Zip: Form, Freedom and Phonics

Vol 1-1, May 2001

WHC Essay

ZIP: Form, Freedom and Phonics
An alternative approach to the Haiku in English
John E. Carley

Piloting their hired Czech sports car (a rocket-powered egg box called a ‘Tercet’) through the sign-free wilds of Trallee on a mission to trace their ancestry Mr. and Mrs. Poet become hopelessly lost. As if by magic an Irishman appears by the road side and a grateful Mr. Poet pulls over in order to ask for directions.  “Ah,” says the leprechaun, for such he is, and after much rumination, “If I wanted to go there, I wouldn’t start from here.”

But where exactly is here?

On a bad day the English language haiku seems not so much poetry, as full blown existential nightmare. It’s the little things that nag, like… nobody knowing what one is. But worse, as with Emperors and Clothes, any attempt to draw attention to the fact is likely to earn a visit. Who from? That’s a question it’s best not to ask!

It’s no good turning to the dictionary either. The only thing all haijin will agree on (if pushed, or poked with sticks) is that the dictionary definition is wrong. Though how you can know what something isn’t, if you don’t know what it is, is a problem that has kept philosophers rummaging in the bathroom cabinet for quite some time.

Contrast this sorry state of affairs with the recent popularity of the pantoum – a Malay verse form – or the ghazal – an Urdu/Persian/Arabic form. Neither Malay nor Urdu are particularly similar to English, yet the adoption of these forms has proven no more difficult than the historic assimilation of the sonnet or rondeau.

A partial explanation may be that pantoum, ghazal, sonnet and rondeau are all deeply rooted in oral, and – ultimately – sung, tradition. All present tangible, and extended, patterns of sound which may be approximated by the human voice in almost any language. Moreover, and crucially, the principal tools of prosody are phonic; which is to say: the poem largely IS the sound of the poem, whether read aloud or subvocalised.

Sadly this is not the case with the haiku whose prosody (it is argued) is mainly semantic. Indeed many schools of English language haiku have discarded phonics altogether as an unwelcome distraction, some even claiming that we are not really dealing with a form of poetry at all, but rather a metaphysical or contemplative tool (this latter point going some way to explaining why mainstream poetry editors like to place haiku submissions in the ‘circular file’, read: waste bin).

Which is fine. We’ll start our own magazine. Except it’s not really. Because we still can’t agree on what a haiku is. Perhaps if we have a magazine each then…

The incredible shrinking frog

One of the more alarming features of the English language haiku is that no one is quite sure how big it is. Translated into English the world’s most published haiku, Basho’s frog, is, according to Stryk, less than ten syllables long. Whereas Yuasa has it as more than twenty. Clearly this creature is more chameleon than frog. And a strange one at that.

Such tremendous divergence is a warning: evidence not so much of a difference of opinion as a difference of agenda. One suspects that Yuasa, in his desire to make the poetry of his mother tongue accessible, may be guilty of ‘explaining’ the poem in his translation. But what of Stryk… could this be an attempt to make the poem conform to a super-strict model of his own? History teaches us that the disciple was ever more zealous than the master.

In part the problem is one of relative extent, of phonic to semantic ratios. Just how many sounds does it take to communicate a given amount of information in Japanese compared to English?

This isn’t as difficult to establish as it may appear. One simply assembles a few texts with definitive translations in both languages – say: the Episcopalian version of The Lord’s Prayer; a couple of Articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and a paragraph or two of Confucius – then we count the syllables, divide one number by the other and we have 0.88 – 1.13 or whatever.

The idea is risky though: it is unwise to let the facts get in the way of a good opinion, and the question of relative extent is held by many as being a mystery which is, and should remain, unknowable. Or to put it another way:

Q. How many folk singers does it take to change a light bulb?

A. Five. One to change the bulb, and four to sing about how good the old one   was.

Euphrates or Tigris

According to those whose business it is to know such things (and as long as we are prepared to ignore the Bushmen of the Kalahari) the languages of the world are divided into two categories: stress-timed, and syllable-timed. The gulf between them is enormous – a Kennedy/Castro stand off – and the B52’s are already in the air.

