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Reading One-Line Haiku with Kat and Robin: Feeling the Real within the Impossible

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 second in a series of articles at New to Haiku, which have been tagged as whiptail monoku series so you can read them all together. My thanks to Kat and Robin for sharing their expertise with New to Haiku!

Reading One-Line Haiku: Feeling the Real within the Impossible

One thought about haiku is that of the “haiku moment”—a mindful, meditative practice that captures “a moment” that happened. But does a haiku moment need to be something tangible, that physically occurred? Or can a haiku moment be internal, a wordless shift, or an epiphany that happens inside? Can a haiku moment be imaginative or based on our memories or feelings? There are as many types of haiku moments as there are types of haiku. Just because something that happened cannot be touched or seen does not make it less “real.”

How can we express something that is not tangible using concrete images, which are often used as building blocks in haiku? Let’s look at some examples of haiku that have an “impossible” literal reading but express something very real.

two slices of bread with birdsong between
– Hemapriya Chellappan
whiptail: journal of the single-line poem, Issue 4, 2022

Here’s a haiku about a birdsong sandwich. Perhaps this is about taking a break outdoors on a busy day and the grounding feeling of spending time with nature: “two slices of bread” implying lunch or a snack, with “birdsong” becoming their companion (while the protagonist may really be alone) and it is occurring “between” (meetings, classes, etc.). But let’s go beyond that. What is the flavor of birdsong?  We can feel the delight of something as special as birdsong between two slices of bread. If the poet had instead used their favorite sandwich item—let’s say hummus—we might get caught in the specifics. Perhaps the reader does not like hummus at all, and the poem would evoke a negative response. With “birdsong,” we feel the goodness of what the protagonist is holding. Perhaps it’s not the filling, but the person who made the sandwich that makes it special. In another reading, it’s possible the entire haiku is a metaphor for the feeling that comes with having a really good day: everything we need and a little magic too!

the moon x the moon ÷ the moon
– Fay Aoyagi
roadrunner, Issue 10.1, 2010

The moon typically brings with it an element of mystery, and there could be any range of responses to this type of poem based on the feelings this mathematical statement evokes. This idea is expressed in a way that the reader experiences an unsolved secret: the moon’s value cannot be quantified. Explaining the feeling would leave it flat, but instead, the poem unfolds naturally in the reader’s mind. The word “moon” by itself is considered to be the full moon in autumn, a season associated with harvesting from previous work but also approaching more difficult times. This could be read as a Triple Goddess poem—each “moon” representing one of the three figures (maiden, mother, crone), but functioning as a trinity, thus one “moon.” Perhaps multiplication represents the maiden phase moving into mother phase and division moving from the mother to crone? Perhaps this is three generations of women together—daughter, mother, and grandmother? Could it represent Tsukuyomi (God of the Moon) chasing Amaterasu (Goddess of the Sun and his estranged wife) through his cycles, only to wind up starting over where he began and never catch up with her (which is why we don’t see her in the poem)? It could be as simple as describing the movement of moonlight across a particular room. The poem is open enough to allow the reader to discover other instances or cycles of this “moonness” and what it means to build then reduce, yet arrive back where we began. The lack of an equal sign suggests the cycle is without limit.

i stop sweating fireflies
– elmedin kadric
light packing, Red Moon Press, 2020

We initially read straight through this poem like the sentence: “I stop sweating fireflies.” To stop sweating fireflies, the protagonist would have to be sweating fireflies in the first place, which we know isn’t physically possible. But we can draw a parallel between each tiny bead of sweat and individual fireflies—the sweat beads that seem to magically evaporate and the fireflies that seem to disappear into the dark as quickly as they appear. We, too, can get this effect if we slow down our reading and pause after the word “sweating”: i stop sweating . . . fireflies. One does not have to employ punctuation or gaps in their one-line haiku to allow for an effect such as this. Readers can fill it in with their own hesitations and pauses and do not have to be forced into a particular read, thus limiting the scope of the poem. As it is written, the four words provide a trudging rhythm that complements the labor implied by the “sweating.” It is possible that literal fireflies appear after the protagonist stops sweating (perhaps after stopping an activity to rest), but it is also possible that the “fireflies” are metaphorical. Might these “fireflies” not be fireflies at all but a meteor shower, a dizzy spell, or a lover’s kiss?

