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Mount Orégano
Sue Burke
Haiku cut: kireji 
6th-Jun-2012 11:23 am

Haiku is plagued by rules, some of which are false. Others are little-known but essential.

False: the idea that a haiku consists of 3-5-3 lines. I'll let Gabi Greve and Haiku Society discuss that. In Japanese, there is a count, but it's not exactly English syllables.

Fewer people know about the kireji, or "cutting word." In Japanese, these act sort of like punctuation or add grammatical structure, and function similarly to the volta or turn in a classic sonnet. The kireji cuts the poem into two parts. In Japanese, a kireji may indicate a question, emphasis, surprise, completion, probability, cause, or interrelationship.

In English, these words are sometimes represented by punctuation, such as colons, dashes, commas, ellipsis, exclamation points, or question marks (: — , … ! ?) or words like but, how, and, yet, now, this, still (and a lot more) or simply by a line break.

Kireji link two ideas. The best haiku have more depth than a simple observation; they link an observation, often about the changes in nature and its seasons, to something else.

Kireji also free the poet from the constraints of a sentence. Words can be left out, and fragments of sentences can be connected to create both emphasis and brevity. (If you love 17-syllable sentences, you may wish to investigate the poetic form of American sentences.)

How does this work? Here are some of my haiku, offered humbly to avoid plagiarizing other better poets:

hard to say:
which day did the robins
leave town?

Christmas eve —
the woman in the checkout line
blinking back tears

back to school —
even the playground trees
are taller

old man
thinks no one is watching
and limps
(Here and is the kireji.)

bus stop
an empty bench
and a bag lunch
(It's and again.)

songbird hatchling
dead on the sidewalk
but Spring does not pause

on last year's poinsettia
a red leaf
(line breaks)

open gate
a girl climbs the playground fence
(Here the kireji is anyway. The location at the end of the haiku brings you back to the beginning, and gives an emotional closure to the poem.)

These haiku also include the traditional immediacy and personal experience — I saw all those things and was inspired by them. Something happened in the context of something else that created a meaning beyond the words themselves.


Recommended resources for learning more about Haiku:

World Haiku Review archives

Happy Haiku Archives

— Sue Burke
Also posted at my professional writer's website: http://www.sue.burke.name

6th-Jun-2012 12:11 pm (UTC)
6th-Jun-2012 12:41 pm (UTC)
Can anyone translate?
6th-Jun-2012 12:52 pm (UTC)
I tried Google Translate and this is what I got:

"Anyway, Just like female doctor of personnel from Toyama, I'll too stiff this teacher."

Since I speak Spanish, I tried translating to that language, too, but it wasn't much more clear:

"De todos modos, igual que del personal médico femenino de Toyama, voy demasiado rígido a este profesor."
8th-Jun-2012 03:13 pm (UTC)
Google isn't all that far off. Rendered a little freely:

Anyways, [just] like a woman doctor from Toyama, this teacher's a square, aren't they.

Toyama's on the north shore of Japan, and while it's not the boonies of the far north, it's still considered something of a backwater, especially by the central urban areas. I've no idea the relevance or reputation of the medical profession there.


Edited at 2012-06-08 03:14 pm (UTC)
8th-Jun-2012 05:42 pm (UTC)
Thanks. I think the meaning hangs on a cultural reference I have no clue about. I live in Spain, so I know how that goes.
8th-Jun-2012 08:21 pm (UTC)
9th-Jun-2012 03:45 pm (UTC)

I'll let Gabi Greve and Haiku Society discuss that. In Japanese, there is a count, but it's not exactly English syllables.

While the Japanese mora not exactly an English syllable, it's close enough the the difference not worth fiddling over, especially given (and for some reason this is almost never mentioned in English discussions) the mora/syllable count is not and never was strict. Long lines with an extra syllable or two are not uncommon, even in Basho's works. This imprecision goes back to the origins of waka. 5-7-5 is the ideal, but never rigidly required.


Edited at 2012-06-09 03:45 pm (UTC)
10th-Jun-2012 06:52 pm (UTC)
True, but I think better haiku would be written if their authors spent more time thinking about kireji than counting syllables. The definition of a good haiku is far more complex than merely writing something 5-7-5.

In addition, in Japanese, words can go in almost any order, and overall it uses fewer syllables than English, and the punctuation is voiced, so counting syllables yields a different outcome than in Japanese.
11th-Jun-2012 03:28 am (UTC)
in Japanese, words can go in almost any order, and overall it uses fewer syllables than English

Could you unpack those two statements?

I ask, because they go counter to my experience. Which is to say, for the first, Japanese is very strict about always putting the main verb last (absent any sentence final particles acting as punctuation), and about putting words that modify in front of the word they modify. This in contrast to inflected languages, such as Latin where the word order really is almost completely flexible. As for the second, when I translate from Japanese, on average I find the English takes up fewer rather than more syllables,* and the reverse when going the other direction. It's as if Japanese has about 80% the semantic density of English, and so needs more space to say the same thing.

* Even when the text doesn't have punctuating particles.

Agreed about a cut being more important than syllable count. It's like how having a volta is more important to a sonnet than a specific rhyme scheme.


Edited at 2012-06-11 03:30 am (UTC)
11th-Jun-2012 12:56 pm (UTC)
Apparently I've been misled about the Japanese language. Thanks for the correction.

But your remark about the semantic density reminds me of a joke a translator friend here in Europe told me. He said that an English-language text of 300 words becomes 400 when translated into Spanish, and 500 into French, but when translated into German, it's only three words -- three very, very long words.
11th-Jun-2012 02:19 pm (UTC)
Heh. Yeah, that sort of density. Japanese would be roughly equivalent to Spanish in that joke. (One way to think about it is that there are fewer sounds in Japanese than in English, and so words have to be lengthened to distinguish senses.)

28th-Jun-2012 10:49 pm (UTC)
Good post, Sue. I'll be linking to it elsewhere. I particularly appreciate your clear and detailed explanation of kireji. Now that I understand them, I might start using them!
28th-Jun-2012 10:53 pm (UTC)
Great discussion with inhammer, too.
29th-Jun-2012 05:48 pm (UTC)
Thanks, glad to help.
29th-Jun-2012 10:08 pm (UTC)
When I look at my stuff, I think I have been using line endings that way, but it's good to have more options and a better understanding.
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