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Field Notes 6: The Sound and the Rhythm

Started by Field Notes, May 17, 2014, 04:34:52 PM

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Field Notes

For Field Notes 6 panelists were asked to talk about the importance of sound and rhythm in haiku, or simply about what sound means to them as writers and readers of haiku. As always, they were
asked to offer examples of poems notable for these qualities.

Please note that panelists, prior to their work being posted, do not read each others' contributions. They are posted all at once and appear here, for the most part, in random order. No attempt is made to create a progression of thought. Nonetheless, because all are responding to the same subject and prompts, there will inevitably be unexpected and felicitous connections or contradictions.

This means that readers (and those of you who will wish to add your own voices) should not feel constrained, as you might in a typical forum discussion, to read this material all at once or in sequential order. Some entries are quite long. Take your time, read here and there as you would a magazine. Or in sequence if you wish.

Once comments begin to be posted, it may be somewhat different. This is a second of phase of Field Notes where discussion is encouraged. A couple of us will act as moderators, mainly to remind people to stay on topic, but it is our wish that any discussion will be primarily self-moderated.

Field Notes


A touchstone for the discussion of sound in haiku is Kenneth Yasuda's "Crystallization," the fourth chapter of his classic study Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature and History (1957). Among other things, Yasuda helps us to recall or realize just how important sound often is to classical haiku, as we can see and hear if we linger a bit over these examples, even if we don't know much or any Japanese:

kareeda ni karasu no tomarikeri aki no kure (Bashō)

haru no umi hinemosu notari-notari kana (Buson)

Robert Frost famously noted that "Poetry is what gets lost in translation," and so there is no truly adequate way of rendering these haiku in English. We can convey their sense but not the three-dimensional crystallization that makes them great poems. Much is lost when we present them as something like:

on a bare branch a crow has settled . . . autumn nightfall

the springtime sea all day long tossing and tossing

Frost's point should hold true for our haiku as well. They should operate on more than just the level of sense or meaning. They should draw upon the full aesthetic and expressive resources of language, like those of Bashō and Buson. They should be untranslatable.

I give a fair bit of attention to the sound and rhythm of various English-language haiku in my book Where the River Goes: The Nature Tradition in English-Language Haiku (Snapshot Press, 2013). I'll quote one passage (without the endnotes):

            Few haiku poets have attended so skillfully to sound as [Peggy Willis] Lyles did
            in her finely crafted poetry. She has noted that "Sound enhances meaning. Every
            nuance contributes to the total effect." The haiku "marsh lights/ the owl's cry dilates/
            our eyes" provides just one example, with its unifying long "i" sound, repeated no fewer
            than four times, resting in the soft bed of liquid /r/ and /l/ sounds. These sounds
            underscore the sensory information and convey the feeling on an equal basis, making
            for a memorable organic whole. Christopher Herold justly praises Lyles' work for its
            "marvelous rhythm and lilt." We see rhythm in action particularly in a haiku such as
            "thunderheads offshore," in which the last two lines ["the osprey coming early/ to its nest"]
            form a perfect iambic pentameter unit, the alternating unstressed and stressed syllables
            suggesting the steady wing beats of the approaching osprey.

Elsewhere in the book, I discuss sound and rhythm in the work of haiku poets such as Nick Virgilio, Robert Spiess, John Wills, Ruth Yarrow, Paul O. Williams, Wally Swist, vincent tripi, Paul Miller, Matthew Paul, John Barlow, Ferris Gilli, and others.

Since we were invited to do so, I'll close by looking at these elements in one haiku of my own:

coyote choir
we wake beneath
next season's stars

This haiku has four syllables in each line, two stressed and two unstressed, in iambic patterns (which tend to occur quite naturally in English). Horizontally, each line is dominated by an alliterative pair, the hard "c," "w," and "s," respectively. The third line also contains three instances of a related /z/ sound, even though in each case it's represented, as is typical in English, by an "s" rather than a "z." Vertically, the haiku is bound together by assonance based on the repetition of the long "e" sound, which first appears at the end of "coyote" and then recurs in "we," "beneath," and "season's," as well as by the /n/ sound in lines two and three and the near rhyme of "choir" and "stars."Attentive readers respond to the careful modulation of such sounds and rhythm whether they stop to analyze them or not, and even a poet often discovers such patterns only after the act of composition, during which what matters most is an intuitive sense of rightness. I think the sound of this haiku is just as important as its meaning and that it's one of the better examples of "crystallization" that I've yet achieved. I'll give Yasuda the last word:

                           In and around the words through which the haiku poet attempts
                           to form the world of his [or her] aesthetic experience, must flow
                           the feeling of the experience. It alone will control the election of
                           words, their order, sound, rhythm, and cadence. When all these
                           elements within a group of words are bound in and with the
                           emotion, the resulting haiku is a crystallization.

Allan Burns



The Sound of Silence in Haiku

The problem of sound and meaning in poetry is vexed with issues rooted in cognitive resources. As Samuel Johnson knew, the imagination tends to fuse experiences in ways that defeat analysis and leave us vulnerable to self-delusion. We can read a poem about horses and if it is convincing we may well feel it sounds like horses.

So this question of sound in haiku needs to be handled mindfully. Especially haiku: being so short on words, and often depending on subtle semantic connections between those words, this form may be more deluding in this regard than longer genres.

But haiku has one distinguishing formal feature that makes a big difference in how it is heard: the cut. The cut is a pause in sound, as well as a pause in cognition. I like to hear the silence in haiku as it wells up from the cut.

The artist known as polona (Ljubijana, Slovenia) writes haiku that draw on this resource peculiar to haiku:

city lights
the names of the stars
i used to know

These names, being forgotten, cannot be spoken; in a sense, the mind has been emptied of the presences named by the names of the stars, a deeply rooted presence now blocked. Such presence had been available to poets for millenia. Now there is an interior silence, compounded, given the narrative, by shame. In place of the cognitive naming of stars, there are city lights. The city lights, and any noise associated with them (sirens?), rush into the cut between the two images.

