Poet and haiku archivist Charles Trumbull maintains an English-language haiku database that currently stands at about 544,000 poems, which he estimates is roughly half of all haiku published in English. Two-line haiku make up only around 1.6% of the total, and many of these are verses in linked forms, such as renga and tan-renga.
Why don’t we see more two-line haiku in English? Why do we default to a three-line form?
In his 2006 book, How to Haiku, Jim Kacian writes:
“While two-line haiku are relatively rare in classical Japanese practice, many examples, especially from translation, may be found in English to justify this choice. An early and important collection of translated classical haiku by Asataro Miyamora in 1932 employed the two-line form. It was also the form of choice by such early important personages in the haiku world as Lafcadio Hearn and Harold Stewart.”
But he goes on to say:
“(H)aiku is most often the juxtaposition of two elements, and on the surface the two-line form might seem ideally suited to the haiku. What it loses, however, is the sudden shift, the ‘surprise’ element which English haiku may have in their third line. They also lose the asymmetry inherent in the Japanese original where the five on [a Japanese sound unit similar to, but shorter than, a syllable in English] of the first line is poised against 7 and 5 on in the second phrase, or else 5-7 posited against the final 5 . . .”
In How to Haiku’s section on haiku form, Kacian writes:
“We may consider the three-line, short-long-short form to be standard in English. One recent study suggests that over 90% of all haiku published in English in the last three decades has appeared in this format, and there is no evidence to suggest that this is changing.”
So, why would a poet choose to write a haiku in two lines instead of three?
Economy of space & immediacy of image
In Lee Gurga’s book with Charles Trumbull, Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, the authors include a section on concrete haiku, poems in which the placement of the words on the page is crucial to the haiku’s meaning. Gurga writes:
“In the poem below, ‘september’ functions as a season word [or kigo]. In addition, poet Carolyn Hall has used the cutting of the word in the line to convey the feeling of how the month of September 2001 was interrupted for all of us. The remainder of the word in the second line presents us with the smoldering ‘ember’ of the twin towers.”
Mariposa 5, 2001
Hall’s poem is highly effective as a two-line haiku. The natural and familiar break of “september” on line one is used to maximum advantage to lull the reader into the unexpected line two. Without the dash, there is no poem, so a monoku would not have worked here. And there is no need for a third line — the horror of that day is fully contained between L1 and L2.
Longer pauses between lines
Sometimes, longer pauses are needed to create an aha! moment. Two-line haiku allow you to create these pauses by having a “missing” second or third line, allowing for more “breathing room” in the poem.
Here’s a haiku of mine:
the cat’s eyes
Julie Bloss Kelsey
Second Place, 15th International “Kusamakura” Competition, 2010
Although this is a two-line poem, I’ve always thought of it as a three-line haiku with a blank second line. There must be time for the reader to peer into the dark, think they see a binary star, realize the absurdity, and recognize a cat.
Consider this haiku by Pris Campbell:
always there when I need you
The Pan Haiku Review, 2023
This poem is effectively missing a third line. There’s a pause after the poem, a delayed aha! moment, during which the reader realizes the emptiness implied by the words — the poet is eating chocolate kisses alone.
No good alternatives
Sometimes, presenting the haiku in another way — perhaps a monoku or three-line haiku — would weaken the poem.
In the example of Campbell’s haiku above, you could end line two after “there” to create a third line, but this wouldn’t be as effective, nor add anything to the poem.
“I’ve rarely written a two-line. As you already said, to break [her poem above] into three just wouldn’t work. If changed at all, it could possibly work as one-line but it needs the pause after kisses to bring out the thought . . . where could this be going?” — Pris Campbell
Allow for longer (and shorter) line lengths
In his essay, “Writing Haiku: The Two-Line Form,” David Grayson presents some of the pitfalls to be aware of when composing two-line haiku:
“The differences inherent in the two-line haiku add up: varying rhythms, restrained pivoting and cutting, less room for a seasonal element, and less opportunity for lineation. When combining these factors, it’s apparent that the two-line form is unique and sometimes unforgiving. Even if a two-liner is successful in working with these constraints, that success may still feel very different from the haiku that readers are familiar with and expect.”
He then goes on to describe circumstances in which one might prefer to write haiku in two lines: to magnify the impact of line one against line two (an effect which Grayson refers to as proximity), to sharply focus the poem by fading out the background, to compose shorter lines (think of Hall’s poem above), or to compose haiku with longer lines.
The following poem, from Pamela A. Babusci, is an example of the latter:
leaves blanket the graves of strangers
i have forgotten spring’s radiance
Pamela A. Babusci
“i wrote in a two-line form because i felt it flowed better; that the reader could naturally pause between the two juxtaposed images and feel/see the imagery.” — Pamela A. Babusci
In “Duostich: Navigating Unicorns,” Alan Summers shares his thoughts and correspondence with Michael Lindenhofer regarding two-line (duostich) haiku. Lindenhofer wrote Summers to say (in part):
“I have been studying some of your 2-line haiku quite a while to get a feel for the line breaks. Really, it’s not so easy . . .
They basically consist of two components, each claiming its own line. A third line would be too much of a good thing. And welding them together into a single line would not help either, because the seam would stand out too clearly. In the real one-liners, the basic components are so neatly put together that the seams are barely visible. Sometimes one shimmers here, sometimes there.”
I love Lindenhofer’s description of the “seams” in haiku. Perhaps the cut in a two-line haiku holds the key to this elusive form?
“Three line haiku are often constrained by a Western notion of enjambment and what a haiku is, and what it should look like on the ‘page’.”
He then explains his reasons for using a two-line form for several poems, including this one:
a wardrobe slaps closed
tinywords issue 21.1, March 2021
Presentation: Haiku North America 2021 Conference: ‘Schrödinger’s MA and the segue axis,’ by Alan Summers
Do I force it into a tercet:
a wardrobe slaps
The first tercet version almost works but feels it’s a three statement construct:
1. winter’s end
2. a wardrobe slaps
I don’t get the inclusiveness of the atmosphere that I wish to be generated. Let’s see if a ‘monoku’ works better:
winter’s end a wardrobe slaps closed
It’s a little bit better although it does feel crude and almost shouting that the end of the winter season is ‘a wardrobe slapped closed’ as if it’s a blunt force trauma simile or metaphor instead of a more gently immersed figure of speech in one reading and not disrupting the simple last seasonal guest or employee or manager etc. . . doing house management and closing the vacation venue for the season.
A wardrobe could slap an end to the winter season but again, the duostich seems to have the superior enjambment or coupled power of the (two) lines in parallel and relationship.
Summers’ words seem in conflict with Grayson’s assertions. Are haiku restrained or freed by the pivot and cut of two lines? Clearly, we need to write more two-line haiku to sort this out!
Grayson, David. “Writing Haiku: The Two-Line Form,” in Frogpond 38.3, Autumn 2015.
Gurga, Lee with Charles Trumbull. Haiku: A Poet’s Guide (Madison, Wisconsin: Modern Haiku Press, 2003).
Kacian, Jim. How to Haiku (Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2006)
Summers, Alan. “Duostich: Navigating Unicorns,” in The Pan-Haiku Review, Issue One, Spring 2023.
MORE TO EXPLORE
Haiku Column, a Facebook group devoted to 2-line haiku.
Have you written two-line haiku? Why did you choose to use this form? Do you have strong feelings on enjambment? Let us know in the comments!
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My thanks to Pamela A. Babusci, Rowan Beckett, Susan Burch, Pris Campbell, Kat Lehmann, Marietta McGregor, Alan Summers, and Charlie Trumbull for their kind help with this article. Any errors are mine.