Harold Henderson’s Grammar Haiku

First published in Blithe Spirit 32:4, November 2022, pages 52–64. Originally written in May and June of 2020, with additional edits in October of 2020 and March of 2022. It is interesting to note that Henderson (or his publisher) consistently italicized the word “haiku,” presumably because it was still a “foreign” word in English. Also note that the book I discuss in this essay was originally published in 1943, in the middle of World War II, when American sympathy toward the Japanese people and their culture was relatively low, but perhaps the book contributed to the war effort in providing Japanese instruction to those needing such understanding during the Pacific War. I have also created a PowerPoint presentation of this essay. See also Alison Woolpert’s Geppo report on my 12 March 2022 Zoom presentation of this essay for the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society. +

In 1943, Harold G. Henderson published Handbook of Japanese Grammar (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Riverside Press). This was nine years after The Bamboo Broom (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1934), his first book about haiku, and fifteen years before An Introduction to Haiku (New York: Doubleday, 1958), which was an update and extensive revision of The Bamboo Broom. Of interest to haiku poets is the fact that Henderson’s book on grammar contains numerous mentions of haiku, and occasionally tanka, which I present here with Henderson’s commentary, and my own. These excerpts all come from the book’s 1948 revised edition (New York: Houghton Mifflin). This text is available online. Routledge also published a hardback reprint in 2011, and a paperback in 2013, demonstrating that the book remains relevant to Japanese language acquisition. Some of the book’s poems are not used in An Introduction to Haiku, so they provide additional poetry resources from this prominent translator of haiku that readers will not know from his haiku books. Those poems that do appear in the later book are presented in sometimes different versions, showing growth in Henderson’s attention to the translation craft. Aside from the haiku, the great majority of texts used as grammatical examples in Handbook of Japanese Grammar are snippets of ordinary conversation or from other sources, but the inclusion of haiku or other poetry expands the haiku student’s sources of early English-language translation of this Japanese poetic import.

The first example of haiku in Handbook of Japanese Grammar comes in a discussion of “ka,” a particle that indicates doubtfulness. “In many of its uses,” Henderson says, “it corresponds to a verbal question-mark” (116), and some readers may know it in the phrase “desuka” used at the ends of many questions. An example is “What time is it?” In Japanese (今何時ですか), this is said as “Ima nanji desuka?” Henderson quotes the following haiku, with romaji and an English translation, without identifying the author, noting how the position of ka can change the meaning of the sentence, and pointing out how the poem omits the word suru because it is implied (121):

Kane tsukanu A village where they ring

Mura wa nani wo ka No bells!—What do they do at

Haru no kure Dusk in Spring?

Henderson’s omission of the poet’s name here and often elsewhere underscores his purpose to present the poems as grammar examples rather than as literature. As we’ll see, some of the versions are unfinished or tentative as translations or rendered prosaically. The preceding poem is by Bashō, written in 1693, and it appears a bit differently in An Introduction to Haiku with Henderson’s headnote of “The Village Without Bells” (48):

A village where they ring

no bells!—Oh, what do they do

at dusk in spring?

A change here is that Henderson has not started the second and third lines with a capital, helping to clarify that these lines connect grammatically with the previous lines. He has also moved “at” to the third line where it reads more naturally. A page later in the grammar book, Henderson says the following (122):

There is one case where ka comes at the end of a sentence and is not interrogative. This apparently occurs only in old bungo [文語, classical Japanese language] and after a previous mo. Under these conditions the ka may be a sign of emotion. As an example, take the following from the Kokinshū:

Shiratsuyu wo Ah, the spring willows,

Tama ni mo nukeru Which let white dewdrops

Haru no yanagi ka Fall like pearls!

Kokoro yowaku mo My heart is weak, and oh!-

Otsuru namida ka My falling tears!

But in more recent bungo a previous mo still leaves the final ka interrogative. Take the following haiku by Bashō:

Futari mishi The snow that we two

Yuki wa kotoshi mo Saw (together) this year also

Furikeru ka Has it fallen?

(Incidentally, this was sent as an invitation to one of Bashō’s fellow-poets.)

