The use of punctuation in haiku is controversial and theories regarding its use have evolved over the years. The major translators of Japanese haiku into English, Harold G. Henderson and R.H.Blyth, used punctuation in their translations. A survey of early 20th century American writers who dabbled in what was called hokku at the time also used punctuation. But if one looks today at haiku, one finds the vast majority of the verse contains minimal to no punctuation. When did this change occur and what were some of the influences?
Some critics consider Ezra Pound's "Metro" poem written in 1911 to be the first American attempt of a poem similar to haiku.
The apparition of
these faces in the crowd:
Ezra Pound (terebess.hu)
Pound used the colon to show juxtaposition [he called it super-positioning] of 2 unlike images in these 2 lines in addition to the final period. Following Pound's lead, Imagist Amy Lowell attempted hokku.
Last night it
Amy Lowell (Complete Works of Amy Lowell 442)
Even modern poet e.e. cummings, who was associated with the Imagists in his early career but is known for experimental free verse, tried his hand at punctuated hokku.
For him the night
e.e.cummings (Complete Poems 1904-1962, 875)
In his "Introduction" to the 1st edition of The Haiku Anthology, Cor van den Heuval suggested: "The Imagists, and those who followed them, had no real understanding of haiku. Because they had no adequate translations or critical analyses available, they failed to see the spiritual depth haiku embodies or the unity of man and nature it reveals" (van den Heuval 24). The translations and analyses needed would come with the publication of Blyth's Haiku in 1949 and Henderson's works, The Bamboo Broom and An Introduction to Haiku, published in 1934 and 1958.
In 1949 R.H. Blyth started publishing his 4 volume set of Haiku. Blyth, who focused on haiku as a way of life rather than an artistic endeavor, used punctuation in his translation. However, he did not specifically state how to use punctuation in writing haiku since his interest was translation. Looking at Blyth's translations, one can see his use of punctuation.
The stars on the
Sora (trans. Blyth, Haiku 1178)
Yaha (trans. Blyth, Haiku 1204)
Besides the capitalization, Blyth had a tendency to use a colon, semi-colon or comma with a phrase to separate the 2 parts of haiku--the setting from the rest of the verse. He used a period or other end punctuation.
Using Blyth's work in Haiku as a model, American writer Richard Wright worked independently during 1958-1960 at his home in France writing haiku.
A summer barnyard:
Richard Wright (This Other World 5)
Wright also used punctuation in similar ways to Blyth.
James Hackett during the 1960's followed Blyth's lead in his haiku which spiritually, and for the most part, structurally resembled the translations of his mentor.
James Hackett (gofree.indigo.ie)
The Beat poets read Blyth and were attracted to the Zen in his translations. Although Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder all wrote haiku, their punctuation practices ranged from no punctuation to fully punctuated verse. Kerouac's haiku collected in the Book of Haikus show the variety of punctuation he used. Part of this inconsistency may be as editor Regina Weinreich states in her introduction: "While Kerouac was well-versed in the haiku of his time...he also felt free, exercising a kind of poetic license in their experimental use" (Book of Haikus xxvii).
Dawn, a falling star
Jack Kerouac (Book of Haikus 18)
In the sun
Jack Kerouac (Book of Haikus 62)
It is clear that the Beats were being influenced structurally by free verse although they were pulled by the spirituality in Blyth's work.
In 1934 Harold G. Henderson published his first translations in a small volume called The Bamboo Broom. In 1958 Henderson expanded the number of his translations into An Introduction to Haiku. Henderson used punctuation in addition to frequently using rhyme.
Though it be
Choshu (trans. Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku 174)
No sky at all;
Hashin (trans. Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku 174)
In his 1965 book Haiku in English Henderson suggested: "Another question of form in which haiku written in English cannot possibly follow their classical Japanese prototype is in the use of conventional kiregi (cutting words) such as ya and kana. These are primarily verbal punctuation marks for which we have no exact equivalent. Ya is often very much like a colon (:), but not always; kana, which is usually used to end a haiku, is often very much like a row of dots (...), but not always. Neither do we have the Japanese 'sentence-cutting' forms, but of course a period can always be used if desired...." After the explanation Henderson continued: "A few poets prefer to write without any punctuation marks whatever, with pauses indicated only by the ending of lines; others feel this is an unbearable restriction. The question of who is right (possibly both are) will have to be decided by the poets themselves. It does seem, however, that the resources of the English language should be thoroughly investigated and used wherever appropriate" (Henderson, Haiku in English, 33).