It will come as no surprise to the long suffering haijin to learn that the most dynamically stress-timed language of all is English, and the most ineluctably syllable-timed language is Japanese. In fact we are sometimes gleefully told that the whole syllabic verse thing is a waste of time really because English syllables are variable whereas Japanese syllables are fixed.

This ‘knowledge’ has been central to the development of the English language haiku. As stress-timed metre is totally alien to syllable-timed metre, the whole idea of metre might as well be discarded. And as syllable duration is not fixed in English there is absolutely no point in having a set number – one man’s seventeen syllables might be enunciated in a flash whereas, if we come back next year, poet X will still be only half way through her recitation.

It is only logical, therefore, to define a prosody for the English language haiku wherein the phonic properties of the language are ignored, and whose syllable count is variable – a function of relative extent, of semantic content only. And if you want a formal constraint, well: let’s say you’re not allowed to use any words beginning with the letter… Damn! Can’t use that one.

Enter the Dragon

Or in this case the computer. Computers are like parents: they’re not very good at listening. But when they do listen they tend to pick up the most inconvenient things. Like the fact that Japanese syllables show nearly as much variation in duration and amplitude as English syllables. And that speakers in either language automatically entrain syllable length and/or stress to conform to self-perceived/generated patterns.

Stranger still, though the periodicity of these patterns is complex, the computers tell us that it is essentially isochronal. Weirdly, this isochronicity holds true not just within any particular language, but between languages. And, impossible though it may seem, the same patterns hold true for every language that has yet been analysed.

Which is what the Bushmen of the Kalahari have been trying to tell us all along – if only we would stop laughing at their funny haircuts and oddly clicking tongues – Bushmen have their poetry too. And it’s not so different from ours. The genome project tells us that we have the same Granny. Apparently she has knitted us all the same cardigan.

So, the speech recognition technicians have had to ask the poetry editor if he’s got space in the circular file for a few books on linguistics. But what of us? Well, we know that the core of the Japanese haiku is semantic rather than phonic. But, if only we’d listen to those polite people from across the sea, we also know that the poem is fundamentally structured around sound patterns that are mnemonic, and that individual words or groups of words are chosen because they are pleasing, or otherwise dynamic in the ear.

Of course to make use of exactly those properties that are intrinsic to Japanese one must write in Japanese. But we also know that English has a wonderful palette of sounds too. And that the fundamental phonic awareness of pattern is no more special to one language than to the other.

Late owned

Q. What exactly is a ‘Tercet’? Is it: A/ a North European sea bird? B/ a Czech sports car? or C/ a three line stanza? Clues: The Japanese haiku is none of these. The English haiku has one, but it’s borrowed.

A. The Japanese haiku is written on one line. Though, occasionally, calligraphic considerations result in the poem appearing as three blocs of characters, this in no way equates to three lines (with their consequent line breaks) in the sense that such have been understood by centuries of English speaking writers. Almost by definition, to produce a poem that has any of the characteristics of a western tercet is to produce something which is not haiku. Though it may be a good poem.

We know that the standard Japanese haiku comprises blocs of five, seven, and five syllables. But these are NOT lines of verse. Not units of meaning. They are units of phonic (that word again) coherence. In fact many Japanese haiku display a phenomenon known as ‘segment straddling’ wherein a single word spans two blocs – the first syllable belonging to one group, and the second belonging to the subsequent group. Significantly, to attempt this in an English tercet is to create a nonsense. Or use a lot of hyphens.

At it’s primary semantic level the Japanese haiku presents two images (image sets) articulated by a ‘cutting point’. The poem often divides as 5/12 or 12/5, but the cutting point is essentially independent of the 5/7/5 sound pattern and the semantic division may well be 9/8, 10/7, or their inverts.