As you can see, the haiku poem is given simply as a grammatical example, but it is useful to notice that haiku (and waka in this excerpt) rides high in Henderson’s consciousness even when discussing Japanese grammar. His use of “together” in parentheses shows an alternate way to translate the poem, and this tentativeness suggests that he seemingly did not intend the poem to be in a final form—he presents it for grammatical rather than poetic purposes. In addition, Henderson provides many of the other poems in his book without identifying their authors, further emphasizing his purpose of using these excerpts purely as grammatical examples. In this case the haiku also appears in An Introduction to Haiku, but as follows, which we may consider to be more final, complete with a headnote of “An Invitation to Etsujin,” written in 1688 (39):

Snow that we two

looked at together—this year

has it fallen anew?

The question mark remains, but Henderson has added rhyme to the poem, as he had done with most of the translations in An Introduction to Haiku, so it is notable that the earlier version did not employ rhyme. In this poem the rhyme unfolds naturally, but in some translations the syntax seems to be twisted for the sake of achieving rhyme.

A comment, too, about the preceding “spring willows” waka. I am unsure who the author is. Henderson says it’s from the Kokinshū, but the only poem in that collection beginning with “shiratsuyu” is Tomonori’s poem #437, partially matching the start of Henderson’s romaji:


shiratsuyu o / tama ni nuku to ya / sasagani no / hana nimo ha nimo / ito o minaeshi

For comparison, here is the romaji Henderson offers (he does not include the Japanese text for any of the poems in the grammar book):

Shiratsuyu wo / Tama ni mo nukeru / Haru no yanagi ka

Kokoro yowaku mo / Otsuru namida ka

In the Kokinshū, poem #809, by Sugano no Tadaomu, is as follows, which partially matches Henderson’s romaji at the end:


tsurenaki o / ima wa koiji to / omoe domo / kokoro yowaku mo / otsuru namida ka

Without further research to know what happened here, Henderson’s offering seems to be a mash-up of the other two poems.

In Henderson’s grammar book, we next have two haiku quoted in the section on “kana,” defined as “a literary particle, expressing emotion.” He adds that “It is usually untranslatable, and its exact effect will depend on the context. In poetry it always carries on the thought” (125), as if to especially emphasize something unstated or something outside the poem. “Kana,” as haiku poets will know, is a kireji, or cutting word. When used at the end of a haiku, it gives the poem just one part rather than two. The two quoted poems are these (126):

Yononaka wa Oh, the wide world’s ways!

Mikka minu ma ni Cherry blossoms left unwatched

Sakura kana Even for three days!

Ame harete Clearing after showers;

Shibaraku bara no And for a little while the scent

Nioi kana Of hawthorn flowers . . .

Neither poet is named, and neither appears in An Introduction to Haiku. The poets, however, are Ōshima Ryōta (1718–87) and Takahama Kiyoshi (1874–1959).

In a section discussing the obsolete suffixes “-keme,” “-kemu,” and “-ken,” Henderson shares the following poem without explanation, and with a prose rendition in English. The poem has two kigo, or season words (frost and chrysanthemums), which might suggest that it’s part of a tanka rather than being an independent haiku (which would most often have just one kigo), but not necessarily in this case because the flower is clearly the dominant seasonal reference in the Japanese. The author is not identified and the poem does not occur in An Introduction to Haiku (137):

Ikutabi ka How often may hoar-frost

Shimo wa okikemu have settled on the chrysanthemums?

Kiku no hana

The translation here is prosaic, with the line break used simply to accommodate the book’s page width. It may interest some readers to know that the combination of frost and chrysanthemums is popular in Japanese waka. In 100 Poets: Passions of the Imperial Court (Tokyo: PIE Books, 2008), our version of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, Emiko Miyashita and I translated this collection’s famous waka by Ōshikōchi no Mitsune as follows (132):


kokoroate ni oraba ya oran hatsushimo no okimadowaseru shiragiku no hana

if I pluck

a white chrysanthemum,

I must pluck by guesswork

after the first frost

has disguised them

The next mention of haiku appears in a discussion of “keri.” Henderson says “In poetry or poetical prose, keri becomes an auxiliary verb of emotion, often untranslatable, practically equivalent to an interjection” (138). He then quotes the following poem (139):

Ama gaeru The tree-frog

Bashō ni norite On a banana-leaf riding and

Soyogi keri Swaying, swaying . . .

