Some Notes on Haiku Moments
and Prepositions

by Cor van den Heuvel

First published in Woodnotes #12, Spring 1992, pages 4–8.

While attending the Haiku North America gathering at Las Positas College in Livermore, California, in August, 1991, I and three other haiku poets, Christopher Herold, William J. Higginson, and David Wright, had the good fortune to spend an afternoon with one of the pioneers of American haiku, James W. Hackett, and his wife, Pat, at their garden home in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In a letter to me a short while later (September 10, 1991), Christopher Herold included a haiku he had written about that memorable event:

returning quail

call to us from the moment

of which he speaks 1

We had all moved out to the garden, continuing our talk about nature, Zen, and haiku. We drank toasts to Bashō and R. H. Blyth. Shadows were lengthening and James Hackett was trying to make clear to us his feelings about haiku when the birds suddenly came to his assistance. Herold’s haiku deftly captures that “moment” of the afternoon. In that timeless time James Hackett, and the quail, summed up everything he had been saying—eloquently and passionately—about haiku and the way of life it represents: living in the present moment—now. The speaking poet (Hackett) and the calling quail meet within the moment of the poem to become one—even as the writing poet (Herold) becomes one with the world as it exists in the moment of that meeting. Herold (and the other poets and the reader: “us”), Hackett, the words, and the calling birds all circle into each other in such a way that the poem has an Escher-like strangeness, a quality of interpenetration that seems materially impossible, at the same time it simply records a simple occurrence. The fact that the poem presents a unique set of events (however simple on the surface, it is not ordinary) and is about the haiku experience, rather than just a presenting of it, might suggest that it is not a pure haiku. It could be compared with Bashō’s:

Inazuma ni Lightning at

satoranu hito no does not satori person of

tōtosa yo nobility!

The literal translation is by Robert Aitken who has an interesting discussion about this poem in A Zen Wave.2 His finished translation is:

How noble—

The one who is not enlightened

At a flash of lightning!

I think Herold’s is a better haiku since he records the actual moment of the quail’s call, while Bashō is talking about “a flash of lightning” in the abstract and is being overtly didactic.

Included in the same letter with the quail haiku was another haiku by Herold:

Sierra sunrise . . .

pine needles sinking deeper

in a patch of snow 3

Here is a pure haiku moment with all the immediacy anyone could wish. It lifts me up and sets me right there in the mountains next to that patch of snow, looking at those pine needles—and the light. However, in his letter the poet had left out the word “of” in the last line. Of course, this little word is crucial, and I assumed he left it out by mistake. Which he had. This started me off on a subject that has long concerned me: prepositions in haiku. I wrote Christopher Herold a long letter about it and this article is pretty much taken from that letter.

Prepositions are essential to English-language haiku, for to create an image one has to place things in space-and such words as “in,” “on,” and “of” enable us to position things so that we can “see” them. (Or to hear, taste, smell, or touch them.)

Cid Corman considers the word “of” so important that he has entitled his recent two-volume collection of poems just that: of.4 I think he means a lot of things by this choice: that these works are “of Cid Corman” in that they are about him, his life, and that they are his; and further they are “Cid Corman of” in that they are of the people and the world around him, and that he is theirs. In a short prefatory note he says “. . . this is the book of a life . . . the title reflects a precisely physical metaphysics: the meta the indissoluble unfathomable fact: the genitive case: to which we are all beholden and within which we remain hopelessly particular and to the extent that a poetry can, these poems articulate it . . .”

It is interesting that a poet so influenced by Japanese literature as Corman is has chosen to title his work this way. The Japanese word no is one of the most used words in Japanese poetry—particularly in haiku and tanka. It means “of.” In one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read on Japanese culture, Smaller is Better, O-Young Lee, the author, devotes a good part of a chapter to discussing the importance of this word in Japanese poetry.5 One of the poems he quotes is the following tanka by Ishikawa Takuboku:

Tōkai no On the white sand beach

kojima no iso no Of a tiny island

shirasuna ni In the Eastern Sea,

ware nakinurete Bathed in tears,

kani to tawamuru I toy with a crab.

In Japanese they use postpositions where we use prepositions so no really works in reverse order from our “of.” A literal translation given by Lee is: “On the white sand of a beach / Of a small island / Of the Eastern Sea, / I am damp from crying / And I toy with a crab.” But if you look at the original Japanese you will see that the part connected by no’s goes in the reverse order: The Eastern Sea’s (Tōkai no) small island’s (kojima no) beach’s (iso no) white sand (shirasuna). (Using the possessive “’s” instead of “of” you can get the same order as the Japanese.) The most interesting point Lee makes about the use of the word no, aside from its ubiquity, is that it allows the poet to go from large to small, from the universal to the particular, from the wider landscape to the fine detail. In the quoted poem it allows Takuboku to focus in on the sand of the beach and ultimately to the crab, kani (though in Japanese he has to actually end with the verb). Another postposition, ni (on, or in), is used in the poem to place the poet and the crab on the sand.

In our use of “of” we sort of pre-focus—the detail comes first. For example, Christopher Herold’s “patch of snow” focuses back from the snow to the patch and then moves backwards to the needles in the patch. The words actually go from small to large, from the needles to the snow. However, the poem does go from larger to smaller by beginning with the wide view of “Sierra sunrise,” and then jumping immediately to the smallest element in the last two lines. I wonder if this has advantages even more conducive to eliciting immediacy than the Japanese order might have, which might be something like: “into the snow’s patch pine needles sinking.” For in the English word order you have the verb and its adverb moving the needles into the patch of snow in the same order and direction in the poem as they are moving physically in nature: down.

