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Reading One-Line Haiku with Kat and Robin: Blurring the Boundaries

Today’s column is a guest post about how to read one-line haiku from Kat Lehmann and Robin Anna Smith, co-editors of whiptail: journal of the single-line poem. This post is the third in a series of articles, which have been tagged as whiptail monoku series so you can easily read them all together. My thanks to Kat and Robin for sharing their expertise with New to Haiku!

Blurring the Boundaries

Many haiku include a juxtaposition or comparison between two images or elements. By placing two elements adjacent to one another, we arrive at a more profound understanding of the nature of each element.

A technique that is available in one-line haiku is that the two elements can be presented in a way that is more slippery or more compressed than in three-line haiku. One word might have the ability to function as both a noun and a verb, so fewer words are needed to express the poem. Or perhaps one string of words hints at the second string of words, so the idea can be presented more succinctly without the need to elaborate on each element.

In the first poem, the word “sighs” functions as both noun and verb. We feel the action of the verb in the way “how the wind sighs” blurs into “every September song” as if it is blowing straight through the line. Yet “sighs” as a noun—or “wind sighs” as noun phrase—could be read as a metaphor for “every September song” further reinforcing meaning yet with efficiency of verbiage.

how the wind sighs every September song

– Beverly Acuff Momoi
whiptail: journal of the single-line poem, Issue 1

As Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” These approaches to haiku, although they might play with “proper” syntax, sometimes hit a deeper note because they express what we know intuitively—that everything is related to everything else. When a poem about a bird feels like it is also about us, that may be because it is hinting to our bird-nature, and the bird’s human nature. We are blurred together, which may be part of the deeper truth within the poem. This is one way we can “tell the truth, slant” in haiku.

In Japanese, something similar to this is called hosomi or “thinness,” which describes a lowering of the facade of discrete personhood in favor of oneness and the non-objectification of nature. When we view the world through the lens of thinness, we do not think of the tree as being separate from ourselves. I am the tree, and you are the tree. What tree-ness within us surfaces within this moment that we want to express?

the river taking wing with each upstroke of his prayer

– Julie Schwerin
whiptail: journal of the single-line poem, Issue 2

In Julie’s poem, we can feel the oneness of the river, a prayer, and a bird, which enhances the poem’s power as if all of nature is a part of the prayer.

learning to become no one firefly

– Deborah A. Bennett
whiptail: journal of the single-line poem, Issue 4

Deborah’s poem has multiple readings. The first reading indicates that we are learning to become “no one firefly,” which perhaps means we are learning to become all fireflies. In another reading, we see a break as “learning to become no one / firefly”. In our firefly nature, we are learning to become no one, periodically turning our light on and off.  The first reading feels expansive, and the second reading feels diminishing. These seemingly contrary readings suggest a truth that we can sit within these feelings of connection with everyone and connection with no one at different times.

One way to approach writing haiku that blurs the boundaries is a technique described by Alan Summers called Slip-Realism. Using this technique, our senses take the lead and an impressionistic view conveys the scene. In the below poem, the train station is comprised of eyes, and the feeling of searching in a crowded area is expressed with minimal words:

rush hour the train station cornea by cornea

– Alan Summers
Second Prize, The Australian Haiku Society Spring Haiga Kukai: Non-Seasonal, 2017

Poems that connect scale from the micro to the grandiose can blur the boundaries too. Here is a poem that zooms out from the blue flowers of a single plant to a view that observes our planet from space.

ground ivy flowering the small blue earth

– Peggy Willis Lyles
Roadrunner, Nov 2008

What other examples of poems can you share that utilize the concept of “thinness” or blurred boundaries—between self and other, between elements of our environment, or between units of scale? What are some other ways that blurring boundaries can lead to a more resonant or effective haiku, to express the essence of a moment that would be difficult to do otherwise? Can you write a poem that blurs the boundaries between eras of time or between eras of your life? Feel free to share your thoughts and examples in the comments!

Kat Lehmann and Robin Anna Smith are the Founding Editors of whiptail: journal of the single line poem. They are both Touchstone award-winning poets who currently volunteer at The Haiku Foundation’s Touchstone Awards as Panelist for Distinguished Books (Kat) and Coordinator for Individual Poems (Robin).

We’d love to hear from you in the comments. The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy for more information.

Julie Bloss Kelsey is the current Secretary of The Haiku Foundation. She started writing haiku in 2009, after discovering science fiction haiku (scifaiku). She lives in Maryland with her husband and kids. Julie's first print poetry collection, Grasping the Fading Light: A Journey Through PTSD, won the 2021 Women’s International Haiku Contest from Sable Books. Her ebook of poetry, The Call of Wildflowers, is available for free online through Moth Orchid Press (formerly Title IX Press). Her most recent collection, After Curfew, is available from Cuttlefish Books. Connect with her on Instagram @julieblosskelsey.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Great article! 🙂

    A good piece to keep returning to about the blurring theme and other aspects covered here.

    I did like: “A technique that is available in one-line haiku is that the two elements can be presented in a way that is more slippery… ”

    A single line that has to be its own poem without backup or a safety net! 🙂

    A single line and a haiku as slippery as a perceived snake in sandy or grassy terrain is a great image. As well as the issue that a snake can shed its skin and morph mythically or become snakestones, believed to have once been fairies, then changed into snakes. All of this in a line without the aid of props perhaps.

    Here’s an aural transition or blurring from night to morning. Often it’s blackbirds that begin at dawn before other birds, and are last into the dusk, when the light has gone dimpsey. Is the human component a shift worker (Lates or Nights 2pm-10pm or 10pm-6am) coming home? Is there a human component, who is doing what shift (routine/work).

    nightfall the key turns into a blackbird

    Alan Summers
    First published: Blithe Spirit 31.4 November 2021 ed. Caroline Skanne

    Award Credit
    Runner up: Museum of Haiku Literature
    (Blithe Spirit vol. 32 no. 1, February 2022)

    The Unseen Go-Between in Haiku by Alan Summers
    Haiku Society of America newsletter, Haiku Spotlight (January 2022)

    Articulation of the Single Line Haiku by Alan Summers
    Essay credit: Blithe Spirit vol.33 no.1 ed. Iliyana Stoyanova (February 2023)

    Featured haiku:
    Haiku Commentary (Digging deep into the small things)
    ed. Nicholas Klacsanzky & Hifsa Ashraf with Jacob Salzer
    (October 2022)

    Anthology credits:

    amber i pause
    Triveni Haikai India Volunteer Dhanyavaad anthology
    ed. Kala Ramesh, Lakshmi Iyer, and Teji Sethi (2022)

    The Wise Owl Haiku Renditions
    Zoom companion collection
ed. Neena Singh & Alan Summers
    (pamphlet, January 2023)

    Alan’s Wise Owl literary magazine solo ZOOM reading (January 2023):

    The thin veil is mentioned and even encountered in many cultures, and we all run the thread which often becomes a dash in our engraved gravestone dates.

  2. A really interesting article and thought provoking. Compression is certainly a clear function and I’m very taken by the concept of ‘slipperiness’ in meaning and reception. However, I’m not sure the juxtaposition of ideas is essentially more profound in a single line haiku over a three line haiku. I think it depends on the poet’s skill. Monoku provide the opportunity to demand rereadings to attain understandings but the three line structure can also achieve this if the use of juxtaposition uses subtlety in delivery. Both forms have their place in the delivery of experience.

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