Punctuation in Haiku

First published in Geppo XX:2, March–April 1997, pages 10–11. Republished in Old Pond: The Art of Haiku, edited by Clysta Seney (San Jose, California: Yuki Teikei Haiku Society 2016), pages 45–51. Originally developed as a much longer presentation (for the 1992 Asilomar haiku retreat for the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society and for the 1993 Haiku North America conference) with more categories and examples, with an extensive handout. I also gave a similar presentation at the 2010 Seabeck Haiku Getaway. A new postscript commenting on the poem selections appears at the end, and a second postscript comments on the misguided notion that punctuation supposedly counts among the syllables if one is counting syllables. See also my short essay, “Notes on Haiku Capitalization and Punctuation.”       +      +      +      +

One of the more practical but sometimes elusive disciplines of haiku composition is the use of punctuation. Oscar Wilde once said, “All morning I worked on one of my poems, and I took out a comma; in the afternoon I put it back.” He wasn’t revising haiku, but he might as well have been. Many poets rework their haiku extensively, laboring over the punctuation as much as the words. Because of haiku’s brevity, each punctuation mark can indeed be as important as each word. Punctuating haiku may be a chore for neophyte and seasoned haiku writers alike, but by understanding the varieties of punctuation marks and observing their application, perhaps we can better communicate our haiku moments. The use of punctuation is one of many differences between Japanese and English-language haiku. Japanese essentially has no punctuation. The closest equivalents are kireji, or cutting words, such as kana, keri, or ya, that generally express tone. English, however, is fortified with punctuation marks (rather than words) that indicate pauses, relationships, and form, in addition to tone. I’ll briefly review each of these classifications of punctuation.

         The first type of punctuation is pause punctuation, which includes the comma, semicolon, and period. The following poems by Margaret Molarsky, Garry Gay, and Patricia Donegan each use one of the three marks of pause punctuation:

                Old Indian trail

                we too,

                pause for the view

                Indian summer;

                a red-tail hawk’s solemn flight

                through burial grounds

                Summer twilight—

                a woman’s song

                mingles with the bath water.

In Margaret’s poem, the comma pauses for us. In Garry’s poem, the semicolon arrests us in a way different from a comma, dash, or colon (a comma here wouldn’t be grammatically correct). And, in Patricia’s haiku, the poet chooses to end the poem definitively with a period.

        A second type of punctuation shows relationships as well as providing a pause. These marks include the colon, the dash, and the ellipsis. These pauses are also endowed with specific qualities of relationship. The colon, for example, marks expectation or addition—and says, essentially, that this equals that, which is often too heavy-handed. In haiku, both the colon and the dash show some sort of spatial relationship between the actuality of what precedes and follows the punctuation mark. The ellipsis, though, typically suggests the passing of time (however quickly) in a haiku. Here is an example of each mark in poems by David Wright, Gary Hotham, and Margaret Molarsky:

                Moving to the sounds

                of the shrine river: two women

                practicing a dance

                the library book


                slow falling snow

                From a granite cliff

                letting wind take his ashes . . .

                some blow back to me

The ellipsis can also indicate contemplation rather than passing time, as in Jerry Kilbride’s fog poem that follows, or can “delay” the last line, like a pregnant pause setting up a punch line, as in Garry Gay’s bald tire poem:

                fog . . .

                just the tree and I

                at the bus stop

                Bald tire

                still getting good mileage . . .

                as a tree swing

Another type of punctuation indicates tone or voice. These marks include the exclamation mark, indicating surprise or emphasis, and the question mark, indicating questioning or doubt. Both are relatively rare in haiku, but sometimes effective, as in the following examples by Ebba Story and John Thompson:

                            jazz clarinet!

                the tassels of one loafer


                      which is the way?

                the fallen pine needles point

                      in all directions

Certain punctuation marks show the form of given text. For example, quotation marks often indicate that words are spoken or quoted, and apostrophes usually show possession or omission. These are actually non-punctuational symbols, yet they are worth considering. Form punctuation marks include hyphens, single and double quotation marks, and apostrophes. Here are two relevant haiku examples by Raymond Roseliep and Ty Hadman:

                smoke leafy air,

                       the boy drop-

                              kicks the ball

                The cold wind at dusk;

                A coatless beggar asks me,

                “Hey, how’s it going?”

Note Raymond’s creative use of the hyphen, whereby the punctuation itself emphasizes what is happening. Also, as Ty’s poem shows, a lot of punctuation is sometimes necessary. This strikes me as fine when it looks natural and is not overdone.

