of growing up at bay. Perhaps we also did it to make fun of the hymns because at times we thought of them as something stale and old-fashioned, that had lost their sharpness, being like a Gillette razor blade “used and reused,” as E. E. Cummings once wrote, “to the mystical moment of dullness.”

        The juvenile game can still bring an eye-rolling smile to my face, especially with certain new hymn titles (the same game, similar to Mad Libs, is also played at wedding showers, where the bride-to-be’s comments while opening gifts are written down and repeated later with the additional phrase: “Oh, just what I wanted . . . under the sheets” or “It’s so big . . . under the sheets!”). Some hymn titles surely don’t work with this game, but others, creatively selected, can be amusing. Though added for humourous and admittedly childish purposes, what the additional phrase does is reenergize the original hymn title. It does this by putting the hymn title in a new context. This is, perhaps, not much different from the way season words work in a haiku.


                a maple leaf drawn back

                into the eddy


The preceding is an interesting enough moment—noticing a particular kind of leaf in a stream and watching it being pulled repeatedly into an eddy. But what does adding a seasonal reference do?


                indian summer

                a maple leaf drawn back

                into the eddy

                                 —Carolyn Hall


Though the effect is decidedly different from adding “under the sheets” to hymn titles, at least one trait is similar, and that’s that the well-crafted seasonal reference energizes what it is added to. It puts the rest of the poem into a new context, and also relates the poem to other poems with the same seasonal reference. In Carolyn Hall’s haiku, the brief return of summer in the fall, known as “Indian summer,” resonates with the image of the leaf in a stream as it is escapes yet is drawn back into the eddy, and also brings to mind the overtones of the word “Indian” and of course “summer.” Other poems with the same seasonal reference may also come to mind for some readers.

        In haiku, the key structural element is not syllabic form but the use of a turn or caesura, often accomplished in Japanese with a kireji (cutting word). Adding a seasonal reference to a haiku, of course, does not have to be done with a separate phrase, where the energy that is gained by the poem comes not just from the seasonal reference but also from the juxtaposition and pause in the poem—like a spark plug that enables a spark to leap the gap. So it is important not to ascribe to the seasonal reference the effective results produced by the juxtaposition. Each valuable technique adds something to the poem on its own. Sometimes, as in the preceding poem, both techniques are used at once; the single “indian summer” phrase is not only a seasonal reference but the pause that follows it creates a syntactic juxtaposition and conceptual turn as well.

        What else can haiku poets learn from the “under the sheets” game? That it is also possible to trivialize something. With hymn titles, it is easily argued that adding “under the sheets” is an act of defiance, of youthful rebellion, an attempt at trivializing what is thought sacred or holy. And just as adding “under the sheets” to a hymn title can be sacrilegious, adding poorly chosen or knee-jerk seasonal references to haiku can also be trite or superficial. In online discussion groups for haiku, I have heard this sort of trick being called a “weather report” haiku. In trying to write haiku, one records an image of some sort, and then appends a current or made-up weather report to the poem as the first or third line. Thus one could look out the window and say “rain shower” or “partly cloudy sky” or “sudden hail” and think one has added an effective seasonal reference to one’s poem. But not necessarily so—in fact, quite likely not. Seasonal references are more than that, and should be handled at more deft an angle than being nearly random or arbitrary.


                bedtime story

                the smell of leaves

                in my daughter’s hair

                                 —James Paulson


In this poem, the pause comes after the first line, which juxtaposes “bedtime story” with the smell of leaves that the father notices in his daughter’s hair. The poem evokes closeness and love, not just in the act of reading a bedtime story, but in the father’s physical proximity revealed by his smelling the leaves in the girl’s hair. What is judiciously not stated, of course, is that the girl must have been playing in a pile of autumn leaves earlier in the day, and that’s where the poem enlarges and resonates more deeply. Here, “leaves” is the season word, and it is not added superficially, as “under the sheets” might be appended to a hymn title, but is an intrinsic part of the haiku—to the point that the poem would utterly fall apart if “leaves” (clearly evoking autumn here) were replaced with some other word. Indeed, the word “leaves” brings to mind more than just autumn but also the changing of the seasons that resonates with the child’s changing seasons of life. The poem also compresses a single day’s time into the present moment, for it is now night yet we are made aware of the earlier time of playing in the leaves, perhaps shared by father and daughter as the father went about raking the lawn under the trees. This poem shows how a season word can be used separately from the juxtapositional phrase and be more deeply integrated into the haiku, moving it beyond the lighter juxtapositional energy akin to that created by appending “under the sheets” to a hymn title.

        In tennis, there’s a narrow window for the perfect shot. Too far in one direction and the shot will go out. Too far in the other direction and the shot will be easy to return. But if the angle is finessed just right, it will score. Though there’s no opponent in haiku, the choice of season words is not very different. Finding the right angle of phrase can spell the difference between being obscure or contrived and being too obvious and facile. In haiku, one could do better than playing the trivial “weather report” game that does little more than the juvenile prank of adding “under the sheets” to a hymn title. Effective haiku can be written well where the seasonal reference is used as the juxtapositional phrase, but often the best seasonal reference is more integrated into the haiku. Either way, with an exceptional haiku, we are drawn to its creative energy, and that energy is typically produced by the images, the juxtaposition, and the seasonal reference. Something we played with as children—adding “under the sheets” to song titles—had an inkling of this poetic understanding.


Regarding my reference to haiku being like a spark plug in a car engine, the goal for the poem’s two parts is that they not be too close (and thus ruin the engine’s timing) and not too far apart (failing to spark at all). This is equivalent to the relationship between the haiku’s two parts being too obvious on the one hand and too obscure or private on the other. As I’ve written elsewhere, a Japanese term for this is fusoku-furi (不即不離), which means that the two parts should not be too close together, nor too far apart, being at once unattached yet undetached. This relationship of linking and shifting came from the linked poetry practice of renga. Each verse was expected to connect to the previous one but also shift away. This technique was compressed into the renga’s hokku, or starting verse, where that verse by itself had two parts that linked and shifted, the space between the two parts often referred to as ma, an expansiveness that created momentary mystery and engagement in readers as they sought to resolve the question of what the second part had to do with the first. This technique helped to build compression in the hokku and we see it today in the standalone haiku that evolved out of renga’s starting verse.

        The metaphor for haiku’s two parts being like the gap in a spark plug is echoed in a short comment about haiku by Donald Keene, in his book Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western Readers (New York: Grove, 1955). In his chapter on poetry, he said that haiku, “for all its extreme brevity, must contain two elements, usually divided by a break marked by what the Japanese call a ‘cutting word’ (kireji). One of the elements may be the general condition—the end of autumn, the stillness of the temple grounds, the darkening sea—and the other the momentary perception” (40). He emphasized that “The nature of the elements varies, but there should be the two electric poles between which the spark will leap for the haiku to be effective, otherwise it is no more than a brief statement” (40–41).

—19 April 2021