Haiku and Rhyme

By Rick Black

The general consensus these days is that haiku should not rhyme. It’s not clear what has forged this opinion among haiku writers – if anyone knows where this attitude originated, please do share it with us. It’s my sense, though, that people generally feel that since haiku don’t rhyme in Japanese, then they shouldn’t rhyme in English. Once again we are judging ourselves against a Japanese “standard,” trying to mimic a Japanese aesthetic in Western milieux and languages. But that’s a different issue for another time.

Look at these examples . . .

On a journey, ill —
And my dreams on withered fields
are wandering still.

How rough the sea!
And, stretching off to Sado Isle,
The Galaxy . . .

The usually hateful crows!
They also … on a morning
When it snows . . .

So, who wrote the poems? And who translated them?

Notice the capitalization that most poets/translators don’t use today as well as the exclamation marks. The poems have such a different feel to those that haikuists write today, which in general I would say are much sparser and briefer. Tell me, does the rhyme add to your enjoyment of these poems? Or does it make them seem somehow sentimental?

To end the suspense: the poems were written by Basho, translated by no less a personage than Professor Harold Henderson, one of the great scholars of Japanese literature, language and art who helped to popularize and bring haiku to an English-speaking audience. They all appear in a book that Henderson published in 1934 entitled, The Bamboo Broom: An Introduction to Japanese Haiku, which I bought when I first became interested in haiku (that is, the early 1990s, not the 1930s!).

Here’s Prof. Henderson in his own words on why he translated the poems in rhyme:

“…there is no rime [sic] in the originals, and my use of it in the English rendering of haiku therefore needs defense. First, I happen to like rime in a short poem of this sort, and I think that it is at least allowable. The chief reason that the Japanese do not use it is that all Japanese words end either in a vowel or in “n,” and riming would soon become intolerably monotonous. Secondly, I think that any verse-form, be it sonnet, triolet, or haiku, is more effective if it is kept fairly rigid, so that it can act as a sort of frame to the picture. In Japanese the effect of definite form is given by an alternation of five and seven syllables; in English this method is impossible, and rime seemed the best available substitute. Thirdly, haiku are very short, and their grammar is often fragmentary. There is real danger that a literal translation might be mistaken for an unfinished piece of prose, and a haiku is not that, but a poem, complete as it stands.

“If the reading and writing of English haiku ever becomes general, some better form than the one used in this book can doubtless be found. I can only hope that the readers of this book will join in the search for it.”

It would seem to me that we are all in search of a form of haiku that is suitable to us – and each of us are going to come up with our own aesthetic, a form that fits our own needs of expression. By virtue of your reading this blog, you are likely searching for a suitable form of haiku yourself. I raise the issue of rhyme not because I endorse it but because I don’t think that it should automatically be ruled out.

Certainly, obvious rhymes are not going to be helpful but there might be occasion to use rhyme in haiku and thereby heighten, not detract from, the intended poetic effect. We shouldn’t rule it out in English haiku just because it is not done in Japanese.

To conclude, here are a few poems by Nick Virgilio, a pioneer of American haiku poetry, who occasionally used rhyme to heighten the effect of a poem:

Easter alone
leaving her aged mother
in the nursing home

Here, Virgilio has a repeated long “o” in alone/home rather than use a full rhyme. But it’s close enough and emphasizes the sense of loneliness of the poem. In the following haiku, Virgilio uses American slang for “veterans” to create an ironic rhyme that belies the seriousness of the poem. In fact, I didn’t even  notice the rhyme the first few times that I read the poem:

at the White House steps,
begging for recognition:
Vietnam vets

I might add here that Virgilio does not use rhyme in every poem —  only in places where he thinks it will add to the effect of a poem. But the point is that he was not limited by an ideology that one should never rhyme in English because haiku are not rhymed in Japanese.

Lastly, Virgilio wrote this poem about the effect on his mother of her youngest son’s death in Vietnam:

autumn nightfall:
my mourning mother hears
little brother call

I think that the emotional depth of the loss especially sinks in and is memorable because of the repetition of the simple, one-syllable rhyme “fall/call.” It is clear, then, that his “little” brother, who had been called up for military duty, will call out no longer. The poem could have been written without a rhyme but would it have carried the same emotional weight?

While I occasionally enjoy perusing through The  Bamboo Broom, another book by Henderson was a key building block for me in my understanding of haiku. It is a classic: Haiku in English, a  thin volume originally published in 1965 and still available on Amazon and elsewhere, both new and used.

I hope this posting has  been helpful. It would be fun to hear your own thoughts about haiku and rhyme as well as other examples — please do share them with us.


4 thoughts on “Haiku and Rhyme

  1. Hi Rick,

    I tend to feel that ANYTHING that was ever done (successfully) in haiku is fair game. Plus anything we can come up with on our own IF it works. The following is one of my favorite ‘ku by Billie Wilson.

    Notice how her use of of ‘wi/wi’ in ‘winter wind’ and ‘song/sung’ and the rhyme of ‘sung/tongue’ all serve to reinforce the meaning/experience of the verse. It is in itself a lullaby.

    Which is why I think each poem has to be looked at individually in terms of the ‘rules’. And that the ‘rules’ should be looked at organically rather than mechanically. Learn them yes, but you know the rest. 🙂

    winter wind—
    a cradlesong sung
    in an ancient tongue

    — Billie Wilson
    (The Heron’s Nest Editor’s Choice Award VIII:4 (2006); and Readers’ Choice Poem of the Year)


    Karen (Cesar)

    • Hi Karen,

      Thanks so much for sharing Billie’s exquisite poem with all of us — and, yes, like you I think that whatever works, rhymed or not, is fair game. Each poem needs its own space to do what it needs to do…


  2. Like Karen says; if it works , it works. It is my understanding that Japanese sound units are basically six sounds, so there would inevitably be parts of a haiku which sound alike. And haiku were original meant for the ear…so i find it difficult to believe that rhyme was not employed.
    We follow a Japanese form but I see no reason why we cannot employ western poetic devices within haiku. I remember when I first took up haiku I was told there was no I/ego in haiku but I continued to write “subjective” haiku anyway.
    I am now beginning to write exclusively four line haiku, with a strict count which use as much poetic devices as fit for the poem English also uses caps and punctuation..I see no reason why not to use it in haiku..what are the rules if we do not count any more then why the predominant push for one line haiku, as was traditional? I find that 4 lines best suit my own speech rhythms and like I said haiku are “sound” poems. Does that sound good rick? Great first post btw.

    It’s a jackdaw
    maybe turning
    the earth into that
    smell of Autumn.

    Catch 41

    • Absolutely, Colin — if it works, it works. I think a variety of poetic techniques can be used very effectively in haiku and help to create a stronger poem. In fact, without such devices the haiku is probably going to read more like prose. The trick, I think, is to use them in a subtle way that doesn’t attract attention to itself but reinforces the meaning and/or understanding of the poem.

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