acres of wildflowers holding on to my maiden name
– Antoinette Cheung
whiptail: journal of the single-line poem, Issue 4, 2022

We know flowers cannot literally hold onto someone’s name, so let’s think of some possibilities to link the concrete imagery of wildflower fields to the intangible concept of a family name. “Holding on to my maiden name” implies the protagonist has married and retained her surname of birth. Maiden names can hold meaning about identity as an individual or connect with heritage and ancestry. Perhaps the “acres of wildflowers” refer to her relation to a large and diverse family or to a specific desire to maintain a bond with her cultural identity. Perhaps they refer to looking back with fondness on more carefree, unrestrained days. Although we cannot know the specific basis of the sentiment, this is not needed for us to appreciate the feeling behind the “acres of wildflowers” image. The reader can step into the poem and experience the abundance and deep ties the poet associates with her maiden name. This image builds weight with the “holding” as we empathize with the protagonist’s desire to retain her cultural and/or personal premarital identity.

What other meanings might you draw from the above poems?  As a minimalistic poetry genre, the reader will often bring something to the interpretation, context, and nuance of reading haiku, bringing an element of collaboration to arrive at the meaning(s). As we all come from different backgrounds with different lived experiences, the readings of poems go well beyond the words on the page or our presumptions about the poet’s motivation for writing the poem. We take these words in, and they get processed in our brains; we can’t assume all of our brains will process this information in the same manner. Things such as culture, education, vision, neurodiversity (autism, dyslexia, ADHD, et al.), and acquired brain injury (TBI, stroke, chronic illness, et al.) can factor in as well. What’s more, our reading of a particular poem might change over time as we change. If you have the opportunity to work with a haiku critique group, you might discover that part of the fun is seeing how different readers find different nuances in a particular poem!

Have you read an example of a one-line haiku that uses “impossible” language to convey an authentic experience or have a new reading of one of the poems discussed here? Feel free to share in the comments!

Kat Lehmann and Robin Anna Smith are the Founding Editors of whiptail: journal of the single line poem and Associate Editors at Sonic Boom. 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 book of poetry, The Call of Wildflowers, is available for free online through Title IX Press. Connect with her on Twitter @MamaJoules.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Dear Kat and Robin,

    Thank you so much for sharing such an enlightening article.

    It truly summarises and enhances the depth of words by Italian physicist Chiara Marletto.

    “As always happens with contradictions, something in the assumptions has to give… Declaring something impossible leads to more things being possible.”

    It is a pleasure to know and feel how science and poetry are beautifully interwoven through imagination and perceptiveness.

    A delightful post to savour again and again!

    Warm regards,
    Richa

  2. Wow!! This is amazing! Thanks much for explaining each of them so well. Really liked the impossible summing up the possible haiku moment!
    .
    I have one of mine, but there isn’t anything impossible, except I wanted to use a particular phrase, ‘poverty line’ which is a sensitive word in whichever way you see it.
    .

    under the same sky a different poverty line
    Bones 23, April 2022, ed. Johannes S.H. Bjerg

    .
    Thank you so much Kat and Robin!!

  3. re:

    two slices of bread with birdsong between

    – Hemapriya Chellappan
whiptail: journal of the single-line poem, Issue 4, 2022

    I’d have to say that Hemapriya Chellappan’s haiku is my favourite. There are a few haiku that are too open to interpretation and we can struggle as there is not enough of a handle. Not in this case! 🙂

    Here Hemapriya Chellappan’s haiku is truly inclusive, I feel.

    I can also see someone bringing bread to feed ducks, pigeons, swans, depending if it’s a park with a river or pond, a town or city square etc… Of course bread is unhealthy for birds and attracts rats. I can see a person who doesn’t have a lot of money, who might be alone, and can afford to bring a couple of slices of bread to break up, and spend an hour with the birds, and their songs.

    It’s a very simply phrased haiku and yet is so wonderfully expansive. It’s a distinctive case of what is celebratory and worth reading and re-reading many many times as it’s so uplifting. Whether a person is wealthy or poor, birdsong and bread can just make a difficult day more navigable.

    .

    .
    acres of wildflowers holding on to my maiden name

    – Antoinette Cheung
whiptail: journal of the single-line poem, Issue 4, 2022

    Another stunning haiku!

