The New Haiku: One-Breath Poetry

A month ago I attended the second annual Albany Book Festival. One of the workshops on offer was about haiku. Stuart Bartow and Barbara Ungar offered a fresh perspective as well as some resources for those interested in the literary genre.

Within the first ten minutes I was already outraged. They said: “Forget about the three-line 5-7-5 syllable structure.”

But I want my 5-7-5!!1!!“, a burning passion in my heart protested. But I decided to respect the Americans and listen to their spiel. They managed to convince me.

Let us look at the original writing of Matsuo Basho’s famous haiku (also in the image above):

古池や蛙飛び込む水の音
(furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto)

What happened to the three lines?

It turns out, Bartow and Ungar claim, the three line structure was a translation choice to accomodate for the nature of English. But witness that the original text has a much different aesthetic if not on a simply visual level.

The original poem can be read in one breath. In Japanese, 17 syllables are easy to read without having to stop for a breath. [citation needed] However, in English this number is about merely ten. Let’s try with a translation:

water sounds as frog leaps in old pond

This is the only way to pronounce the consituents in one breath, but the order of the images is all wrong: in the original, the old pond is first (furu ike ya), then the frog jumps in (kawazu tobikomu), then the water sounds, mimicking the rippling effect with an iambic-like rhythm: mizu no oto…

I believe this proves there is indeed artistic merit in examining what I will call “The New Haiku”: a poetic form which focuses on a one-breath phrase. The phrase may or may not adhere to the traditional natural aesthetics or “aha!” moments that haiku are usually expected to have, but it is essential that the piece will be partially completed by the reader’s interpretation. Here are some I wrote over the last month:

Fresh ink dries around books on the table

“Time and Effort”

The metal dog bust stares back in admiration

“The Great Dane”

Trees like an audience watch the player; *pam*

“Tennis”

There is certainly a different sound to the writing; it focuses on a fluidity which is hard to achieve in the familiar 5-7-5 structure. The text becomes more immediate in its message. Why don’t you give it a try?

I haven’t shunned one style of haiku for the other, but I have a strong distatste for anybody who says what a haiku shouldn’t or isn’t. Stuart Bartow himself was indignant (indignant!) at the idea that determiners (words like “a” and “the”) can be dropped in haikus. But I very much beg to differ:

41. (HAÏKUS ALBANIQUES)

Elegant darkness
Pierced by projecting light;
A tennis player


Yes, you can tell I’ve spent a lot of time at tennis courts lately. But my point is: experiment and expand the genre as much as you like. Bend it, shift it, subvert it, challenge its category. Do something unexpected:

47. (HAÏKUS ALBANIQUES)

His rocky red cheeks
Contrast the leather jacket
What a clown 🤡🤡


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