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Haiku Maven: The Trouble With Haiku Fads

hm_logo Dear Haiku Maven, I notice that increasingly one-line haiku poems are appearing in the journals. Modern Haiku had about a quarter of the poems in the one-line format in the last issue, whereas a decade ago Modern Haiku published almost no poems in this format. Even The Heron’s Nest has started publishing a few one-line poems. What is going on? Is this a fashion, a fad, an easier way to get published? And can I simply delete my line breaks and call my haiku “one-liners”?

Signed, Out On a Limbo

Dear Limbo, You are correct that one-line haiku, also known as monoku or monostitch are in vogue. In recent years, more and more contest prizes have been awarded to one-line haiku. There is even an anthology of one-line haiku in the works. Sometimes this type of haiku is a one-hit wonder by poets who most often write in three lines. These poets like to experiment with a form just because it is there. For them, one-line haiku is a bit like Mount Everest. It has to be climbed just once. So in that sense, yes, one-line haiku is a fad. But for other haiku poets, one-line haiku is their preferred form, and they consistently produce successful monoku. It is not difficult to spot when the form does not work. This can happen for any number of reasons, but often is the result of a haiku poet’s unnatural attempt to turn three lines into one, hoping that the form will prove “an easier way to get published.” A tell-tale sign of a former three line haiku, now monoku, is too many images. The secret of one-line haiku is that it is very difficult to write a good one. In effective one-line haiku the meaning is not obvious; it requires a deeper reading. And although monoku may be enjoying some popularity, Haiku Maven hesitates to label this upsurge the current fashion. One-line haiku have been with us since the last century in English-language haiku and for many centuries in Japanese haiku, which traditionally is written in one vertical line. If you would like to start your own fashion, try your hand at two-line haiku. The rarity of this form would guarantee that your haiku, if well-written, would stand out on the printed page.

The Haiku Maven posts each Friday to The Haiku Foundation blog. Haiku Maven offers advice about awkward situations involving haiku poets. The word maven comes from the Yiddish meyvn, meaning “one who understands.” Please use our Contact page to send a question. Haiku Maven will select a pseudonym for you based on your question. Click this link to see the Haiku Maven archive. Feel free to leave comments.

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. P.P.S. The Marlene Mountain kittens being born haiku only goes up to the number 5. Sorry for misremembering.


  2. P.S. each line of my haiku after the first line should be indented from the previous line. Unfortunately, when posting, that aspect disappeared. I think that combining meaning with visual appearance, it just works better that way.


  3. I think for a one-line haiku to work best, it has to have a strong sense of being ‘cut’ in some fashion.

    I think Marlene Mountain’s “pig and I spring rain” works because of this effect. And if she tried to break such a short poem up into lines, it would slow it down too much. One reason it works so well is its quality of ‘breathlessness’ (not to be confused with the English-language haiku myth of haiku being a ‘one-breath’ poem).

    Hiroaki Sato has long translated Japanese haiku into one line in English. This can lead to a sense of unwieldiness, at least in my opinion.

    Then there is the four-line haiku, as seen in Nobuyuki Yuasa’s translations. People have written English-language haiku in one, two, three, and four lines. I think five lines or more is stretching the meaning of haiku a little, although Marlene Mountain has written a poem about kittens being born, that ‘dribbles’ down the page, including the numbers 1 through 8.

    As recently as the early 1980s, a poet writing under the pen name “Tao-Li” (at least I think it is a pen name) wrote haiku in three vertical columns, one word to each line in each column. His haiku could just as easily have been written in the more ‘traditional’ three-line format, each column being converted back into a horizontal line.

    Here is a four-line haiku I wrote recently. I think it needs this format, although I’m sure others will think otherwise, and I’m sure some will think it’s not a haiku:

    (for Georg Trakl)

    the flowers on their stems
    the flowers in our eyes


  4. On the Modern Haiku website, under “featured essays,” there is a good paper by Jim Kacian on this topic: “The Shape Of Things To Come.”