Reading Lee’s essay on the subject left me thinking the Japanese language is better suited than English for haiku simply by the way its syntax orders words. Now I think that though each language works in different ways neither has a clear-cut advantage over the other. For example, the verb coming at the end in Japanese will sometimes mean the reader will have to keep all the physical elements in abeyance, or “up in the air,” until the end of the haiku to find out what to do with them. On the other hand, in English you may have a verb before you know what the action it describes is acting on. Perhaps these are reasons why it is most effective to read a haiku twice in either language when presenting them aloud.

I use prepositions often in my haiku, especially in and on. Anita Virgil among others has criticized me for over-using them. They begin to sound like little bells ringing in the poem, telling that the poet is manipulating things. Using them as much as I do, I have long been concerned about how to place them most effectively for creating the haiku moment. When they come at a line break, for instance. In and on didn’t seem to pose any problem. It just seemed natural to place them at the beginning of a line; they looked so awkward dangling at the end of the preceding one. If I’d just thought about the grammatical term for them, it would have been even clearer. They are called prepositions because they are most intimately connected with the word they precede. So they should be placed closer to, on the same line with, that word. In the same way, the Japanese postpositions belong “more” with the words that they follow, and so ni, no, etc., are kept in the same 5- or 7-syllable unit with the word before them. They never come at the beginning of a unit. (See the Takuboku tanka above.) I have not done a thorough study of this, so I may be mistaken in believing this is always the case—but it is certainly my impression. (I refer to the five parts of a tanka—or the three parts of a haiku—as “units” because in Japanese, of course, they do not appear as “lines.”)

In any case, though I had little problem with in and on, I was often troubled with the use of “of.” It looked and still looks awkward to me when it begins a line, though it looks even worse ending a line. Somehow, for me, it ties its two elements even more closely together than other prepositions and I hate to separate it from either one by a line break. However, I now usually think of it as a pivot in a longer unit making up one of two basic parts of a three-line haiku. Which is the Japanese practice also—they think of a haiku as having two parts (crow on branch / autumn twilight) even though structurally it has three. For example in my:

summer stillness

sand sifts through the roots

of a fallen tree

I think of the last two lines as one basic unit and the first line as the other. I do this even though I know that “of a fallen tree” is also a kind of unit, a unit that answers the (unasked) question “what roots?”—just as in Herold’s quail haiku “of which he speaks” tells us what moment. However, everything that comes before the word “moment” also defines what moment—only in a different sense, from a different angle. And this is where the richness of that poem comes from. The word “moment” acts as a pivot between these two meanings and its position at the end of the middle line supports the force of the poem which comes from these two meanings held together in the mind.

The above haiku, “summer stillness,” comes from a sequence of mine called “The Bear’s Den,”6 and looking at the sequence just now, I see that only four or five out of 30 haiku and senryu do not have prepositions. Of the 25 that do, only two have a preposition coming at the end of a line (over and through). Fifteen have a preposition at the beginning of a line (including three in’s, two into’s, two on’s, and three of’s), the rest have them within a line.

In spite of my theorizing above, I don’t think I would change the two that go against the rule I seem to have arrived at. Here is one of them:

reading a mystery—

a cool breeze comes through

the beach roses

Perhaps in this case because the preposition suggests motion (it would even without the verb “comes”), while in, on, and of are more static, it seems closer to the subject which is creating or performing that motion—the breeze—than it does to the roses. I’m not sure. There is also the tendency to want to see that middle line a little longer than the other two, but I don’t consider that a sacrosanct criteria for a haiku.

One of my favorite haiku by J. W. Hackett uses three prepositions: through, in, and of:

Wind sounds through the trees . . .

while here, gnats play in the calm

of wooded sunlight. 7

The contrast between the great forces at work in the tops of the trees with the tiny gnats in the calm light is only one side of this outstanding haiku. The other is that the wind and the gnats are part of the same force in nature: though the wind is big and making a noise, while the gnats are small and quiet, and they both are making a motion upon the earth that is unique to each, being themselves, there is a similarity in those motions that unites them. When they are brought together in the haiku we experience them as one—and we too are that one. And those prepositions help take us there: “here” and now.


1 Previously unpublished; used by permission of the author.

2 A Zen Wave: Bashō’s Haiku and Zen by Robert Aitken, John Weatherhill, Inc., New York and Tokyo, 1978, page 104.

3 Previously unpublished; used by permission of the author.

4 of by Cid Corman, two volumes, The Lapis Press, Venice, California, 1990.

5 Smaller Is Better by O-Young Lee, translated by Robert N. Huey, Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1982, page 25 ff.

6 “The Bear’s Den” by Cor van den Heuvel, Modern Haiku, Vol. XXII, No. 1, 1991, pages 4–7.

7 The Way of Haiku by J. W. Hackett, Japan Publications, Inc., Tokyo, 1969, page 59. This haiku also appears (on page 47) in The Zen Haiku and other Zen Poems of J. W. Hackett, published by the same publisher in 1983, but the word “through” is missing. I thought this was probably an error and did not represent the wishes of the author, for I think the haiku is awkward-sounding without it and much less effective. At my request, Christopher Herold asked Mr. Hackett about it. He replied that the haiku should have “through” in it. The copy of Zen Haiku I have is from the first printing. Perhaps the haiku has been, or will be, corrected in subsequent printings.