Why You Can’t Write Haiku, Part 6

Twenty Syllable Translations

The extra budget in a twenty syllable haiku accommodates the wordiness of English, and the rhyme compensates, somewhat, for the lost Japanese poetic elements of the original. Some examples:

The scene is almost set for Spring to come:
A hazy moon, and blossoms on the plum.

Monsoonal rains; and then one night there shines,
As though by stealth, the moon between the pines.

How soon the morning-glory’s hour must end.
Alas, it too, can never be my friend.

Without a sound, the white camellia fell,
To sound the darkness of the deep stone well.

Magnificent. Do you hear the echo? Can you feel the cold stones around you? Do you see the white blossom falling away into the shadows below?

My favorite:

Deep in the summer shade, when leaves were mute,
I heard the Sunno Temple’s unblown flute.

Did you hear the unblown flute? I did.

For the reasons expressed above, I don’t consider English poems written in haiku style to be genuine haiku. They pay homage to the form, but necessarily omit the linguistic nuances mentioned, and they omit the calligraphic art inherent to haiku. Calligraphy can still play a part in English, but it is of a much different sort, without any artistic duality.


More often than not, therefore, the translation of a haiku into English fails to convey all of the cleverness or artistry of the original. The calligraphy, of course, is lost, and some haiku just won’t translate. In many older poems, the poet used an allusion to another, even older Japanese work. Although the translation of the haiku seems clear to the reader of the English version, he or she will not ordinarily be familiar with the reference, thus losing the context and associations that form an important part of that haiku. Some older haiku were so “clever” in this manner that, over the years, they have become incomprehensible even to Japanese scholars. Assonance, alliteration, and rhyme can also be lost for lack of English synonyms with the right vowels, consonants, or sound.

On the other hand, in the opinion of Japanese scholars, some fairly masterful English translations have been made of Japanese haiku. (This is not an easy thing to do, and good translators are woefully underappreciated.)

All things considered, although English language haiku are not fully equivalent to Japanese haiku, the haiku form is intrinsically such a good one that writing haiku in English is still worthwhile.

Reading haiku to an audience

Another problem inherent in the haiku form is that they do not usually come off well in poetry readings. The audience at a typical reading doesn’t become fully attentive until the poet has started to read. By the time they are focused, the poem is already finished.

What to do about this? I don’t think there really is a solution that will work for every audience. I simply avoid reading haiku at poetry readings.

Tricks for more effective haiku readings:

Before each haiku:

Play appropriate background music.
Warn the audience that a haiku is coming:
(e.g., project a slide illustration for each haiku)
Pause until you have full silence.

During each haiku:

Speak slowly,
Speak loudly enough to be heard.
Pause appropriately.

After each haiku:

Signal the end of each poem:
Turning the copy face down.
Change the slide.

Onward to the haiku!

Edisono Kata

Please add a comment or feel free to add one of your haiku below!

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