18th century

We can find the poem, with the addition of rhyme, in An Introduction to Haiku, attributed to Kikaku, who lived from 1661 to 1707 (58):

A tree-frog, clinging

to a banana leaf—

and swinging, swinging.

Henderson quotes a waka by an unnamed poet next, in a section on “mono wo,” a word combination “coming at the end of a sentence or clause in sentence-form,” presenting “a concrete situation to be acted on” (169). Here’s the poem he quotes, which is by Jien (1155–1225), given without further explanation (170):

Hito goto ni Every man

hitotsu no kuse wa has one foible.

aru mono wo Well, then . . .

ware ni wa yuruse May mine be

Shikishima no michi The “Way of Japan”

(i.e., the composition of poetry)

Note that the romaji Henderson provides for the preceding poem differs slightly from a more established version, which is “Hitogoto ni / hitotsu wa kuse no / arizo to yo / wari ni wa yuruse / shikishima no michi.”

Another use of haiku occurs in a section on “to,” which Henderson explains as being “A connective particle, with an additional reflexive force, somewhat like ‘that’ or ‘that way’” (294). A poem is quoted two pages later (296):

Kore wa kore wa “This is . . . ! This is . . . !”

To bakari hana no That was the measure—

Yoshinoyama Blossom-covered Yoshino mountain.

This last example was the answer given by the poet Teishitsu when he was asked what poem he had composed when he saw the cherry-blossoms at Yoshino-yama. It might be rendered:

“Oh!” and “Oh!” and “Oh!”

That’s all—upon the blossom-covered

Hills of Yoshino.

Note that, strictly speaking, the adjective or verb before to should be in the sentence-ending form (shūshekei), but custom allows the use of . . . (rentaikei) also. Occasionally the verb which introduces a quotation is placed at its head, but to always marks the end of the narration.

The preceding Teishitsu poem does not appear in An Introduction to Haiku, but it does appear in Henderson’s Haiku in English (Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Publishers, 1967, reprinting a 1965 chapbook from the Japan Society of New York City), as follows (15).

About one haiku in 25 does not have a strict 5-7-5 form. The variation from the rule, however, is usually not more than one syllable. An example is the famous early haiku by Teishitsu (1609 [sic]–73), which is in 6-7-5 form:

Kore wa kore wa to bakari hana no Yoshinoyama

Oh . . . ! that’s all

upon the blossom-covered

hills of Yoshino.

(The translation is as literal as possible, except for the word “upon.” This has been added, for English-speaking readers, to bring out that the poet actually is on the mountain, and trying to compose a poem about it. Kore wa kore wa is all he can say—or write.)

Henderson’s three versions indicate his willingness to try different approaches and show his openness in revealing the challenges he faces with translation. The evolution from “This is” to “Oh” seems to be a recognition that the later version offers greater clarity.

Here’s how I might translate the poem:

oh! oh!

the blossom-covered hills

of Yoshino

Another mention of haiku appears in a discussion of “wo,” a preposition that “marks a substantive as presented for action to be taken on it” (332). In this section Henderson says “The student should note the Japanese habit of omitting necessary parts of a sentence when such omissions are obvious from the context” (339). This may well remind us that the elliptical and “unfinished” nature of haiku is an extension of the grammar and language itself. The follow is the example text (340), which refers to Professor Yamada Yoshio, whom Henderson describes in his preface as “the great pioneer among modern Japanese grammarians, whose voluminous and comprehensive works have been invaluable [to Henderson in writing his own book on Japanese grammar]” (v):

Perhaps one of the best examples is supplied by Yamada, who refers to two famous haiku (17-syllable poems). The wo indicates action, the ni quiescence.

Kome-arau In front of the washer of rice

mae wo hotaru no two or three fireflies (flit by)

futatsu mitsu

Kome-arau Just in front of the washer of rice

mae ni hotaru no two or three fireflies (she sees

futatsu mitsu on the leaves, not flying)

In these two poems the moods suggested correspond to the scene. The first is almost an omen that the lady’s lover is near, and so suggests active emotion. The second suggests quiet thought and longing.