I value this haiku for the same reasons I value a much longer lyric. It connects me to depths of historical and personal awareness that would otherwise escape me. It renders a judgment on experience as only a poem can.

Tom D'Evelyn



A Word from My Childhood

I grew up in the '50's and '60's on Staten Island. There was, needless to say, a lot I didn't know. Or at least, a lot I didn't know I knew. For one thing, that we were poor.

We played a lot of pick up games. Precede the word ball with foot, soft, hard, kick, stoop, dodge and stick and you get the picture. The last of these was perhaps the cheapest enterprise. You only needed a cast off broomstick and a ten cent rubber ball to play. These balls were usually yellow or pink. They were, to repeat myself, cheap.

Cheap compared to a Spaulding. The word was written right on it. If you're not from New York, and maybe even if you are, you probably pronounce that something like SPOLL ding. That's not the way we pronounced it. We paid no attention to the name on the ball. Who reads a ball anyway? We pronounced it spawl DEEN. Because that's what it was.

Sometimes one of us was willing to cough up a whole quarter to buy one. They were pink, but not the lifeless chewed Bazooka bubble gum pink of the cheap balls. They were a kind of powder electric pink a kid could be proud of, though certainly none would of us would have said so. They had heft and were made of denser rubber. They snapped off the sidewalk when you bounced them.

Spaulding was not a word in my vocabulary. It has, as I say it now, a gray sound, a sound that trails off into a sneer. If you were to hit that name hard with a stick, it would split in half, its dull syllables skittering off like the two hemispheres of a ten cent ball to be left behind and forgotten.

But spawlDEEN has spit and awe in it, awe which gives way to emphatic excitement, the EE of anticipation, the glee we felt to hold one in our hands. It did not squeeze easily. I'd have to look, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that a lot of my poems have awe sounds in them. Awe giving way to EE. 

A Few Thoughts about Sound

I think it may be that the delight, even the delightful disgust,  of how language sounds and is felt in the mouth and body directs what we have to say in ways the conscious mind cannot know. It may lead us to say this and not that. Which is going a little further than saying it determines how we say something.

What a poem means is what you say.
How it sounds is who you are.

Go to the pine to learn its sounds.
Go to your body to discover new ears.

A change of sound is a change of perception, like getting onto a different train

The eye has a direct pathway to the mind. The ear is more labyrinthine, like a rose, and leads to the heart.

Some sounds may get lost in the labyrinth of the ear. These are sounds that need to get their meaning across. They tend to get repeated in arguments. In a poem, lost sounds are more patient, they know from ancient experience that other sounds will soon call out to them, meet them, transform them, and continue the way.

Red alone on the canvas. Red with violet. With black.

The black of a black horse breathing. The black of a galloping black horse.

We tend to lap up the voluptuous. By cuddling up to a word like cuttlefish, we acknowledge kinship through the body of sound.

In a poem, a short poem like a haiku in which sounds are not easily muffled, we may slide along the floor with a spider, the diphthonic aye-ee our own inner cry, our fear that what is imaginatively true may be actually true; that we are, in part, spider.

Sound is the body language of a poem. It tells the truth, which sometimes is that a poem is not well-fed.

Sound reveals what you didn't know you wanted to reveal. It exceeds intention, or reveals its limits. It can even make fools of us.

Sense is an echo of sound.

What a poem says is known to the leaves. How it says it is taken up by the roots.

How can the word gray feel dull? It uses one long high pitched vowel. Like all the high pitched vowels, the diphthonic  A sound when sung or chanted creates a buzz in the head. That is not what one would think of gray. Or of rain.

We don't master sound. It masters us, though undoubtedly some honest work can result from resisting that.

Jane Hirshfield speaks of metaphor "ghosting past the logical mind". Sound and rhythm work
that way too, but with a more substantial ghost.

Poets are too often eager to get their meaning across and not allow the poem to mean something beyond them. Sound is both of and beyond us.

The music of language is always one moment ahead of meaning.

Using words like assonance, dissonance, alliteration and so on may be useful up to a point. I don't know of a name which speaks to how sounds relate to each other, how they transform and inform each other, how they emphasize and undermine and toy with meaning, how they synthesize being and doing . . .  unless that name is music. Better to say that each poem names it in its own way. Each poem is its own name, its own namelessness.

Some Quotes

     "But words are also biology. Except for a handful of poets and scholars, nobody has taken the time to consider the feeling of verbal sounds in the physical organism. Even today— despite all the public reciting of verse, the recordings, the classroom markings of prosody— the muscular sensation of words is virtually ignored by all but poets who know how much the body is engaged in a poem. [W]ords are physical events for the organism, even when experienced in silence . . .".
            Stanley Burnshaw, The Seamless Web

". . . [T]he only kind of meaning poetry can have requires that its words resume their full life: the full life being modified and made unique by the qualifications the words perform one upon the other in the poem".

                                                R.P. Blackmur, quoted ibid.

"[Merleau-Ponty] wrote at length of the gestural genesis of language, the way that communicative meaning is first incarnate in the gestures by which the body spontaneously expresses feelings and responds to changes in its affective environment".

"Active, living speech is just such a gesture, a vocal gesticulation wherein the meaning is inseparable from the sound, the shape, and the rhythm of the words. Communicative meaning is always, in its depths, affective . . . born of the body's native capacity to resonate with other bodies and with the landscape as a whole".

"We thus learn our native language not mentally but bodily. It is this direct, felt significance— the taste of a word or phrase, the way it influences or modulates the body— that provides the fertile, polyvalent source for all the more refined and rarefied meanings which that term may come to have for us".
                                                 David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous        

"There is, [Merleau-Ponty] argues, an affective tonality, a mode of conveying meaning beneath the level of thought, beneath the level of the words themselves . . . which [is] much more like a melody— a 'singing of the world'— than fully translatable, conceptual thought".
                 James Edie, quoted ibid.

"When we sit down to write, we often imagine that thoughts are coming, or feelings are arriving. But actually what are arriving are syllables, each a marriage or affair of vowel and consonant. . .

