Among the Leaves : looking at Haiku


 Among the Leaves: looking at haiku

Stockholm, Sweden

Repetition – for meaning and melody

Florence Vilén
Stockholm, Sweden

Among all poetical forms, the haiku is the very soul of brevity. In no more than three lines, it contains a maximum of seventeen syllables, often fewer. Every word, every break counts. Yet there are haiku that have space for repetition within this narrow frame. How, then, is this achieved?

It goes without saying that in order to work, it must  be done with considerable skill, or sensitivity. It may used for quite different poetical reasons, however.

By its very element of surprise, repetition of a word or part of a phrase, may make the readers pay greater attention. They may feel that in order to be understood, the text, as it stands, calls for reading aloud. Now, recitation of poetry is an excellent practice which has been neglected in these years of silent reading due to general literacy. A poem worth reading is worth reciting and will gain by it. Often, the word which is repeated changes its sense to some degree. This will encourage the reader to savour its complete range of meaning. The effect is particularly striking when different forms of the same verb are used.

A word may create a definite anticipation that is then twisted to a surprise. Some haiku are written in an elusive style which would be difficult to render into exact prose. By the repetition of words, the reader is encouraged to shift them around and consider various possible interpretations of the scene. In other haiku, the text may be perfectly clear and the repetition will serve as an exclamation, an expression of the sense of wonder. A scene will be compressed. A single word is used where, normally, a full description would be needed. Repetition will show the reader the value of a word that has been chosen and the richness of meaning within its range.

Here are several examples achieving their aim in rather different ways by means of this particular technique (one which is hardly ever discussed). They are taken from two comprehensive anthologies: Haiku Moment, edited by Bruce Ross, and The Haiku anthology, 3rd edition, edited by Cor van den Heuvel (about fifty or less of the same haiku appear in both books).

A haiku may be intentionally ambiguous. Reading aloud, you may find shifting images in this nightly scene of ever-deepening distance (L. A. Davidson):

stars beyond

Here the feeling of depth is almost equally compelling (Jim Kacian):

….clouds seen
through clouds
seen through

In other haiku, the repetition may express pure joy in the exuberance of seeing the abundance of nature. Here there is also a fine example of focus, from small to large (Michael McClintock):

……..a poppy…
……a field of poppies!
the hills blowing with poppies!

The elusive movement of an insect is here (M. L. Bittle-daLapa):

firefly there
..not there

And here the very feeling of moving with uncertainty upon soft snow (Anita Virgil):

walking the snow-crust
…..not sinking

The brevity of this haiku may lead some to a more general interpretation, as one may not be content with mentally seeing just a candle being lit on another candle, but it is up to the reader to think of such abstract conceptions as goodness leading to new goodness  (Raymond Roseliep):


Some poets have preferred to write their haiku in one line with breaks inside the line. In this small space, there may yet be room for two worlds in space  (Marlene Mountain):

above the mountain     mountains of the moon

Equally brief and evocative is this scene of calm after commotion (Ruth Yarrow):

after the garden party      the garden
There are haiku with movement “stone by stone”, or “leaves by leaves”. There is also this wonderful scene of reckoning your way (Jane Reichhold):

coming home

The use of repetition has a descriptive function in haiku like this, where fog clearing up is shown as  sound is replaced, or complemented, by sight  (Emily Romano):

through thinning mist
the bawl of the calf
…………the calf

On the contrary, less and less is visible in this landscape (George Ralph):

midday blizzard:
not seeing beyond the pines
not seeing the pines

A word is repeated to emphasize the repeated action of a scene (George Swede):

Dropping stone after stone
into the lake – I keep

Repetition may serve to express similarity between the poet and something in the world around him (Gary Hotham):

the sound they make
the sound I make
autumn leaves

Occasionally, the haiku is ring-formed, i. e. the first word is also the last — not easy to bring out successfully in this short form. In the first example, this composition could be said to encircle the subject, forming a frame for its movement (Virginia Brady Young):

Frog’s shadow
……reaches the rock
……before the frog.

Here, sadness permeates the scene  (Sandra Fuhringer):

alone on the lake
until the loon’s cry
…….still alone

In a more relaxed mood, various  repetitions are found in several haiku on cats  (Denver Stull):

winter ice storm;
….the old cat wants out
………wants in

or (Arizona Zipper):

Opening its eyes
….closing its eyes
…………a cat in the sun

and much more compressed (vincent tripi):

……….the cat in
……….the fog in

This could be compared with the different constructions of the word repeated here (Gary Hotham):

the dog out –
the stars out

Sometimes there is a change in grammatical category. A noun is repeated by a corresponding verb (Margaret Chula):

sudden shower
in the empty park
a swing still swinging

There may be a pleasant surprise waiting for us in the end (Garry Gay):

Weight lifter
slowly lifting
the tea cup

Or a verb is turned from  active to passive  (William J. Higginson):

Holding the water,
….held by it –
……….the dark mud.

or  (Foster Jewell):

…..Finding this cavern –
following the lantern light.
……followed by silence.

The word or words repeated, are usually central to grammar, a position not often given to an adverbial phrase. It has been done, though, to great effect (Nick Virgilio; punctuation differs with anthologies used):

..out of the water
…..out of itself

(This is a water lily, not a bulbous lily — a fundamental fact for finding meaning in this often-quoted haiku.)

Repetition of a word or even a phrase can increase the impact of a haiku. Like all other tools of poetry, this one should be used with discrimination. A scene must already seem charged for most readers to care for going through it again. Yet it is well worth trying. Thus, repetition, if skilfully used, enhances meaning. It also offers musical pleasure. This is an aspect of Western haiku that has been less observed than it should. Emphasis is usually given to the presentation of the image – which is of course essential – and also, particularly in the English-speaking haiku world, to reduction until an absolute minimum of words is left. Paring down is praised and practised to the point where the haiku may seem lean, only vertebrae knocking on each other. There is need for the flesh of a musical flow as well. This can be achieved by many means. There are single sound rhymes, such as alliteration. There is rhythm itself, a conscious use of the change between stressed and unstressed syllables (and an analysis should also differentiate between the amount of stress in the stressed syllables,  a problem neglected by conventional metrics).

Certainly we should strive for a natural diction, but this does not mean that haiku is some kind of chopped prose. Haiku is poetry, and poetry has for millennia used various effects of sound to create a sense of music. Do not say that the language of Shakespeare and Keats is unable to provide that!

This entry was posted in Haiku, Vol 1-2 August 2001 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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