The poet seems to be anonymous, and neither poem appears in An Introduction to Haiku. Here the translation is given as a general sense of each poem, rather than as a finished poetic translation. It is also notable to see how the subtlest of changes (from “wo” to “ni”) significantly alters the poem’s action and mood. Emiko Miyashita has told me that these two poems are part of a well-known haiku lesson, with three poems illustrating how changing just the smallest word can improve the poem (see 俳諧師から学ぶ文章テクニック (Writing techniques learned from haiku masters”) for a discussion of this poem, in Japanese).

The next example occurs in a section discussing the particle “ya.” Haiku poets know this word as a kireji or cutting word, as are several of the other particles Henderson discusses, but ya has additional uses. He says “It should be noted that in all its uses this particle has a rather soft effect. There is nothing hard and sharp about it” (342). We will know this cutting word from the start of Bashō’s most famous haiku:

furuike ya old pond . . .

kawazu tobikomu a frog jumps in

mizu no oto water’s sound

Henderson makes the following point about ya, amid explorations of other uses, such as the term being used as a connective (344). He says:

In poetry or rhythmic prose ya may be used as an interjection without much meaning in order to give the proper number of syllables to a line. (This does not apply to ya after substantives in haiku, etc.)

Ōmi no ya At Kagami Mountain,

Kagami-no-yama ni . . . in Ōmi . . .

We may have momentarily wondered if ya can be used as padding in haiku, but Henderson quickly points out that this is not the case, and explains further here (345):

Ya may be used in place of wa. In bungo [classical/literary Japanese] this seems to be always deliberate, not ombin [convenience in speech].

The effect, especially in poetry, is to put particular emphasis on the thought marked by ya.

Haru wa yuku Spring goes.

Haru ya yuku Spring! It goes!

Mezurashi to “Marvelous,” I say

Miru mono goto ni And with each separate thing I see

Haru ya yuku Springtime fades away!

The poet of the latter piece is not identified, but it appears as follows in An Introduction to Haiku, attributed to Buson’s pupil, Kitō, who lived from 1740 to 1788 (121):

“Marvelous!” I say

as I watch, now this, now that—

and springtime goes away

This version loses the concluding emphatic exclamation mark, but moves it to the first line, where one could argue that “Marvelous” is marvelous enough without further exclamation. The text continues (345, 346):

In poetry, especially haiku, ya performs a special function when it follows a substantive which is not directly connected with the following verb.

In this use it draws special attention to the substantive, and indicates that it is to be thought of in connection with the rest of the poem. This is obviously a not very great extension of the original use of ya as an exclamatory particle.

Furu ike ya An ancient pond!

Kawazu tobikomu And the plash of the water

Mizu no oto When a frog jumps in!

Araumi ya How rough the sea!

Sado ni yokotō And, stretching off to Sado Isle,

Ama-no-gawa The Galaxy . . .

These two haiku are by Bashō.

In the famous old-pond poem, Henderson uses the exclamation mark twice, when it would seem logical for his grammatical point to use it only at the end of the first line, to match where ya appears. An Introduction to Haiku gives the poem twice, as follows, “Literally translated” (19) and then as “the closest possible English for the poem” (20):

Old pond:

frog jump-in


Old pond—

and a frog-jump-in


These two versions seek a more literal rather than poetic expression, as evidenced by the hyphenated words equating to the effect of the phrases in Japanese. Note how neither version retains the exclamation mark, suggesting that a colon or em dash could also substitute for ya to indicate the cut in translations and in English-language haiku.

As for the famous Sado Island poem, it too appears slightly differently in An Introduction to Haiku, with Henderson’s headnote of “The River of Heaven” (41):

So wild a sea—

and, stretching over Sado Isle,

the Galaxy . . .

Other translations employ “Milky Way” instead of “the galaxy” (surely used here to rhyme with “sea”), but Henderson explains that “The Japanese name for the Milky Way, ‘Heaven’s River,’ enormously helps the effect of the original” (41), hence the headnote.

Three additional haiku appear on the next page of Henderson’s grammar book, with the poets not identified (347):

Suzushisa mo Is it, I wonder, because it is

Katamari nare ya one mass of coolness?

Yowa no tsuki O, midnight moon!

Haru nare ya Spring has come, and (is it because of that?)

Namonaki yama no —the morning mist

Asagasumi round even a nameless hill!

Koe ni mina So! And did it yell

Nakashimaute ya Till it became all voice?