    I only began to try a few poems in one-line in the last few years. I often write poems that are longer than haiku in general, which I feel are better because of studying haiku. I agree that the poem decides the form.

    As I write this comment, I remember a luncheon for teachers years ago. The parent volunteers created a beautiful meal and setting. One person said, “If it’s done right, it looks like it only took a minute.”


  5. ” So that’s what it boils down to for me — is a one-line form best for the particular POEM in question?” – Michael

    Hear, hear! 🙂 I don’t think this can be said often enough, since it’s all too often forgotten. Haiku cannot be defined by form. Form is a vehicle. We choose the vehicle which best suits what we have to say. Cadence (not syllable count) is vital to EL haiku (or any kind of poem) and interacts with meaning, changing it, allowing a variety of nuance. 3-line haiku and 1-line haiku offer different ways of working with cadence and therefore of modulating meaning.

    (No, Limbo, you cannot simply whack your 3-liner into 1-line form and expect it to pass for a monoku, but you might try it as an exercise in distinguishing what’s lost and what might be found)

    Though there are many who choose to write either 3-line or 1-line haiku only, I personally find I need both options in my toolbox. At this point in EL haiku history, 1-line haiku (or ‘monoku’) seems almost as normative as 3-line haiku to me.

    John Stevenson is right about the difficulty of presenting monoku on a website designed, in columns, for 3-line haiku, though. We manage to find ways around that. Thank heaven for our dedicated and very hardworking webmasters!

    – Lorin

  6. Sometimes, when I write a three line haiku I find that it just feels too long for the moment I’m trying to put into words. Then (slow that I am!) it dawns on me that it is often just three or four words… I’ve always felt that haiku is a bit of an exclamation! I feel my best haiku were one breath haiku… although I may not always find the way to do it. But when I find the fewest words… and allow them to merge into each other it can be a delightful experience…when it’s right.

  7. Martin, I think the three-line version works best for your poem. The two-line version feels unnatural, at least for haiku, but that’s probably a conditioned response. At any rate, the subject here is one-line haiku and whether it’s a fad. I remember Edith Shiffert once saying that there aren’t any real rules for haiku, just fashions. I think she’s right. And I think the increasing attention on one-line haiku in English is simply one of those evolving fashions in haiku. Personally, I’ve always thought we were fortunate in English-language haiku in that we have various ways to present the poem (most commonly): one line, three lines, vertically (one or two words per line), and other variations. They’re all different arrows in the quivver, and it’s great to be able to choose the best arrow for the job. So that’s what it boils down to for me — is a one-line form best for the particular POEM in question? Make that the focus, not trying to get published just because there might be an increase in one-liners seeing publication.

  8. Here is an original attempt of mine that I now question and think three lines with the 2-3-2 beat may come closer to the Japanese rhythm. There is the main cut separating the fragment from the phrase but with three line breaks there is emphasis on L2‘s verb…?

    sun shower
    a twig settles in the cloud

    sun shower
    a twig settles
    in the cloud

  9. Not sure I understand your comment, Rob. John is not a magisterial type. He is one of six volunteer Editors (and a webmaster) and by duty, speaks for us.

    -Paul (MacNeil)
    Associate Editor, The Heron’s Nest

  10. Hey John, here’s a glib suggestion for your signature:

    John R. Stevenson
    The Managing Editor
    Of The Heron’s Nest

  11. Hey Maven,

    Since The Heron’s Nest is mentioned, I think I should explain that the reason our journal has not previously featured more haiku in one (or two) lines is that technical aspects of the original 1999 web design made this impossible. Our submission guidelines have always stated, “To The Heron’s Nest, it is far more important for a poem to embody the spirit of haiku than for it to cleave to a particular pat form.” While this was primarily offered for guidance about whether or not a 5-7-5 structure was required, the principle holds for us when applied to questions of line count. Send us your best haiku!

    John Stevenson
    Managing Editor
    The Heron’s Nest

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