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Feeling my way around one-line haiku with help from Penny Harter

“Traditionally the Japanese print haiku in magazines and books in one vertical column of writing…This equates to one horizontal line of type in Western languages…”

William Higginson in The Haiku Handbook

Peggy Willis Lyles, Geraldine C. Little and Marlene Mountain are poets who have worked with haiku in a one line format.

“Before we knew its name the indigo bunting”

–Peggy Willis Lyles

So if traditionally Japanese haiku equates to one horizontal line of type, as Higginson says, Basho’s classic would look like this:

old pond…a frog leaps in water’s sound

–Basho as translated by William Higginson

Penny Harter, who co-authored The Haiku Handbook with her husband William Higginson, said her husband spent eight years working on that translation of “old pond.”

Earlier this year Penny sent me a note fleshing out the thoughts behind that translation highlighting some of the differences that need to be considered when it comes to the cross cultural art of haiku. She also shared some of the conclusions her husband reached.

“…In the following pages of the section, “The Written Haiku—Visual Aspects” (128) in which Bill talks about the “one vertical column of writing”, he goes on to show quite a few variations in visual format, even by poets such as Issa, and Bill was certainly not wedded to the one-line form for haiku in English.

In The Haiku Handbook on page 105 from the section titled “A ‘Traditional Form’ for Haiku in English”, Bill suggests such a form:

While Japanese are used to reading traditional texts in which rhythms are not visually identified, the Western notion of a printed poem-text incorporates the idea of a line of type equalling a rhythmical unit, or verse-line. Therefore a three-line structure of two, three, and two accented syllables, respectively, would establish rhythmical proportions similar to those of traditional Japanese haiku.”

This follows some observations…which suggest, with respect to the rhythm for those three lines, ” . . . an overall form consisting of seven accented syllables, plus unaccented syllables up to a total of about twelve, would yield a rhythmical structure native to English and at the same time approximate the duration of traditional Japanese haiku.”

Thank you to Penny Harter, co-author of The Haiku Handbook

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. hi Pris,

    You are assuming (if I understand correctly) that one line haiku never employ the technique of juxtaposition. Not so.

  2. I find writing with a jux in the haiku is the most satisfying and closest to what I’ve read about what’s important for a haiku, but as I’ve begun experimenting with one liners, I enjoy them, too,

  3. Many thanks to Gene and everyone who has commented so far. While I prefer the three-line approach for English-language haiku (and have written only one one-liner), I am learning to appreciate the one-line approach for some haiku. It is especially easy for me to enjoy a one-liner when the form complements the content. Two excellent examples of this are shared below (with permissions from the poets):

    mud flats at low tide autumn rain

    John Stevenson
    Runner-up, The Haiku Calendar Competition 2010; The Haiku Calendar 2011 (Snapshot Press, 2010)

    gunshot the length of the lake

    Jim Kacian
    Second Place, Harold G. Henderson Memorial Award (Haiku Society of America, 2005)

  4. I enjoy one line haiku (both reading and writing). But, as Gabi mentioned, I remain in line with the belief that kami go, naka shichi, and shimo go are of utmost importance. Along with those crucial parts, I also support the use of the many aesthetics that are prevelant in Japanese haiku found in the writings of Basho, Busson, Issa and Shiki. Some of the following would be representative: ma, yugen, kire (kireji), kokoro, karumi, kigo and so forth. What’s most important about a one liner, to me, is that it keeps the integrity and spirit of haiku in tact the best that it can be done in a foreign language (ELH). Next, a haiku isn’t an object biased poem. As mentioned, it is an activity biased poem that reveals nature and its chi – life force (eternal activity). I think this aspect needs to be an integral part of the one liner as well just as it would be in Japanese haiku or English three line haiku.

    One line; three line: it doesn’t matter which in the end; it’s what goes in that one line or three line poem that makes it a haiku, prose or simple short imagistic poem.

  5. Gabi Greve has a related post about this thread on our forum ( (UPDATE: Gabi’s comments now appear in this post as well.)

    Her post contains a link to a page on her site with many other links about this issue. One of those links is to a post that contains the remarks below by Susumu Takiguchi. What I appreciate about these remarks is that they caution against too-glib assumptions about Japananese haiku that appear as one line, but they also affirm the viability of this approach to haiku in English.

    Remarks below by Susumu Takiguchi

    “As Japanese haiku happens to have three components within itself, it
    is in fact a meaningful and reasonable thing to decide writing
    English haiku in three lines which have more correlation and affinity
    with the Japanese cousin (or mother!). In spite of the difference of
    appearances three-line English haiku poems are actually much closer
    to Japanese haiku in substance than one-line English haiku poems.

    Is it wrong, then, to write English haiku in one line? All is fair in
    love and war. All is fair in art also. Therefore, nothing is stopping
    you from writing a one-liner English haiku. However, if you want to
    do it, do so from the artistic motive rather than spurious half-
    truth. Sometimes, and really very much sometimes, one-line English
    haiku works and could even be better than a three-line version.

    Another advantage might be that one-liners are generally more
    difficult to write and focus our mind into producing more crisp,
    articulate and punchy haiku than rather slack three-liners which may
    look good but have a lot of flabby and cliche-ridden rotten parts.
    In the spirit of artistic creation, one-liners, two-liners, three-
    liners and four-liners could all be good vehicles to carry good or
    even excellent haiku.”

  6. I tend to enjoy using the three line form for the most part, but every once in awhile a haiku will present itself that only works in a one line form. The “cuts” or pause is indicated by the construction of the haiku… and sometimes having that not nailed down by the author can create a haiku that can be read in many ways. To me that adds to the value of a haiku that it can have many aspects to it as truth so often does. In the one line haiku presented here by Peggy, you know instictively where the pause comes…and in fact it’s not so much a pause in speach as it is the leap of the mind that is so vitally portrayed here.

  7. The problem with a haiku is not wheather one line or three … the problem is
    5 7 5 in Japanese, the three sections which are clearly marked, whichever way you write.
    A Japanese haiku comes in three sections:

    kami go (the top five section)
    naka shichi (the middle seven section)
    shimo go (the lower five section)

    So, given the natural rhythm of the Japanese language, it is easy to recognize these sections when spoken.

    Writing these three sections usually depends on the Japanese paper you are given.

    On a small slip (tansaku) it goes from top to bottom.
    On a square decoration sheet (shikishi) it goes in three lines, usually from right to left.
    NHK Haiku writes in three lines from right to left, name of the artist most left.
    Very seldom it is written in three lines from left to right, the Latinized way.
    With a wordprocessor, it comes out as one line, from left to right, if not formatted differently.

    So, there are many ways to write it in Japanese too, but ALWAYS the three sections are clearly discernable.

  8. A one line haiku is, of course, kosher, BUT we must remember that the Japanese used cut words to indicate rests and pauses. A well placed pause creates space for MA, enabling the reader to hear the unsaid. Cut words also add rhythm to a genre that is meant to be rhythmical. Having no cut word, we can use an elypsis and punctuation.

    When some writes a one object biased sentence and calls it a haiku, it becomes prose.
    Aesthetics are the key, assemetrical and symmetrical, not telling all, beingness and being.

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