The Importance of Rhythm in Haiku

by Elizabeth St Jacques

First published in Woodnotes #15, Winter 1992, pages 4–5. This essay also appears on the author’s website, where she also provides a short biography. See also Christopher Herold’s “A Tribute to Rhythm” from Woodnotes #9.

Given that one of the main haiku rules is brevity, the arrival of the extra-lean or “skeletal” haiku was inevitable. While some of these one-or two-word haiku are extremely clever, I regret to say that few touch me the way I’ve come to expect haiku to touch me, It seems to me that in the quest for brevity, one of haiku’s most pleasurable ingredients is being challenged: rhythm.

Think for a moment about the variety of rhythms that pulsate through each day: wind, breeze, watersound, birdsong, barking dogs, the drone of traffic, bangs, bumps, whistles, whispers, heartbeats, breathing. We are comprised of rhythms, saturated in rhythms, move with rhythm.

Although we learn to ignore some rhythms, they register in our subconscious simply because they exist, while other rhythms that please the spirit are accepted willingly. Considering that rhythm is an integral part of our reality, then, isn’t it appropriate that a certain amount of rhythm be reflected in the haiku we write?

Haiku masters, although not emphasizing the importance of musical quality in haiku, clearly acknowledged it. Consider Bashō’s—

old pond . . .

a frog leaps in

water’s sound

While the brief first line bluntly sets the scene—“plop, you are here”—a melodic sound to “pond” urges one to linger, even without the ellipsis. The action in the second line suggests a quickness, yet because this is the longest line in the poem (and because I’ve yet to hear “frog” said with any degree of curtness), my mind sees the frog almost in slow motion as it leaps in, thus the unfolding of a small crescendo. The third line, one syllable longer that the first line, with the long emphasis on “water,” amplifies the musical rhythm, physical and implied. Because the rhythms work so well, this haiku is not only pleasing to the mind, but to the ear as well.

Did the masters, in their instruction on the form, choose not to dwell on rhythm because it is regarded as a poetic device, many such devices being discouraged in haiku? Maybe so. Nevertheless, rhythm is frequently strong in their work, even in translation, and deserves some thought.

Let’s do the unthinkable: suppose Bashō’s frog haiku was tightened, omitting “old” and “a.” Not as pleasurable, is it? Why then, if not for musical quality, are these words included? Perhaps Bashō and those who followed (not to forget the translators) were well aware that poetry without some euphonic quality loses its impact overall.

Rhythm has long been an effective creative technique used to arouse certain feelings, to create a particular mood. It is found in all forms of writing as well as in art. British essayist and critic Walter Pater once said that “all art constantly applies towards the condition of music.”1

Is it not true that art that contains music/rhythm is created with beauty, even if the subject matter is not beautiful? Canadian literary critic and novelist H. R. Percy has a stronger view of this: “The act of creation that is not striving for beauty (in the broadest sense) is an abomination.”2 As I see it, musical rhythm that floats, romps, or rumbles through a creative piece not only enhances the overall beauty of a piece, but enhances interpretation and communication.

It is interesting that Cor van den Heuvel, one of North America’s most respected haikuists, when discussing the growth of the haiku movement in The Haiku Anthology, chose the term “singing songs” to describe haiku. Later in his book, he analyzes John Wills’ one-line haiku—

dusk from rock to rock a waterthrush

He says, “The iambic flow of the line, combined with the bird’s movements, draws everything together into a unity. . . .”3 Flow = rhythm = unity. Surely a formula worth remembering. And John Wills accomplishes it all in nine syllables! Working with motion, texture, and sharp images, Wills creates a lilting quality in this haiku that is vivid, active, and pleasing to the ear and mind. Cor van den Heuvel’s attention to the singing quality of haiku suggests to me that he considers it an important and pleasing attribute as well.

Longer haiku naturally allow for musical rhythm, but what about shorter haiku—minimal haiku, for example? After all, the purpose of ultra-brief haiku is to condense a moment as tightly as possible so that its “ahhness” is even more acute. That is understood. Nevertheless, some minimal poems do manage to contain a musical quality. For instance, consider Emily Romano’s—

hibiscushionswallowtail 4

Like John Wills’ one-line haiku, Romano’s contains sharp images and a lilting quality. Romano’s poem, however, unfolds with delightful rhythm using only seven syllables. Compare the above haiku with the following two-syllable haiku by the same author:

sintrigues 5

A clever thought, but in two- or three-syllable haiku, the absence of music and emotion leaves a hollowness that indicates mere gimmickry. I’m not convinced this is the way haiku should go. (This is why I have not written more minimalist haiku myself.)

As strongly as I feel about the importance of musical rhythm in haiku, I also acknowledge the danger that the use of meter can be overdone, to the point where the result resembles a jingle. This affect, however, seems to occur mostly among novices. With experience, newcomers usually outgrow this tendency.

Brevity, yes. But let’s not become obsessed with paring so closely to the bone that there is little meat left to savor. If haiku are to have true depth and beauty, arouse emotions, and leave deep imprints on the mind of the reader, how can rhythm possibly be sacrificed? Surely it has a rightful place in the haiku form.


1 Walter Pater, ed. The Penguin Dictionary of Quotations. London: Penguin Books, 1960, p. 278.

2 H. R. Percy. The Mother Tongue. Toronto: Pottersfield Press, 1992, p. 51.

3 Cor van den Heuvel, ed. The Haiku Anthology. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986, p. 340.

4 Robert Spiess, ed. Modern Haiku. Vol. XXI, No. 1, 1990, p. 44.

5 Robert Spiess, ed. Modern Haiku. Vol. XXIII, No. 3, 1992, p. 28.