        On the other hand, you don’t have to use any punctuation at all. If the meaning is clear, an alternative is to leave off punctuation altogether, or use indents to suggest the relationships or pauses usually indicated with punctuation. Consider the following examples, by Jack Cain, LeRoy Gorman, and then Elizabeth Searle Lamb:

                an empty elevator



                her long paper legs


                    of the river

                far back under a ledge

                the ancient petroglyph      faintly

                water sound

I hope these examples prove helpful in illustrating the powerful effects punctuation can produce in haiku. Whatever you do with your haiku, put punctuation (or the lack of it) to work for you.

[Poems quoted from The San Francisco Haiku Anthology (Smythe-Waithe Press, 1992), The Haiku Anthology (Touchstone, 1986), Summer River (Two Autumns Press, 1992), A Haiku Path (Haiku Society of America, 1994), and Woodnotes #9. In the last example poem, Elizabeth Searle Lamb later changed “faintly” to just “faint.”]

Postscript 1

This essay began life as a workshop presented at a 1993 haiku conference in California, although I don’t recall if this was for Haiku North America or that year’s Yuki Teikei haiku retreat at Asilomar. But the year was definitely 1993, which is why most of the examples stem from that time—which might also explain why I was less stringent on the poem selections then than I would be now, assuming I might have improved my understanding of haiku a bit since then. For that workshop I prepared a detailed handout with many more example poems and with additional categories. I had hoped to turn it all into a long and definitive essay, but that hasn’t happened yet. In 1997, Christopher Herold asked if I might contribute to the “Art of Haiku” column he was coordinating for Geppo, the newsletter of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society. The preceding was the result, but still not the longer and definitive article I had hoped to develop (I was also asked to limit myself to two pages of the journal, which I did). As a result, the essay is far less of an overview of punctuation in haiku than I would have liked. Yet it may still manage to be helpful.

        Nevertheless, in a few cases I might now choose different poems. At the time, my thinking was probably just to illustrate the sort of punctuation under discussion, but several of the examples have issues that make them less than ideal. Let me comment on a few of them, starting with this poem by Margaret Molarsky:

                Old Indian trail

                we too,

                pause for the view

What’s problematic is that the poem has its real pause after the first line, because the first line is grammatically independent of the rest of the poem. So if there’s any punctuation in the poem, it should be at the end of the first line. However, it’s also possible for haiku to omit punctuation entirely yet still have that grammatical and imagistic pause, so it’s fair to say that punctuation doesn’t have to appear there. So while I like the use of the comma in the poem to emphasize the pause that happens in the poem’s narrative (pausing is the poem’s subject), it feels ever so slightly awkward when the poem already has a grammatical pause at the end of the first line. Nevertheless, I love the empathy Margaret has for Native Americans in this poem, especially when I know she worked as a volunteer for displaced Native Americans, and had discovered numerous Mono Indian sites in the Sierra Nevada. Her research also helped to motivate the United States senate, after she had testified for them, to pass a bill preserving the land she had studied.

                Summer twilight—

                a woman’s song

                mingles with the bath water.

This is a beautiful poem. Patricia Donegan’s use of an initial capital and concluding period is the choice of any poet, but it’s not one that I recommend for haiku, because it closes off each end of the poem. If haiku is an “unfinished” poem, as Seisensui has said, requiring the reader to “finish” it, then closing off each end is unnecessarily restrictive (in later versions of her poetry Donegan has moved away from initial capitals and concluding punctuation). A better example to illustrate the use of periods would be Lee Gurga’s poem:

                his side of it.

                her side of it.

                winter silence

It’s a cold winter indeed. In this case the periods mark the absolute finality of each point of view, and move the period’s function from its ordinary use as the conclusion of a sentence to being a device for emphasis, which isn’t needed or helpful in Donegan’s poem. I think too of the following poem by Chuck Brinkley, from his book Earthshine, which uses a period in a similar way:

                the abortion.

                her long drive home

                through spring rain

We cannot help but know that this person is alone, and know, of course, that the abortion is as final as the period used to accentuate the first line. The following is a minimalist poem that also uses a period creatively, but in a different way. This one is from Mariposa #46, Spring/Summer 2022, page 18, and is by James Chessing:

                Not tonight “.”