But it is another thing to take part in their arriving— to put out a call for sound friendships, to decide to encourage certain ones. The we are awake by one more degree. To be awake as a writer is to take part in sound friendships and welcome them".

            Robert Bly, The Thousands

"The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face".
            Bob Dylan, "Visions of Johanna"

Some Poems

Here are a few poems which have qualities of sound and rhythm I would like to explore.

reaching for green pears
the pull
of an old scar
                           Peggy Willis Lyles

distant virga
the ranch dog's eyes
different colors
         Allan Burns

intact zero fighter
at the Smithsonian
cherry blossom rain
         Fay Aoyagi

the long a of gray
the long a of rain
the shortest day
                                   Adam Traynor

the high fizz nerve the low boom blood dead silence
         Jim Kacian

I'll start with a poem by John Stevenson and return with thoughts about the others later.

first things first forsythia

This poem plays with a familiar theme in Stevenson's poetry: the limits of mind. At least the limits of the mind which attempts to grasp and measure when confronted with mystery.

The poem is simple enough, speaking to the observable fact that a forsythia is a shrub whose flowers bloom early in the spring. You might say that the observer is pleased with this observation: it speaks to a degree of order, and being able to observe order is to partake of it.
All is well.

At another layer down, the sense of order is tested a bit, since the blooms appear before the leaves, not the typical progression of botanical growth. That fact resides in the poem like a  phantom question mark. The mind which likes to be certain about things is tested by the very things it relies on: facts.

Being tested by facts may only serve to spark the mind to further observation and thinking. Which is fine, and a basis for science. But something else is happening here, located in the
body of the poem.

To get to it, you have to take the poem in your mouth and play with it— speed it up, slow it down— mostly slow it down. "First things first!" The force of that expression, the certainty of it, the two stressed firsts bursting out of the mouth. It is as if being first has more importance than any thing. Order is the ticket. "First things first" is something bosses and parents get to say. The rest of us may swear under our breaths, retaliating with another forceful, felt if not heard, expression.

Spoken in a natural, conversational way, the change in pitch and rhythm from first things first to forsythia will probably be noted, but perhaps not on a conscious level. Spoken or simply mouthed more slowly, emphasizing the vowel sounds, brings out what for me is the key to this poem, which relates to the theme I mentioned: order giving way to mystery, or to the immeasurable.

It happens in feeling the change from the rather high pitched, vibratory er sounds transitioning into the unstressed, low-pitched or of forsythia: a sudden slowing down. That sound, close to aw, takes the reader/ listener to another place, which can be felt, if intoned a bit, in the chest. The effect, the shift from the repeated er sounds to the or sound, is one of letting go. It comes as much from the felicity of language as it does from the genius of the poet's ear.

The felicity may be noticed in multiple places, including the somewhat off-mirrored sounds FIRST things/forSYTHia, but also in how the emphatic T stopped sounds of firsT give over to the open final vowel of forsythia.

Peter Yovu

Field Notes


I find this topic very timely since I've been thinking a lot about what it means for me to read, or perhaps it is more appropriate to say "perform", my poems for an audience. I like feeling the "presence" of a poem--its breath, pitch, tone, tempo, rhythm (the way it makes my feet and arms move as well as my diaphragm and tongue), the places it quiets, the way it vibrates in my chest, on my lips, in my ears, and flows through my whole body.  I like how the sound of a poem floats between me and the audience, and connects us physically. Often what appears on the page is more straightforward than how I "read" it.  Kind of like playing Bach, so much is in the interpretation.

There are many ways to interpret the sound of a poem from the page.  Lorine Niedecker, whose poems are quite musical, never read her poems aloud ( if I remember correctly, I think she did let Cid Corman make a recording once at the end of her life) because she felt that poems should be read silently, so that each reader could hear them in their own way. The British poet, Alice Oswald, on the other hand, doesn't like other people to read her poems aloud because she says they get the "tunes" wrong most of the time, typically reading her poems in an iambic pattern rather than the dactylic that she intends.  She recites her poems from memory to an almost incantatory effect. ( For a recent presentation:European Voices: A Reading and Conversation with British Poet Alice Oswald):

Sound is extremely important to me, not only in my poetry, but for my video work as well.  And so, I really enjoyed the chance to immerse myself in the specific questions Peter posed for this FN.  That means this is really, really long. 
(You might want to just read the poems.)

Do you write haiku with the sound of words in mind?

John Cage, the 20th century American composer and poet, believed that there was no such thing as silence, only unintended sounds. (He had this epiphany after an experience in an anechoic chamber at Harvard.) If I am quiet enough, sounds "arrive" and then I try to "listen" for what other words these sounds call forth in tone and rhythm. Many times my head intervenes too much.

Do you revise according to sound and rhythm?

Yes, very much, although I am not always able to achieve something that works to my satisfaction.
In fact this has led me to writing sequences and longer poems because there is more to develop in terms of rhythm.

We speak of juxtaposing images in haiku. Do you know a haiku, yours or another's, which juxtaposes image and sound? A haiku whose sound and content are disjunctive?

Great question.  I think this is really difficult to pull off and so I can hardly think of any examples.
And it obviously depends on one's interpretation of both the meaning and how one might sound the poem out rhythmically.

A poem by Paul Pfleuger Jr.'s from a Zodiac, (Red Moon Press, 2013) comes to mind:

isms with our clothes on

This poem stands out to me for its use of disjunctive sound.
While I interpret it to speak about how categories and ideologies keep us in neat little boxes, proper in the appropriate attire, the sound of "isms" is so visceral a sound (and suggests jism in the raucousness of my mind) that the poem ends up evoking a rather raunchy feeling. The way I read the sound of this poem, the stress on the first syllable of "isms", vibrating "iz"into "mz", creates a harmonic overtone that closes the mouth and rolls through the next two unstressed syllables. This is then balanced symmetrically by the last words "clothes on", which I read as a spondee.  In contrast to the short "i" sounds of the first two syllables, the "o"s of the last three syllables open the mouth, with the final "n" closing things again.  The sound as a whole somehow makes me want to rip the clothes off the poem and free things back to their natural state before they became trapped and degraded.