    Of course it can be ‘misread’ if we are either being too logical, and literal:

    [There] acres of wildflowers holding on to my maiden name.

    .

    Or we can be good adventourous explorative readers and/or poets, who understand a little about grammar, syntax and how we can bend it as writers or collaborative readers.

    .
    The poem feels crystal clear to me:

    .

    acres of wildflowers // holding on to my maiden name

    .

    This could be made into a duostich which might help some readers:

    acres of wildflowers
    holding on to my maiden name

    .

    But the fun with the present participle ‘ing’ verb is that we can deliberately engage with creative misreading! 🙂

    The magic is in the one line treatment here:

    acres of wildflowers holding on to my maiden name

    .
    Yes, someone is celebrating keeping/retaining their identity, whether single, married, separated, estranged, divorced, or even widowed.

    .

    I’m holding on to my maiden name.
    or
    I’m holding on to my maiden name!

    .
    And I am admiring these acres of wildflowers, having a well-deserved break/holiday/escape etc…

    By giving it the one line treatment, a creative reader, which we can all be, is the enjoyment of directional reading by our own request, and also being a conspirator with the author of the poem.

    .

    Two fabulous and creative haiku, inclusive and celebratory, and enticing us to be creative readers, if we so wish to be! 🙂

    .

  4. re:
    “Have you read an example of a one-line haiku that uses “impossible” language to convey an authentic experience or have a new reading of one of the poems discussed here??

    I guess I’ve not only done this a few times, but love to feel more free to do so in more recent years.

    .

    soonlight it switches the night snowfell

    Alan Summers
    World Haiku Series 2022 curated by Hideori Hiruta (January 2023)

    .
    I think ‘soonlight’ came as I heard or misheard, read or misread, a certain word or words.

    For anyone that has been in a situation where it’s important to see daylight, or suffered a long sleepless stressful night for possible reasons about the next day. If we are clock watching through a restless night, unable to believe only five minutes has passed…

    Or simply that the night is turned on its head, by a natural phenomenon. Is it “soon there will be light” or ‘soon, light’ or ‘please, light, soon!’ etc…

    Also what is present tense? As soon as we are aware of something we are part of the past, that again becomes present and then as quickly part of the larger past. How long is a piece of string, and how long does the present (continue to) exist? We can gauge ‘the past’ as minutes, hours, days, years, centuries, but when is ‘the present’?

    snowfell

    or

    snowfall

    Well, snow did fall, it fell, and might float down again, or perhaps it never fell, just wishful imagining by a boy wild about snow at a certain time of year.

    .

    1. ranunculus a field of ravens shifting the shimmer

      Alan Summers
      Kingfisher #4 ed. Tanya McDonald (October 2021)

      .
      Ravens look black until caught by the sun. A field, even with ravens, perhaps over-dry due to drought etc… might seem a little dull until it’s brightened up. Is this a wish to brighten up dry almost dustbowl of a field, and Ranunculus is that wish, becoming more verb than noun?

      Is there an allusion to Matsuo Bashō?
      The genus name Ranunculus is Late Latin for “little frog”, the diminutive of rana. This probably refers to many species being found near water, like frogs.

      And of course Matsuo Bashō is both famous for frogs (and ponds) and ravens/crows!

      So using a technical term from Late Latin, shifting a poem from ‘a nature verse’ to that closer to Natural History, might be risky, thankfully the journal editor does appreciate natural history terms!

      Latin Latin? 🙂
      Late Latin (Latin: Latinitas serior) is the scholarly name for the form of Literary Latin of late antiquity. English dictionary definitions of Late Latin date this period from the 3rd to the 6th centuries CE, and continuing into the 7th century in the Iberian Peninsula. This somewhat ambiguously defined version of Latin was used between the eras of Classical Latin and Medieval Latin. Scholars do not agree exactly when Classical Latin should end or Medieval Latin should begin. WIKIPEDIA

      Is “ranunculus” being stated here as “a field of ravens ‘shifting’ the shimmer” NOUN
      or
      Is “ranunculus” being stated here as a verb, as in a request from someone wanting colour in their life, or in a dried up field, as in a spell being uttered by someone wanting things to be brighter, more cheerful etc…

      So wave a magic stick and invoke “ranunculus that field!” 🙂

      Some people might see words, other than plain and ordinary, and obvious, as ‘impossible?!!!’

      The impossible is met every day somewhere.

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