Paul Williams’ essay, “The Use of Articles in Haiku,” in the Summer, 1989, issue of Woodnotes caught my attention because over the years I have struggled for a solution to the problem of when “a” or “the” is appropriate in haiku. Once I submitted a haiku for correction to our Gualala Haiku Writers Group that was overloaded with repeated articles:
alone in the heat
the summer sun has melted
all the neighbors
Immediately one person spoke up saying, “Drop the ‘the’ in the first line.” In the silence, my face got redder and redder. First there were snickers which exploded into cackling and howls of laughter as each person reread the revised phrase.
I admit that the first step in revising my own haiku involves jousting with the swarm of articles I naturally hear as I write. With practice, I’ve developed a set of guidelines to deal with them. One cannot and should not see them as rules because each haiku is as different as each author is different. Personally we have an obligation to find and foster our individual rhythms and speech patterns in our writing. And we have to accept that others may not write a haiku exactly as we would but which is still acceptable as haiku—a concept that Paul Williams brought out in his article in Modern Haiku, XX:3 [“Another Dangle of the Participle”], which I feel cannot be repeated too often.
With these cautions, I offer the following guidelines for your consideration:
1. Avoid using articles in the one-line phrase.
(the winter night = winter night)
As so many of the old haiku rules have gone out of style, the one to which I cling is the prima concept that a haiku is composed of two phrases with a clear break between that is shown either by punctuation (comma, dash, semi-colon, ellipsis, exclamation point), a space, or grammar. The break may be at the end of the first or second line, but not both (that’s what leads to the choppiness some complain of in haiku) or only within the second line. This latter device is rarely seen used by more recent devotees of haiku. We should not ignore it as it is helpful for adding a change in the cadence of haiku, especially those used in a sequence.
2. Use all the articles the two-line phrase seems to need within the normal use of language or the speech patterns with which you are comfortable. It is possible to drop the article before the noun if it is used at the beginning of the second portion of the haiku.
(For me, it would feel okay to write “summer sun has melted” instead of “the summer sun has melted”; others may feel it is needed.)
Here, I would like to point out that haiku as written in Japanese (so I’ve been told) are not composed in the flow of a normal run-on sentence. The old masters understood the importance of using (or deliberately misusing) the language to cause the reader to be jolted out of the habitual way of receiving an image. They knew that in the moment one is unsure of what to think—as after the punch line of a joke, or when you trip and stumble or are startled by an unexpected movement—the intellect shuts off as the senses take over. This instant is when the miracle of haiku occurs, as the reader comes face to face with the spark that only he/she can create between the images and see the light turned on by the inner images.
With haiku’s history of satire, being a comic, even known as “crippled wing poetry,” we have not only the right but a duty to use language in new ways in order to reveal aspects of it unfamiliar to the reader. Our creativity need not be spent on little acceptable phrases with syntax and sales tax and other debits to society all neatly added together.
3. Vary the use of articles, choosing between “the” and “a/an.”
(an old man = the old man)
Paul explored this aspect very thoroughly in his article explaining the nuances of meanings between the non-specific “a/an” and specific emphasis of “the” as article. One other guide I use is the visual aspect of the line. If it looks too long or short in relationship to the others, I would use “a/an” instead of “the” and vice versa.
4. Change the noun from the singular to the plural to eliminate an article.
(the wave = waves)
We are often exhorted not to use the plural form in haiku based on the notion that when speaking of only one of a thing, the attention is more focused and the feeling becomes accentuated and immediate. Another reason is the fact that Japanese nouns can be either plural or singular (as are English nouns in a few instance, i.e., sheep or deer), which adds to the ambiguity of the haiku image. I would weigh the situation to find the lesser of the evils. If there are too many articles or too many objects in the image I would then choose the less distracting possibility. Also, I’d check the number of plurals and possessives already in use.
5. Consider using an adjective instead of an article.
(the sun = summer sun = sun)
This suggestion puts the writer on the rocky soil of the rule of avoiding adjectives and adverbs in haiku, but I feel the judicious use of adjectives can add to the information the reader needs to connect up the inner linkage of the haiku. The acceptance of the use of kigo (season words) or time-telling words, makes this solution especially effective in the short phrase.
6. Sometimes the author can use “this” or “these” as emphasis.
(the heat = this heat)
Like underlining or exclamation marks, the overuse of these words renders them ineffective. Maybe once a year you can splurge on a good this or that.
7. Occasionally use personal pronouns instead of articles.
(all the neighbors = all my/his/her neighbors)
Here is definitely the quicksand of frog ponds. The earliest revision a haiku should get is the erasure of the personal pronouns which our egos love to write into them. In the haiku used as an example, if I decided I did need the “the” in the first line and that it was too abrupt to start the second line without a “the,” I could get rid of the third one by using a personal pronoun. Being forced to make this decision would make me consider this haiku to be a less-than-perfect one with only limited worth and use. Still, I was able to drag it out here and I hope you got a chuckle out of it while in the heat of contemplating articles.