Are sound and content two separate things? In what way yes. In what way no?

If a poem could be described as a bird in flight, sound is its wings.

Given haiku's brevity, there are clear limits to what can be developed in terms or sound and rhythm. But are there aspects of prosody which brevity can put to good use?

Well, there is hardly enough time/space in haiku for any metrical pattern to establish its music.

I believe pauses (kire), or to use a musical term,"rests", play a key role in poems of brevity. 

Cherie Hunter Day demonstrates great versatility in how she uses everything from 5/7/5 to one-liners.
This 3/5/3 is an example of her masterful skill with highly structured sound using a notated cut:

starlings molt
to a new spangle—
wolf whistles                                            (Apology Moon, Red Moon Press, 2013)

The first two lines are strongly connected by their consonant sounds, and then we feel something new with those repetitive "w"s after the cut. The inversion of the syllabic structure of the first line in the third line, and the reversed order of the "o"s and short "i"s, (starlings molt/wolf whistles) create a remarkable mirroring effect supported by the "l" sounds . The word spangle in the second line acts as the fulcrum of the poem and sound-wise it jumps out joyously to announce the shift.

This one-liner does something different:

dawn crows the scuffle of nomenclature   ( Apology Moon, Red Moon Press, 2013)

First of all, the cut/s can be placed in different places, creating an indeterminate rhythm for the poem.  Depending on where I place the cut/s, I change the pitch and lilt with which I say the words "crows" and "scuffle".  I hear the hard scrabble of this poem more than I think it.  I want to read that last word, no-men-cla-ture, well enunciated, slowly, syllable by syllable, like a scolding teacher.

I believe short poems can encourage a poet to use sound in how s/he collocates words.

For example, in the following poems, "hard house", "finned word/ minnows", "knife patrols", " crow wing", and "starlice" create a variety of playful and stunning effects:

coming out of
the hard house
the flowering dawn


in and out of meaning
         a finned word


between our countries
a knife patrols,  sharpening
its only thought


crow wing over us
but starlice drinking,   drinking
unblack the sky

( all of the above by Peter Yovu from Sunrise, Red Moon Press, 2010)

Incidentally, Niedecker (who read haiku and wrote many, many short poems) does beautiful things with words like petalbent, adark, jellying, smoke dent ....

Though we tend to think of it primarily in visual terms, organic-form haiku can do amazing things with sound to perform the meaning of a poem. There is a long history to this kind of thing (think of LeRoy Gorman's work, or marlene mountain's brilliant poem, "on this cold/ spring 1/ 2 night 3 4...") , but here I will focus on some poems by Roland Packer who uses syllabic play, rhythmic allusion, and spatial arrangements to create complexity out of brevity, sometimes extreme brevity.

cl a y                                                              (2012 Haiku Now! Innovative Category--Commended)

styx and bones the sound of a stone             (Frogpond 36:3)

latch of the newborn dawn                           (Frogpond 36:1)

                                             a t t i t u d e

                                          (Frogpond 37:1)

"icicle mind/wind"
see MH 44:1 for this poem's presentation which relies on layout for a shift from long to short vowel sounds and flip-flopped consonant sounds

                                     (MH 45:1)

It is fun to play with these aloud.

In Haiku: A Poet's Guide, Lee Gurga wrote (in 2003): ". . . the judicious use of aural devices in haiku can help focus the reader/listener's attention on the important aspects of the verse". This seems to give sound ("aural devices") a secondary importance, a "helping" role vis-a-vis what is "important" in haiku. How do you respond to this?

There are many poems I love where the sound seems to be in a supporting role rather than a primary role. However, when sound does not seem considered enough in a poem, it is difficult for me to engage.  Lately, I tend to respond most strongly to poems where the sound is primary, though I often struggle to achieve this in my own work. 

Martin Lucas, in his essay Haiku as Poetic Spell, has offered what appears to be a different approach: "That's what I mean by Poetic Spell. Words that chime; words that beat; words that flow. And once you've truly heard it, you won't forget it, because the words have power. They are not dead and scribbled on a page, they are spoken like a charm; and they aren't read, they're heard". How do you respond to this?

I think of reading Beowulf in high school and learning how to attune my ear to the music of the Old English so I could "understand" better.  The traditions of oral poetry are good reminders of this; their typically longer length allows time for their spell to be woven.  The bards of Hip-Hop have much to teach us about this. One of my favorites from Lauryn Hill, The Mystery of Iniquity:

In terms of haiku, I think of

1.   as an and you and you and you alone in the sea     (Richard Gilbert: R'r 12.3)

With its lilting rhythm it works like the refrain of a folk song, undulating waves.

       her echo

opens her mouth to speak
the severed shoot grows
one finger, one leaf                                 

her perfect face
under the loam
a leaf in stone                   
                               (Mark Harris:  burl, Red Moon Press, 2012)

For me, the first here is a highly compacted poem that uses words "like a charm". The second and third produce exquisite flowing music with their rhythms based in iambic dimeter, slant rhyme, and the overall orchestration of consonant and vowel sounds.

3.  I find Susan Diridoni's poems extremely lyrical, luscious mouthfuls:

step back into the fragrance our histories mingling

the Yukon in her dry high air streaming

come fall with me languor's slant

the grain in his song tessellating night

vows jump their past-present membranes Eastertide

fogged into the familiar dying peripheral

                                          (all of the above from A New Resonance 8, Red Moon Press, 2013)

And to close, considering sound in relation to translation,
I also think of how well Jerome Rothenberg's translation work exemplifies this idea of words "spoken like a charm" (or sung like a charm).  For example, Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas ( Univ. of New Mexico Pre. Rev Sub edition (1991) and Writing Through: Translations and Variations (Wesleyan, 2004).

If I understand correctly, earlier writers of American haiku debated about how much "music" the language of haiku should allow. I wonder if this was due to early efforts at translation into English that added rhyme and forced syllable counts, emblematic of the vast differences to be navigated between the English and Japanese languages. Though we tend not to think of haiku as having the same strong "song" tradition of waka/tanka, when I listen to Japanese haiku it is crystal clear to me that sound is crucial.  For example, there is the common use of 5/75 phrasing inherent to the language, but also the fanfare of vowel sounds, the embrace of onomatopoeia, and the love of punning where double meaning is produced purely through sound.