In this case the quotation marks alert us to the name of the punctuation mark, leading us to understand that intimate relations won’t be possible that evening because of the woman’s menstruation—her period.

                smoke leafy air,

                       the boy drop-

                              kicks the ball

I love Raymond Roseliep’s creative use of the hyphen, even though one gets and then forgets the cleverness fairly quickly. And for my money, and to be grammatically correct, “smoke-leafy” should be hyphenated as a compound modifier of “air.” What strikes me as most problematic, though, is the use of the comma, because it’s used in a nonstandard way, something that I’d recommend avoiding in haiku. This isn’t the way a comma should be used in an ordinary sentence, so its use in this way feels like an error (what’s called a comma splice). At the very least, it’s distracting. I would simply omit the comma. However, because there’s no other example of the drop-kicked hyphen quite like this one, it’s still worth using this poem. Even the progressively indented lines help with the meaning, as if one is running forward before drop-kicking the ball. There are surely clever ways to use other punctuation, too, perhaps visually. However, it’s become a bit predictable to use an ellipsis in a haiku about rain or snow, which is why I’m glad Gary Hotham didn’t use an ellipsis in his poem: “the library book / overdue— / slow falling snow” (though I would have hyphenated “slow-falling” for the same reason I’d hyphenate “smoke-leafy”). Here’s a poem by Garry Gay that uses a semicolon brilliantly, even if its inventiveness is easily missed:

                Old retreiver;

                    he opens one eye

                        at the tossed stick

The semicolon itself looks like one eye open and one eye closed.

                The cold wind at dusk;

                A coatless beggar asks me,

                “Hey, how’s it going?”

Ty Hadman’s poem feels wordy and long, and I might revise the poem as follows:

                cold wind at dusk—

                a beggar asks me

                “How’s it going?”

Then we could imagine that the beggar is cold and coatless (but perhaps that only happens if we know the original poem, so maybe “coatless” could be added back in). Beyond that, I’ve never been fond of semicolons in haiku (except in Garry Gays haiku), although I could see them working in haiku about lawyers or legal proceedings. Here, though, the poem is offered as an example of the question mark, which works perfectly well, but I feel it muddies the water when the poem also has a semicolon. Yet it also muddies matters to not have a better poem, one that hasn’t succumbed to padding in seeking an arrangement of 5-7-5 syllables. Nevertheless, it’s an example of a haiku with lots of punctuation, and on its own terms the punctuation is essentially fine.

                her long paper legs


                    of the river

LeRoy Gorman’s poem was part of his “billboard girl” sequence, which it helps to know if the poem is to make the fullest sense. We still get a sensual or sexual feeling from the poem, but without the billboard context the poem’s reference to paper could easily puzzle some readers. Thus, it would be easier to find a stronger example where the poet uses indents instead of punctuation to set off the two juxtaposed parts. A favourite example is the following haiku by Nick Avis, partly because Nick himself has been an ardent advocate for using spacing instead of punctuation in haiku:

                the telephone

                rings only once

                              autumn rain

Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal style as to whether one uses punctuation in haiku at all. But if one does use it, it helps to use it in as transparent and standard a way as possible, or in nonstandard ways only if the creative usage clearly benefits the meaning of the poem, as in the “drop-kick” poem. How one handles punctuation, or alternatives to it, is every bit as important as the choice of words and other haiku techniques. If haiku is a finger pointing to the moon, in which we want no jewels on the finger, then we want to use punctuation so it isn’t distracting us from the moon.

—23 March 2016, 4 July 2022

Postscript 2

An odd claim that continues to surface in the haiku community now and then is the idea that punctuation, if used in haiku, counts as part of the syllable count (if one is counting syllables). This has never been true in Japanese, let alone in English. It’s an utterly misguided notion, and it baffles me why it keeps coming up. The kireji (cutting word) in Japanese haiku can indeed function as a sort of what I myself have called “spoken punctuation,” in that the varieties of kireji suggest pauses or emphasis, with varying tonalities, but they are still emphatically not punctuation. And it may even be misleading to think of kireji as spoken punctuation when their effect is more tonal, closer to what Kazue Mizumura has called “emotional shading.” While kireji do count in the 5-7-5 pattern of traditional Japanese haiku, they are actual spoken words, whereas punctuation marks are essentially unspeakable, being purely a visual guide for readers, always soundless themselves. Even if they might affect the words near them (such as causing one to shout a word that’s followed by an exclamation mark), punctuation marks themselves are, by definition, impossible to count among the sounds of haiku in any language (the very thing one is counting in Japanese haiku is “on,” which means sounds, and in English, too, syllables are defined as units of sound). Some people may have argued that if kireji in haiku do count in Japanese haiku, then punctuation used to mark the cut in English-language haiku (as our nearest equivalent to kireji) should therefore also count, but this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what syllables and punctuation are. Furthermore, Japanese haiku typically never uses any punctuation, and the Western use of em dashes or ellipses is just a punctuational way of indicating the cut in a haiku (because we don’t have cutting words in English). But still, these should never be counted among the syllables—if one insists on counting at all. Nor would other punctuation marks ever count, such as commas, periods, colons, or semicolons. They may affect timing or pacing, just as line breaks do, but they would still never be counted among the sounds or syllables—because they are neither.

—22 July 2022