By contrast the English language haiku, when written as a tercet, obliges the cutting point to appear at the end of line one or line two, and so limits the possible semantic organisation to 5/12 – 12/5 or, in the case of the 3/5/3 standard proposed by some schools, to 3/8 – 8/3. Thus, when taken together with the inadmissibility of segment straddling in English the possible structural, and expressive, range of strict-count English language haiku is massively restricted compared to its progenitor.

So, with a regretful (and somewhat relieved) nod in the direction of the creative tensions intrinsic to strict form, we have little choice but to abandon the syllable count. Definitely. Once and for all. Byeeeee!

And anyway, all of that rules stuff has been out of fashion since ‘68.

Tear down the walls, brother’s and sisters!

The problem with tearing down the walls though, is that the roof falls on your head. And creativity really does spring from the tension between nihilism and codification.

One solution is to locate alternative constraints in the areas of style and content. This however raises the question of whether the verse is still true to the Japanese form – is it actually ‘haiku’? Angels and pinheads aside, any resultant poem is inevitably limited in terms of expressive range.

Another solution is to look again at structural properties, and search for a way of cadencing English syllables in a manner as natural to that language as are blocs of 5/7/5 to Japanese. Do this with a view to maximizing the flexibility of the poem’s primary juxtaposition, leave in place the stylistic latitude characteristic of the Japanese form, find solutions that exploit the flexibility of English stress and syllable duration, and you could end up with a ‘zip’.

Zippidy Doo Da

  • The zip is a strict syllabic verse form proposed as an analogue to the Japanese haiku.

………………… swallows skim…a pungent breeze
……………thick with shouts of sheep…and men


  • The zip is untitled. It comprises 15 syllables (deployed at will) over two lines,  each line having a pause indicated by a triple-space (caesura).

………………………….on the chimney…tap-tap-tapping
……………………a woodpecker…at first light

   kirsty karkow  

  • The pause-value ascribed to each caesura is weaker than that of the line break. Thus the pause pattern is weak-strong-weak.

…………………..these pitted stones…aged in the sun
…………………………holes remain…where ice is gone

  cindy tebo  

  • The poem is presented in such a way that the caesurae are vertically aligned. The principle reading of the zip, and that which requires an unforced grammar, is the conventional one of – line one: left to right, line two: left to right.

…………………five balloons and a heron…floating
………………………….only the leaves…take flight


  • The layout of the poem may imply alternative readings, but the zip is not a word puzzle.

……………………………..beyond my window…jasmine blooms
……………………..perfume drifting…on white clouds

debra woolard bender  

  • The zip does not make use of overly abbreviated or otherwise compressed or notational syntax.

…………………………..pastel giraffes…nibbling
………………………….stenciled leaves…on the nursery walls

  carol raisfield  

  • The zip has regard for the phonic properties of English, but eschews versification.

…………………………….snails stretch…on wet pavement
…………………………..I side-step shells…to avoid the cracks

m a griffiths  

  • The aesthetic of shasei is central to the zip.

……………………..another car spins…a new orbit

terrie relf  

  • The zip respects the tradition of kigo but does not demand adherence to the Japanese canon. A poem without seasonal reference is not automatically disbarred.

……………………….hop-scotch…in the playground
……………………….a school caretaker…collects needles

 paul t conneally  

  • Any trope which tends to narrow the resonance of a poem is discouraged. Purely figurative language, uninflected simile and direct metaphor are best avoided.

………………………the road and the sky…and the face at the window
……………………………………….grey…so grey


Why bother?

Because the person who invented the wheel was constantly accused of trying to reinvent the log. And anyway, it makes a change from writing hate mail to minor celebrities.

All poems appear with the poets’ permission. The authors of this article and the poems used in illustration have asserted their moral rights to their material. If you want a ‘zip’, write one yourself   ~ jec

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

1 Response to Zip: Form, Freedom and Phonics

  1. What a great article! When people who know nothing about haiku ask me to define haiku for them my tongue hangs out. My reply goes something like …’well, the answer is complicated so I’ll send you some links’, then I run for the hills:-)

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