Eve Luckring



   In Japanese there is a built in rhythm of 5 and 7 unit sound phrases in most poetry. It has been suggested the rhythm so produced dates back to early spoken language as in proclamations. In Japan haiku are recited with a kind of gravity as in a No play. Attention has been drawn to the frequent use of onomatopoeia in Japanese haiku. The mandated vowel in each sound unit of Japanese adds to the built-in musical quality. Moreover, Basho in talking about renku linking suggested making links by smell, by which he meant all the senses, setting up a system of poetic connections that suggests by analogy notes and phrases in music.

   In English by comparison to Romance languages like French or Spanish, there are shorter syllables and fewer vowels. Thus the latter have more built-in sound values and thus come closer to Japanese than English as expressions of sound in haiku. In Japanese kanji (Chinese characters) there are also deep structures that contribute to a haiku's complexity.

   Susumu Takiguchi, editor of World Haiku Review, in his call for winter 2012 haiku submissions lists "good choice and order of words, good rhythm, and pictorial or musical feel" among the qualities of superior English haiku submissions. The "rhythm" and "musical feel" qualities offer haiku in English a chance of the melos (music) function of poetry. Figurative devises like alliteration, a well as other poetic devices, could overpower the small haiku form. Yet Japanese 5-7-5 sound units in poetry is essentially lyric, usually human feeling connected to nature.

   Poetry in English is reliant on accent and metrical foot, aside from free verse, so the haiku in English cannot easily rely on them in its short form. Basho's advise on linking, however, and Takiguchi's "rhythm" and "musical feel" offer analogies to outright musical expression and are useful in English haiku to contain the mental or lexical function of the words in a haiku. In a sense the poet's sensibility, their phrasing containing "rhythm"  and "musical feel," replaces the logical order of phrasing as language, however embedded with symbols, deep structure, or subtle metaphors.
   One of my haiku which placed in the 2012 66th Basho Festival, Iga City, Japan international haiku contest perhaps carries some of the lyric values mentioned here, as well as an internal rhyme in the second line:

old growth mountain
    I breathe deeply
           a cloud

I see this kind of lyricism in the haiku of Tom Tico, as in this from frogpond XXVI:1 (2003), 5, which contains clear rhyme in the third line:

after a haircut—
with spring wind

Such an understanding of sound in haiku in English is like hearing a silent melody in someone's expressed exuberant joy.

Bruce Ross



Issa loved exploiting the sound properties of the Japanese language in haiku. In 1809, for example, he wrote,

uguisu ga saku-saku aruku momiji kana

the nightingale struts
crunch crunch...
red leaves

In addition to making use of the wonderfully alliterative and onomatopoeic phrase, "saku-saku," Issa exploits the assonance of the repeated vowel sound, "u," in seven of the first twelve sound units. In my translation, I make an attempt to imitate this consonant/vowel play with the words, "struts crunch crunch." In other cases, carrying over into English Issa's remarkable sound play has been more challenging, as in this undated verse.

yûzuki ya nabe no naka nite naku tanishi

evening moon--
pond snails singing
in the kettle

The alliteration in my translation ("snails singing") is pitifully inadequate to reflect Issa's tour de force repetition of the "n" sound times six. In a poem such as this one, Issa is clearly having fun with language's musical effects. He is a master at this and, for me, a master teacher.

Personally, I don't decide that a haiku of mine is finished until and unless I've said it out loud and approve its ear-feel. I strive to use sound, rhythm, and silences in all my compositions. As a reader, consequently, I favor haiku that sound good when read aloud. Concrete poems that derive their impact strictly by the ingenious visual patterns they create on the page move me far less. I find such works interesting, but I don't value them the way that I value haiku in which sound matches sense. That's just who am, not a criticism of concrete language poets. As I write these words, I'm sitting outside listening to a mockingbird gushing in a nearby tree. For me, and certainly for him, song (and I include haiku in this category) must be heard.

no heaven
no hell
just the whispering rushes

David G. Lanoue

Field Notes


The Sound of Silence

One need only to look at recent winners of the contemporary category of Haiku Now! Contest to notice that sound takes center stage in contemporary haiku. Perhaps even more powerful is the lack of sound. Take a look at the following two haiku. 

the river freezes...
silence is also
an answer
   Francine Banwarth  [2011 Haiku Now! First Place Winner]

in her belly, the sound
of unopened mail
   Don Baird [2013 Haiku Now! First Place/2013 Touchstone Award Winner]

The first haiku contains a scene common in winter. In bitter cold weather the surface of the river freezes. With this as a metaphor we are invited further into Banwarth's personal narrative. Relationships can also freeze. The poet is patient as she waits for a thaw.  Whether an attempt at reconciliation takes place is left to our imaginations. But the answer she expects doesn't come, and she is greeted with only silence. The death of a loved one creates a deep gulf of silence. She must be content that silence too is a valid answer. It speaks volumes in the human heart.

In the second haiku what is the sound of unopened mail? A logical answer would be there is no sound. But consider that the message has already been crafted and sent. It doesn't feel as passive as the first haiku. The message stalls without a receiver. It is similar to the philosophical question:  if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound? That's not exactly silence. The ears aren't the intended target for this sound. Or maybe the media through which the message travels is not air but the ground of being. The power in this haiku comes in the way the words send the mind reeling through thoughts/feelings for a satisfying conclusion. This haiku sets fire to our imaginations. We wait for more input so we can respond. But the answer is already inside each of us. History is frozen for a second in that moment of impact on August 9, 1945, but it doesn't remain frozen. There is a sound to unopened mail. 

