The “Zeugmatic Effect”

by Charles B. Dickson

First published in Woodnotes #3, Autumn 1989, pages 13–14. It seems that the understanding of the term “zeugma” presented in this essay first came from Robert Spiess, but Charles B. Dickson has done a fine job of distilling and expanding on the idea in his short essay. What’s particularly fascinating is how it points out what we as an English-language haiku community seemed not to know, at least in 1989, but that we discovered for ourselves. The relevant Japanese term for the zeugma is kakekotoba, also described as a pivot word or phrase, and a kind of double meaning, and this rhetorical device has centuries of tradition in Japan, originally in waka and tanka but also haiku. Whether we know the Japanese term or not, of course, what matters is the principle itself and how it can help us improve our understanding of haiku and the possibilities for haiku composition.

If some of the readers of Woodnotes are not acquainted with a zeugma, as I was not until February 1985, I would like to introduce you to a concept which will bring an added dimension to your haiku.

The “Zeugmatic Effect” and I were brought together by Robert Spiess, editor of Modern Haiku, and one of the most promptly reporting and helpful editors I have had the good fortune to encounter. In this particular instance, Bob was commenting on the zeugmatic characteristics of one of my haiku he had just accepted.

To clarify the basic meaning of zeugma, let me quote from Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: “The use of a word to modify or govern two or more words usually in such a manner that it applies to each in a different sense . . . ‘opened the door and her heart to the homeless boy’ is an example.”

In the case of haiku, the zeugmatic effect is achieved by using a second line in such a way that it will modify the first and third lines so that the first and second lines form one image, while the second and third lines produce a different and self-sufficient image.

This is the haiku Bob was discussing:

Pink clouds at dusk

in shallows among the reeds

a dead heron bobbing

As can be seen, “Pink clouds at dusk / in shallows among the reeds” conveys a picture of brightness and tranquility, with the pink sky reflected in small ripples created among the reeds by a gentle breeze. On the other hand, “in shallows among the reeds / a dead heron bobbing” produces an entirely different image, one of darkness and death, a reminder that all beauty and brightness inevitably terminate in their opposite, a part of reality’s endless rhythm (“bobbing”).

To be totally frank, not all of these mental reflections were floating on the surface of my conscious mind when I wrote this poem, but who can tell what was happening in the unconscious depths of my psyche? In any event, as Bob Spiess pointed out in his note, use of the middle line, the zeugma, produced “a tight unity” in the haiku.

I had another example in the Summer 1987 issue of Dragonfly. This one won honorable mention in the magazine’s quarterly contest. It reads:

this morning mist

on the purple swamp-thistle

black swallowtail

Here, somewhat as in the haiku cited above, we have the whiteness of sunrise mist contrasted to the black swallowtail.

The reader must bear in mind, however, that the zeugmatic effect is not appropriate for all haiku. In my view, it is a serendipity that is encountered only occasionally, but a serendipity of which one should be aware, and for which the haiku writer should always be alert. And when it is encountered, treat it with gratitude and respect. Clothe it and its companion lines in just the right words, and you may well have a memorable poem.