Semi no kara Cicada-shell!

The first poem is by Yasuhara Teishitsu, who lived from 1610 to 1673 (another poem of his was cited earlier). The second poem is by Bashō, and Emiko Miyashita and I translated it for the book Bonsai (Tokyo, PIE Books, 2011; 66) that featured a year of Bashō haiku:

truly spring—

nameless mountains

in a thin morning mist

The Yasuhara Teishitsu poem does not appear in An Introduction to Haiku, but the second and third poems do, both attributed to Bashō (composed in 1685 and composition date unknown). They appear with Henderson’s headnotes of “On the Road to Nara” (34) and “Persistence” (32), where the em dash used in the cicada poem seems to be an error in place of a hyphen:

Oh, these spring days!

A nameless little mountain

wrapped in morning haze!

Did it yell

till it became all voice?


In the first of these two poems, we can see that Henderson resolves the tentativeness of his earlier “Spring has come, and (is it because of that?)” phrasing and has added rhyme. The second of the two already had rhyme, but the “So! And” at the start has been omitted to make it progress more quickly. In this case Henderson has retained the capital to start the third line because the previous line concluded with a question mark, indicating that his more recent style is to start new sentences (if not new lines) with capital letters.

The next reference to haiku comes in a section devoted to the term “yaru,” which Henderson describes as “A particle, technically confined to the colloquial, but with a special use in poetry, especially haiku.” He also says that yara “expresses doubt, uncertainty, conjecture, etc.” and that “It is something like ka or ya, but it is rather softer and vaguer” (349). Here’s the next excerpt from Henderson (350):

When used in poetry, especially haiku, yara has an added emotional context.

It is not possible to give an exact definition, as the effect varies with the context, but it may be roughly described as a sort of vague “I wonder,” suggested rather than expressed.

Tombotsuri Dragon-fly-catcher

kyō wa doko made Today to what place

itta yara Has he gone?

This last poem has been splendidly rendered in English by Thomas Nelson Page:

I wonder in what fields today

He chases dragon-flies in play

My little boy—who ran away.

The verse, of course, is by Chiyo-ni, who lived from 1703 to 1775. The poem appears in An Introduction to Haiku as follows, where Henderson explains that the boy was Chiyo’s son, who had not run away but had died, which adds a deeper level of poignancy to the poem (82):

The dragonfly hunter—

today, what place has he

got to, I wonder . . .

Henderson then says “This has been beautifully rendered by Curtis Hidden Page,” and quotes the version cited earlier as being by Thomas Nelson Page (an obvious error—Thomas Nelson Page was a prominent American lawyer and writer, and not the translator of this poem). As for Page’s rendition, it would seem that our appreciation for splendidness has changed over the decades, even for Henderson, who later called it beautiful, but this version is still inaccurate, because the poor boy had not run away but had died. And although Henderson praised Page’s overly long version, his own is significantly different, and does not employ rhyme at all, in contrast to Page’s triple rhyme. At the very least, Henderson was able to correct his attribution error, and the poem is indeed beautiful in the original Japanese and in Henderson’s translation.

There may be no conclusion to reach here, except to note again that Harold G. Henderson applied his knowledge of haiku to the study of Japanese grammar, and that the examples in his Handbook of Japanese Grammar may be said to expand the knowledge of haiku poets regarding his work in haiku translation. We can also see that Henderson refined his translations in his later use of certain poems, in each case making the poems clearer or in some cases adding rhyme to match his predilection. Henderson published Haiku in English in 1965 through the Japan Society of New York (it was reprinted by Tuttle in 1967), cofounded the Haiku Society of America in 1968, and in the late 60s and early 70s published selections of his own haiku in American haiku journals under the pen name of Tairo, considering himself, so it seems, to be a tyro in haiku. In the Haiku Society of America’s twentieth-anniversary history, A Haiku Path (New York: Haiku Society of America, 1994), Alfred Marks noted that Harold G. Henderson “chose the name because as a poet he is a tyro—just a beginner” (144). He was not a beginner, however, regarding his knowledge of haiku, Japanese culture, and the Japanese language.

A sample page from Harold G. Henderson’s 1943 Handbook of Japanese Grammar (1948 edition). See the entire book online.