Tinkering with Words

Literary devices like rhyme, particularly end rhyme, and heavy metrics tend to overwhelm the short form. Haiku relies more on word choice (monosyllable or polysyllable words), different line lengths, cuts and shifts in subject matter, along with word repetition to provide cadence. Elizabeth Searle Lamb was a master of controlling the pace of words to enhance the word/pictures. Listen to the surge in the following haiku. 

the sound
of rain on the sound
of waves
   Elizabeth Searle Lamb [in this blaze of sun, From Here Press, 1975]

With so few words she manages to mimic the lapping of the waves. Nothing in the word choice is associated with what is named, the literary device known as onomatopoeia. For comparison consider this haiku. 

machine shop
the mechanic hums along
to a florescent lamp
   Alan S. Bridges [The Heron's Nest XV: 1, 2013]

The verb 'hums' sounds like a person or a lamp humming and is an example of onomatopoeia. 

mosquito she too
insisting insisting she
is is is is is
   Peter Yovu [Modern Haiku 35:1, 2004]

This is a 5-7-5 haiku. Even with three sets of repeated words, it feels effortless—'she' and 'insisting' appear twice and 'is' appears five times. The pace is slowed in the second line by the repetition of the three syllable word 'insisting.' And the pace is sped up double time with the single accented syllable repeated five times in the last line. It conveys urgency, the demand of life, of existence and ego. A single 'is' would not be considered onomatopoeia but the buzzing sound created by 'is is is is is' sounds like a mosquito and the re-experience becomes visceral.

Sound Country

Further out on the continuum of granularity are the individual sounds in language. Phonetics is an area of linguistics that focuses on the physiological production, acoustic properties, and auditory perceptions of the physical phenomena of speech. The subject is far more technical than this short discussion allows. For a poet it is interesting to note how these different sounds enhance the meaning of individual words and color the perception of nearby words. 

shore of the loch—
wavelets lapping
the fallen larch
   Martin Lucas [Snapshot 6, 1999]

The inclination when reading this haiku is to enunciate each word. The pace is slowed.  There is something lovely and sensual in the balance of the sibilant [sh] in shore, the velar stop of k sound of [ch] in loch, the fricative [v] in wavelets and [f] in fallen, layered with the liquid [l] sounds in:  loch, wavelets, lapping, fallen, and larch. The [l] sound creates flow and mimics the gentle movement of water. This haiku begs to be read out loud. 

Formation of consonant sounds depends on the degree of stricture (partial or complete stops made by teeth, lips, or tongue) or alternative airflow (passage of air through the nose). Vowel articulation relates to where the tongue is positioned relative to roof of the mouth and the opening of the jaw. Raised vowels such as (u) and (i) are formed high in the mouth and low vowel such as [a] is formed when the tongue is relative flat and low in the mouth. There are a number of variables to consider. Again, the science is very precise. But the mechanics of how sounds are made cuts across all languages. 

an ashen language in the drive-by of our bones
   Cherie Hunter Day [NOON 8: journal of the short poem, Jan. 2014]

How do the different sounds add enjoyment to this one-liner? The consonant sounds are: the sibilant [sh] of ashen and (s) in bones, the liquid [l]of language, the velar stop [g] in language, three plosives (d) (b) (d) in drive-by and bones, and three nasal [n] in an, ashen, and bones. The poem has a variety of sounds and a pleasing cadence of stressed and unstressed syllables that establish an even pace. For the vowels there are three [a] sounds in an, ashen, language followed by two different (i) sounds in in and drive followed by three (o) sounds in of, our, and bones. There is a vowel progression (a) to (i) to (o). I didn't set out to micromanage sounds when I wrote it. I picked word sounds that pleased my ear and had a good mouth feel. There is a physical component that accompanies the processing of this poem. As the subject matter becomes more speculative, sound choice becomes increasingly important.

Cherie Hunter Day



A Useful Beauty:
              Sound Construction in Haiku

Some poems require a good listen. They demand it. That's why orators of old spoke their verses to the assembled crowd. On a street corner or in amphitheaters. Even today, I remember speaking to a poet from Kashmir. He said, "In my country a good poet can fill a stadium." Now that'd be something.

But more to the point: what is the importance of sound in a haiku? This question answered a related question I had: why can't I ever pick out a greeting card quickly? It's the sound of them. Each one sounds like a poem. An attractive turn of phrase or some clever use of alliteration. It takes awhile to sort things out. How many times have you heard someone reading the words inside  each card out loud to help them choose which appeal to the ear.

Of course, haiku has often been mistaken for a kind of quasi-greeting card salutation instead of the thoughtful thing it really is. But hey, why flog a flea. The use of sound determines the skill of the poet (or Hallmark card writer). The difference in a well-sounded haiku is that the reader is transported through the nether regions of the brain where sound resides, echoing from the canyon walls where even a whisper can travel miles. Certain sounds can trigger multiple associations. Sound expands the poem beyond its physical dimensions.

Take, for example:

Silent Cliffs
       letting go
              our if   if    ifs

Or, here's a more subtle example:

                                         the woodland stream
                                         a whisper

The use of sound is as important as one's vocabulary as a poet. It's not how many words you use in a poem but their construction within it. Dovetailing versus a simpler butt joint. Both do the trick. One with more finesse. A useful beauty. That might well be the best way to describe the importance of sound in haiku. Not just sound for sound sake.

In the above poem I was after a scene both visual and auditory. Walls of soft green under a canopy of greater green. Also, I wanted to convey the sense of magic felt in this place. The secret sacred place of nature, often just a few steps from the trail. Sound helps economize the use of words. Hyphens are also useful as in "moss-muffled" that offers the wedge of soft fern growth where run-off make its way through the uneven terrain down to the river. There is an unbroken quiet here that I wanted to remain intact. No hard sounds to break the silence, woo-,  -eam,  whi-

Haiku are saved sound scraps dubbed, over-dubbed, mixed and re-.

In writing and revising any poem, especially haiku, I find it essential to read the words out loud. Even sing 'em if you want. It's one way to break it down. Something happens when the words hit the air. They either fly or fall flat. A poet who trains his ear to recognize the difference is bound to improve. And possibly make something memorable. Resonant is the word I believe. You gotta go with your gut. Listen to yourself. Each poem is a new language. Sound it out.

