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by Elizabeth St Jacques(c)1992

Given that one of the main haiku rules is brevity, the arrival of the
extra-lean or "skeletal" haiku was inevitable. While some one- or 
two-word haiku are extremely clever, I regret to say that few touch me
the way I've come to expect of haiku. It seems to me that in the quest
for brevity, one of haiku's most pleasurable ingredients is being 
challenged: rhythm. 

Think for a moment about the variety of rhythms that pulsate through 
each day: wind, breeze, watersound, birdsong, barking dogs, the drone
of traffic, bangs, bumps, whistles, whispers,  heartbeats, breathing.
We are comprised of rhythms, saturated in rhythms, move with rhythm. 

Although we learn to ignore some rhythms, they register in our 
subconscious simply because they exist, while other rhythms that 
please the spirit are accepted willingly. Considering that rhythm is 
an integral part of our reality, isn't it appropriate that a certain
amount be reflected in the haiku we write?

Haiku masters, although not emphasizing the importance of musical 
quality in haiku, clearly acknowledged it. Consider Basho's

	old pond . . .
	a frog leaps in
	water's sound

While the brief first line bluntly sets the scene - plop, you are 
here - a melodic sound to "pond" urges one to linger, even without 
the ellipsis. The action in the second line suggests a quickness, yet 
because this is the longest line in the poem (and because I've yet to 
hear "frog" said with any degree of curtness), my mind sees the frog 
almost in slow motion as it leaps in, thus the unfolding of a small 
crescendo. The third line, one syllable longer than the first,with the 
long emphasis on "water", amplifies the musical rhythm, physical and 
implied. Because the rhythms work so well, this haiku is not only 
pleasing to the mind, but to the ear as well. 

Did the masters, in their instruction on the form, choose not to 
dwell on rhythm because it is regarded as a poetic device, many such
devices being discouraged in haiku? Maybe so. Nevertheless, rhythm 
is frequently strong in their work, even in translation, and deserves
some thought. 

Let's do the unthinkable: suppose Basho's frog haiku was tightened,
omitting "old" and "a". Not as pleasurable, is it? Why then, if not 
-- in large part -- for musical quality, are these words included? 
Perhaps Basho and those who followed (not to forget the translators) 
were well aware that poetry without some euphonic quality loses its 
impact overall.

Rhythm has long been an effective creative technique used to arouse 
certain feelings, to create a particular mood. It is found in all 
forms of writing as well as in art. British essayist and critic 
Walter Pater once said that all art constantly applies towards the 
condition of music. 

Is it not true that art that contains music/rhythm is created with 
beauty, even if the subject matter  is not beautiful? Canadian 
literary critic and novelist, H.R. Percy has a stronger view of this:
The act of creation that is not striving for beauty (in the broadest
sense) is an abomination. As I see it, musical rhythm that floats, 
romps, or rumbles through a creative piece not only enhances the 
overall beauty of a piece, but enhances interpretation and 

It is interesting that Cor van den Heuvel, one of North America's 
most respected haiku poets, when discussing the growth of the haiku 
movement in The Haiku Anthology, chose the term singing songs to 
describe haiku. Later in his book, he analyzes John Wills' one-line 
haiku saying, The iambic flow of the line, combined with the bird's 
movements, draws everything together into a unity ....: 

     dusk   from rock to rock a waterthrush

Flow=rhythm=unity. Surely a formula worth remembering. And John Wills
accomplishes it all in nine syllables! Working with motion, texture, 
and sharp images, Wills creates a lilting quality in this haiku that 
is vivid, active, and pleasing to the ear and mind. Cor van den Heuvel's 
attention to the singing quality of haiku suggests to me that he 
considers it an important and pleasing attribute as well. 

Longer haiku naturally allow for musical rhythm, but what about 
shorter haiku - minimal haiku, for example? After all, the purpose 
of ultra-brief haiku is to condense a moment as tightly as possible 
so that its "ahhness"  is even more acute. That is understood.  
Nevertheless, some minimal poems contain musical quality. For instance, 
consider Emily Romano's 


Like John Wills' one-line haiku, Romano's contains sharp images and 
a lilting quality. Romano's poem, however, unfolds with delightful 
rhythm using only seven syllables. Compare the above haiku with the 
following two-syllable haiku by the same author:


A  clever thought, but in two-or three-syllable haiku, the absence 
of music and emotion leaves a hollowness that indicates mere 
gimmickry. I'm not convinced this is the way haiku  should  go. (This
is why I have not written more minimalist haiku.) 

As strongly as I feel about the importance of musical rhythm in haiku, I also
acknowledge the danger that the use of meter can be overdone, to the
point where  the  result resembles a jingle. This effect, however,  
seems to  occur  mostly among novices. With experience, newcomers usually 
outgrow this tendency. 

Brevity, yes. But let's not become obsessed with paring so closely 
to the bone that there is little meat left to savor. If haiku are to 
have true depth and beauty, arouse emotions, and leave deep imprints 
on the mind of the reader, can rhythm be sacrificed? Surely 
it has a rightful place in the haiku form.


Walter Pater, ed. The Penguin Dictionary of Quotations - London: 
Penguin Books, 1960, p. 278
H.R. Percy. The Mother Tongue - Toronto: Pottersfield Press, 1992, 
p. 51
Quote from Cor van den Heuvel, Ed. The Haiku Anthology- New York: 
Simon & Schuster, 1986, p. 340
Emily Romano's first haiku - Robert Spiess, Ed., Modern Haiku. 
Vol. XXI:1, 1990, p. 44
Emily Romano's second haiku - Robert Spiess, ed., Modern Haiku. 
Vol. XXIII:3,1992, p. 28  

A slightly different version of this article appeared in Woodnotes 14, 
1992 under the title The Importance of Rhythm in Haiku.  In the 
original article, the author incorrectly quoted the name P.C. Percy; 
it should have read H.R. Percy.

HAIKU LIGHT: Modern haiku.



Elizabeth St Jacques