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HAIKU TITLES?
 

by Elizabeth St Jacques ©1999, 2001



 
 
 

Those of us familiar with Western haiku journals, collections, and  anthologies are well aware that a titled haiku is the exception rather than the rule. During the early years of North American haiku, however, titled haiku were popular.

It's safe to assume that Harold G. Henderson's "The Bamboo Broom" (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1934) - the first significant instructional haiku book in North America that was expanded and revised in 1958 under the title "An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Basho to Shiki" (Doubleday & Company, Inc.) was largely responsible for titled haiku. Therein, all haiku not only bear titles, but are rhymed only because it was felt that western poets could more easily identify with and (hopefully) better understand haiku. These beliefs have gone the way of the dinosaurs: successful modern haiku are rhyme-free and in all but the rarest of cases, without titles as well. 

In time, Professor Henderson, in collaboration with other North Americans serious in their study of haiku, would develop haiku to better accommodate the English language without burdening haiku with Western embellishments. (Consult "A Haiku Path: The Haiku Society of America, 1968-1988" published by The Haiku Society of America, 1994)  Western haiku continued to evolve so that today, haiku range from 1 to 4 lines with few syllables. 

The challenge of haiku is to capture a "now" moment in seventeen or fewer syllables. In only the rarest case is a title necessary simply because a skillful haiku poet can usually work in all necessary images. Allow me to offer my titled haiku as a case in point: 

Motorcycle Moment 

for one full mile
the big blue heron
flying at my side

When this appeared in Frogpond, Vol. XII:2, 1989, I was relatively new to haiku. With more experience, this haiku has been revised several times. The final version is as follows:
motorcycle ride . . .
at my side for one full mile 
the great blue heron
Perhaps you will agree that this version has all the necessary ingredients?

For anyone to insist that Western haiku SHOULD have titles then, is to suggest that Western poets are incapable of fitting necessary images into seventeen or fewer syllables. Today's active haiku poets are knowledgeable enough to know such a statement cannot and should not be taken seriously. 
 

A slightly different version was first published in POETS’ FORUM, Vol 10:4, 1999 under the title “Should Haiku Have Titles?” The above is a revised and expanded version.

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