Peter Newton



While memorable word-sound and rhythm are the heart of all poetry, the challenge for me in bringing them to haiku was the admonition to avoid poetics.  Before discovering haiku, I was drawn to sonnets so skillfully written it was easy to forget they were sonnets.  The first that comes to mind is Edna St. Vincent Millay's "What lips my lips have kissed, and where and why".

The spareness of a well-written haiku can have an even deeper impact.  Just as the sonnet's strict format can vanish with the right words and rhythm, the haiku's tinyness can go unnoticed as it pulls a "wow" from our lips and plants itself in our memory.  Maybe not always word-for-word, and maybe we won't always recall the poet, but the poem imbeds itself, seemingly forever. And the ones that do that most often for me are the ones that nearly beg to be read aloud.

When the right word-sound and rhythm come effortlessly for me with the first draft, life is good.  One that comes to mind is:

pink lemonade—
the taffeta rustle
of cottonwoods

South by Southeast 10:2 (2003)

But many require tinkering before settling on the sound/rhythm combination that seems to best suit the subject matter and the moment.

Billie Wilson



On the sound

life is poetic, while i am not
darker shadows falling deeper among trees
reflect elegance and tragedy

as the Hasidim danced ecstasy
to be slaughtered in the Holocaust
their very regions, roads, names

wiped out. while waiting to do
something or die, the dream world opens
to offer a pearl

make a mental note: falling takes you
far past literalism, right through actuality
and gravity's rainbow

measures imaginal velocities of an outside
world, which clearly feels its moments
in leaf-bends towards sun, insects busy

embodied in heat or cold, and we enter
with tropisms craning, jostling nearer or
farther to what is success among flowers

the poetry is outside, where there is life
all ecosystems made through eons
of this spring as the bamboo invade

without cutting they'll surround and kill
the cypress, so I walk each day with a
270mm serrated blade, searching, clearing

poetry, when and where the world
comes by, roots with new surprise if
by subtlety rather than ascension.

that we need something. to behold, which
allows a poetic world to be, without compunction
towards oneself "to be" poetic: the world

is enough. in a few minutes of Sunday gazing
from a chair through a window plausibly
see or hear something of trees grown

undergrowth hovering raincloud or sunlight
shadow nothing more than what life is
there witnessed as a kind of speech

if indecipherable. poetry isn't languageless
perhaps it's the most crucial connection
possible to be made between human lives.

doubtless with the talents of builders
the distractions of entertainments and cares
experiments of science, absolutely distinct

from the old trees which grow. your child
listens to rocks in the nothing that returns
memories of shells heard of the sea

the disbelieving ear left with monograms
of singular sonar sewn into evident impossibility.
there is enough talk of lives

and where and what to eat, to tire
of solutions. we no longer grow with seasons
but construct them, if seasons comfort.

today a day in which deeper shadows
indicate death in their tragic knowledge
those ecstasies not my own.

May 11, 2014

The sound of memories erased.
The sound of all that's missing.
The sound of the "not" that is.

As usual, I find it hard to single out a few haiku, when I have a book with 275 -- all with interesting things happening with sound -- don't like to pick favorites. It's quite difficult separating sound from sense in any line/poem. What I turned to was a theme I'm concerned with. The sound that is missing, sound that's missed, lost sound, absent sound. I think of memory as sound, in this sense. I think of the erasures of sound. I think of the past as something like sound or sound or like a sound.

Richard Gilbert

Field Notes


The brevity of haiku in English can be both strength and weakness. With so few words, often fewer than ten per poem, the reader is especially sensitive to the sound of each word, to enjambment, to repetition. Unbroken meter, whether through a one-line or multiple-line haiku, holds too rigid a sway--this is true of long poems as well.

Rhythm is another matter, and sound/song. Prosody is such a lovely word, with ancient roots in utterance that nourish our own mother tongue.

If you have songbirds in your part of the world, you might be familiar with the abbreviated snippets of melodic line they often sing. They will reel out a series of notes, pause, and then repeat the line with a slight change. The practiced ear (I'm no expert) can place those snippets within longer lines that belong to the repertoire a particular species uses to communicate. I know it's a reach—bird calls and human language have little in common—but birdsong puts me in mind of the way we intuitively place snippets of compelling texts within the sea of our human song, the word-net that permeates our languages and literatures. I don't mean to imply some sort of secret knowledge. Anyone reading this has already cracked the code of language.

Moments of silence are integral to the music of a poem. In contemporary haiku, punctuation ranges from absent to sparse. I usually hear the word "space" used to describe a semantic or indicated "cut" in haiku. Silence, also, accompanies that space. The silence we honor with a pause in our reading, along with a vaster one that continues after, the way the words keep working within us. (What lies beyond "cuts" and related devices is too involved for me to tackle here...)

Before modernist poets began to disjoint line formats to generate alternate readings and expose words as themselves, people knew to pause at the end of each line of text. End-stopped lines are rarely assumed in poems now, and this holds true for haiku in English. How, then, do we sense when to pause while reading or reciting a poem, or any text? I remind myself to listen for nuance suggested by line and word placement. I try to be sensitive to regional variation in rhythm and pronunciation, to notice when my mouth needs time ending one word and shaping another. This leads to surprises. A poem can reveal itself through sound.