Although much haiku was being written and magazines were starting in the 1960's. "...the formation of the Haiku Society of America in the winter of 1968-1969...must stand as the crucial event of the period...." (A Haiku Path 13). Elizabeth Searle Lamb suggested in A Haiku Path that the HSA, co-founded by Henderson, became "...something of a clearing house for haiku information...." One of the questions tackled by the leaders of the HSA was punctuation in haiku (A Haiku Path 14).
Henderson's words about letting the poets decide themselves foreshadowed a movement to rid haiku of most punctuation. In a discussion of punctuation among members of HSA, a small group looked at L.A. Davison's haiku originally published in Haiku Magazine, 5:3
Virginia Brady Young suggested, "...there are some haiku poets who don't use any punctuation because there's a sort of something going on before the poem began and there's something going on after it ends" (A Haiku Path 100). This idea of organic aesthetics or fitting form to function was a corollary of 20th century free verse and artistic thinking and was eagerly accepted by many leaders of HSA. It clearly became widely used by the contemporary haiku community with one result being the writers' elimination of most punctuation and editorial policies by many magazines that favored minimal to no punctuation.
In contrast, in the past several years a group lead by David Coomler has started producing hokku (reverting back to the original term) which stresses the use of punctuation in its structure and a return to the content and practice of traditional haiku. Basically this form uses punctuation in a manner similar to Blyth with capitalization and punctuation using semi-colons or dashes to separate the 2 parts of hokku when present. The philosophy of this group incorporates the idea of content as spiritual practice and suggests fitting the writing of the experience as much as possible to pre-established structure.
David Coomler (Coomler 134)
So where does the current haiku practice of no or minimal punctuation really come from? It would appear that 20th century free verse has had a great effect on the structure of contemporary haiku. Although some writers were already turning away from punctuation before the inception of HSA, after its founding most haiku writers turned away from the models of both Blyth and Henderson to incorporate a theory that in placing function over form puts each writer as the arbiter of mechanics, structure and content of the verse. Lamb, recalling a meeting in 1969 of the HSA, said, "Mr. [William] Higginson presented his belief that, just as the Japanese haiku grew out of a subtle religious tradition, so haiku in English should grow out of a definite aesthetic stance" (A Haiku Path 27). The split between traditional haiku and contemporary haiku was made obvious by the 1969 publication of Cor van den Heuval's The Haiku Anthology which Lamb suggested "marked a kind of coming of age for the genre in the Western World and the start of a new era" (A Haiku Path 16).
However, a small group practicing hokku have chosen to return to the structural mechanics used by the original translators of Japanese haiku into English. This group, as a result of differences in content, structure and practice, considers itself as working on a different form than the path contemporary haiku has taken.
Coomler, David. Hokku--Writing Traditional Haiku in English, Springfield, Illinois: Templegate Press, 2001.
Cummings, E.E. Complete Poems 1904-1962, N.Y.: Liveright, 1991.
Hackett, James. "The Zen Haiku of J.W. Hackett," URL: (gofree.indigo.ie/~gfabre/Bi/Hackett.htm) Feb.7,2004.
The Haiku Anthology, van den Heuval, Cor (ed.), N.Y.: Simon & Shuster, 1986.
A Haiku Path, New York: Haiku Society of America, 1994.
Henderson, Harold G. An Introduction to Haiku, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958.
Henderson, Harold G. Haiku in English, Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1967.
Kerouac, Jack. Book of Haikus, Weinreich, Regina (ed.), N.Y.: Penguin, 2003.
Lowell, Amy. The Complete Poems of Amy Lowell, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1955.
Pound, Ezra. "In a Station of the Metro," URL: (http://terebess.hu/english/haiku/pound.html) Feb. 7, 2004.
Wright, Richard. This Other World, N.Y.: Random House, 2000.