Peter has asked us to share some poems that engage in different ways with the topic at hand. Here are a few. The first two are by me, the others credited:

only a drawing
of a labyrinth, only
the moon's pull

deep snow
              in a dream, I find
              her password in

the river
the river makes
of the moon
     --Jim Kacian, Mainichi Daily News Contest 1997

reaching for green pears—
the pull
of an old scar
     --Peggy Willis Lyles, Global Haiku (Iron Press, 2000)

mosquito she too
insisting insisting she
is is is is is
     --Peter Yovu, Modern Haiku 35.1

Mark Harris



Here are 20 of my ear-ku (in terms of content and/or technique) from five years in the 20th century (1977-1981). They were appreciated during their time, but literary history suggests most will end up in dark and silent places while only a few might continue to speak to the imagination. Perhaps some of you will speculate on how this occurs, and possibly predict the fate of some of these poems (under each is its abridged publication record).


for the fat green frog
crouched on the log
time is flies

(11 times: A Snowman, Headless, Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1979) to Cornell's Mann Library Daily Haiku, 2011)


fresh snow on the fence
two more inches against
my neighbor's eloquence

(8 times: A Snowman, Headless, Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1979 to Cornell's Mann Library Daily Haiku, 2011)


in one corner
of the mental patient's eye
I exist

(10 times: Cicada, 1978 to Deutsche Haiku Gesellschaft, 2005)


in the howling wind
under the full moon
the snowman, headless

(14 times: Modern Haiku, 1977 to Modern Haiku, 2011—in a review of Joy In Me Still, Inkling Press, 2010)


having to guess
from the footsteps:
evening fog

(7 times: Cicada, 1977 to Haiku Journey, Hot Lava Games, 2006)


long after
the leaping buck     the quiver
of the fencepost

(4 times: Modern Haiku, 1978 to Champs et contrechamps de l' anthropologie in L'Homme, Editions de l'EHESS, 2008)


During discussion
on the meaning of life     the crunch
of a student's apple

(4 times: A Snowman, Headless, Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1979 to Almost Unseen, Brooks Books, 2000)


a bottomless well within me     no sound from my fallen pride

(8 times: Amoskeag, 1980 to I Want To Lasso Time, 1991)


night game
crack! the outfielder circles
under the full moon

(4 times: Driftwood East, 1979 to Almost Unseen (Brooks Books, 2000)


cool forest lake...
as I slip off my shorts, the snort
of a bull moose

(5 times: Gusto, 1978 to Simply Haiku, 2006)


in each eye
of the cat by the window
the singing robin

(5 times: Endless Jigsaw, Three Trees Press, 1978 to Whirligig, 2010)


with the bird songs
our dawn cries

(7 times: Endless Jigsaw, Three Trees Press, 1978 to micro haiku: three to nine syllables, Iņšpress, 2014 + PhD thesis by Tom Lynch, An original relation to the universe: Emersonian poetics of immanence and contemporary American haiku, U of Oregon, 1989)


my wife and I fight over
how to stop our sons
from fighting

(3 times: A Snowman, Headless, Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1979 to a PhD thesis by Tom Lynch, An original relation to the universe: Emersonian poetics of immanence and contemporary American haiku, U of Oregon, 1989)


calmly talking divorce
underfoot the crackle
of fallen leaves

(5 times: As Far As The Sea Can Eye, York Publishing, 1979 to Frogpond, 2001)


dropping stone after stone
into the lake     I keep

(16 times: High/Coo, 1979 to Whirligig, 2010 + PhD thesis by Tom Lynch, An original relation to the universe: Emersonian poetics of immanence and contemporary American haiku, U of Oregon, 1989)


falling pine needles     the tick of the clock

(7 times: Cicada, 1980 to micro haiku: three to nine syllables, Iņšpress, 2014)


hum of the fan
cigarette smoke streams
through our silence

(5 times: Modern Haiku, 1980 to PhD thesis by Tom Lynch, An original relation to the universe: Emersonian poetics of immanence and contemporary American haiku, U of Oregon, 1989)


a frog Picassos
my face

(10 times: White Wall Review, 1981 to micro haiku: three to nine syllables, Iņšpress, 2014)


rising like birds
from the bottom of the canyon
the children's cries

(9 times: Cross-Canada Writers' Quarterly, 1981 to Haiku Canada Review, 2012)





(7 times: Cicada, 1981 to embryo: eye poems, Iņšpress, 2013)

George Swede



When we talk about sound in a poem, we're usually talking about "harmonised
vowels and consonants," in Robert Frost's phrase. But what about the sound
of sentences, and the runs and pauses of speech? These sounds are part of
what Frost was talking about in his idea of  "the sound of sense."

For example,  a poem can use sentence rhythms as a counterpoint to the
conventions of haiku.

moths have come
around the one light left
forgotten, on

-- Martin Shea

This poem is a wandering sentence in search of a final word. I've spoken
like this when I began a sentence without knowing what I wanted to say, then
found the subject elusive and discovered it at the end, making a hash of
normal syntax. In the poem, the sentence wanders across the three lines
typical of English-language haiku, but not in the conventional fragment and
phrase structure. At the same time, the poem is bound together by the
assonance of "moths," "come," "one," "forgotten", and "on." The final word
is as ordinary and incandescent as a light bulb and the brief lives brought
together in the poem.

Haiku that use sentence rhythms in this way are probably the exception. The
omitted words and the cut in most haiku makes them sound different than
normal speech . . . or do they? When I read haiku aloud, the cut often
sounds familiar, like a sudden shift in thought.

caboose light
lost in fog
sound of carillons

-Nina Wicker

Here I must pause to confess my love for the sound of the word "caboose" --
the hard "k" sound, followed by a "b" sound and a double "o," ending in a
soft hiss. It's a fun word; nostalgic too because most trains don't have
cabooses these days. So, the light of the caboose disappears in fog . . . or
is it the sound of the carillons that disappears? The fragment and phrase
are ambiguous. There's a kind of equilibrium among the sound and images of
the caboose light, the fog, and the carillons; among the words and the
phenomena they describe.

If "The sound is the gold in the ore," as Frost said, maybe we should look
beyond the music of individual words for that gold.

Dave Russo



This topic deserves much more attention than I am able to give it. The aural qualities of a poem have always been important to me. I've had many ideas about poetry over the years. One of my first was that it was "musical speech." In addition to time constraints holding me back, there is the overwhelming task of choosing poems to appreciate in this way. Here is one of about five thousand English-language haiku whose aural qualities seem well crafted to me:

gunshot the length of the lake

Jim Kacian

For me, this is all about echoes and the timing of echoes. The first word consists of a stressed syllable and a slightly less stressed syllable. The next two stressed syllables (length, lake) are weaker but also have the added weight of alliteration. I tend to recite this quickly. In this way it registers, for me, an additional wave of not quite audible sound, which, since it is not there, produces a sensation of incredulity - did I just hear what I thought I heard?

John Stevenson

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