The correct formatting of this haiku column can be viewed on screen sizes upwards of 13 inches. We will resolve the problem from next week. – Editor
I explained the importance of the ‘cut’, the kire, last Monday. The Japanese language has certain specific words like ya, kana, keri or nari to show this cut in haiku. When writing in English or in any of our regional languages, we need to use punctuation called the ‘cut-marker’ in place of such words.
Why the punctuation is called the ‘cut-marker’ and why is the kireji so widely used in haiku:
Punctuation shows the reader where the ‘cut’ occurs … and the cut (as was explained earlier) is important for the juxtaposition, for marking the parts of the haiku resonate with one another to produce a new whole, a new meaning that gives completeness to the poem.
The cut-marker is known as kireji, and people sometimes feel it’s just punctuation – but no, it’s much more than that – if kire can be considered the soul in a haiku, then the kireji, which so closely abets the kire, can be considered the heart that encloses the soul … if I can be a bit dramatic!
Without the punctuation, some readers would create their own pause. But many don’t, especially new swimmers in the haiku stream. So to make things clear for all, including punctuation is a valuable tool.
To explain kireji more technically, we can say it’s actually a sound (and word) in Japanese, as indicated by the ending “-ji” which means letter, mark, or word. A sounded grapheme in Japanese, the “-ji” is indicated by punctuation in English and other languages.
It might surprise you to know that punctuation is kept to a minimum in haiku, and is used as a highly nuanced tool. Haiku needs clarity, so if an idea or an image has to be conveyed to your reader in a few words, then that pause you show by adding punctuation should help the reader to get the meaning instantaneously. Nothing in haiku is cosmetic!
The various kinds of punctuation most often used in haiku are: … (ellipsis); – (en dash); — (em-dash); : (colon); and in rare cases :: (double colon.) And of course some haiku are written without punctuation!
The ellipsis indicates a quiet pause and also suggests the passage of time.
starlit sky …
I touch a turtle before
it enters the sea
— K. Ramesh
and the falling leaves …
ten years of war
— Karma Tenzing Wangchuk
ancient banyan …
an owl shakes the night
off its feathers
— Anitha Varma
An en-dash ‘–’ is just there to show your reader the cut and actually does little beyond that! In some cases it shows a clear pause as in Lary’s ku below.
spring equinox –
the toilet paper roll
— Laryalee (Lary) Fraser
An em-dash ‘—’ is an emphatic dash and shows an effective pause, and this stronger break helps in creating the juxtaposition so important in haiku.
turbulent mist — campfire sparks —
all that is to become someone outside the circle
lost in becoming starts another song
— Hansha Teki — Billie Wilson
waiting for me thunderclap —
to give it life — the sleeping new born
my death poem throws up her arms
— Karma Tenzing Wangchuk — Chitra Rajappa
Please note: the kireji (cut-marker) is only a marker to indicate the cut, which should be intrinsic to the haiku. Without the cut (the kire), if you just add the kireji, it is merely cosmetic – something superficial, adding no value to your haiku.
The colon is not as popular as it was a decade back. What does it do? It gives the reader a peep into what comes next.
the sofa she vacates
holds her shape
— Kala Ramesh
Exclamation points are rarely used, but there are exceptions to all rules. Here is a beauty from Michael McClintock.
a poppy …
a field of poppies!
the hills blowing with poppies!
— Michael McClintock
Some poets have mastered the art of ‘no punctuation;’ the mind can still read the pause because the kire is strong.
the dust i kick up
sticks to me
— ed markowski
a barking dog
little bits of night
— Jane Reichhold
my shadow waits
across the border
— George Swede
And in some instances a weak kire allows the reader to create a break in different places, leading to interesting interpretations.
an old regret
— Bill Kenney
the river makes
of the moon
— jim kacian
between the sky
and the spin of the earth
this falling leaf
— Laryalee (Lary) Fraser
A mid-line caesura: This is done using the same juxtaposition between images, as explained before — not too close or too far. Line 3 gives a surprise or a ‘aha’ moment as many haiku poets love to say!
leaves … with each step
— Kala Ramesh
Then there is an interesting form of punctuation, rarely used — but after I encountered it I was hooked!
Grant Hackett writes: (in Roadrunner Feb 2009)
I began writing the one line poem about a year and a half ago—the day I found the double colon. The double colon is there to create an unweighted pause. A pause in the breath, a pause in thought. A pause that is different than the weighted or directional relationship our standard punctuation indicates. And that is also different than a hard line break. The two sides of the thought-pause may exist in harmony or in ambiguity. At the moment of the pause there may be peace or there may be tension. The thought-pause is a poetic tool, a poetic device, used poetically.
to the terrace
whistling :: breathless
the milky way
— Kala Ramesh
a breathtaking view now a dot :: on the map
— Kala Ramesh
We use punctuation very sparingly in haiku . . . why? My contention is that it detracts from how the reader can interpret the poem. It becomes a recipe demanding that the reader should pause here or there, show surprise when an exclamation is given, and so on. I could be wrong.
Punctuation, like many things in life, is actually very personal, and as we read more and more haiku we come to understand that it’s a poet’s preference more than a rule. Read your ku out aloud and see where you pause and how you carry it forward – then decide whether you want punctuation or not. I go through phases when I use no punctuation.
My special thanks to Jenny Angyal for editing and proofreading this column.
Passionate about taking haiku to everyday spaces, Kala Ramesh initiated the ‘HaikuWALL India,’ where she gets graffiti artists to paint haiku on city walls. As an external faculty member of the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts she teaches undergrads haiku and other allied Japanese short forms of poetry.
One can reach Kala Ramesh via email@example.com. The Haiku feature appears every Monday on Pune365.
starlit sky The Heron’s Nest VI.5
the fallen: poem card 2010
ancient banyan: The Haiku Foundation Per Diem 2015
spring equinox – Simply Haiku 4:3, 2006
turbulent mist: An Autumn Testament
campfire sparks: The Heron’s Nest XII:2.
waiting for me: Parnassus Literary Journal Spring 1999
winter loneliness: Bottle Rockets #15 Autumn 2006
a poppy: Haiku Magazine 5.1
barking dog: From the Dipper. . . Drops, Humidity Productions 1983
passport check: Cicada 1978
awakened: The Heron’s Nest V.15
the river: Ant Ant Ant Ant Ant 5
between the sky: Mainichi Daily News, November 2006
wading through leaves: Simply Haiku – Autumn 2009, vol 7 no 3
to the terrace: Presence Haiku Journal – Issue # 42 – September 2010
a breathtaking view: Frogpond 32.2 Summer issue, 2009
The copyright of the haiku rests with the authors.
Copyrights of the title and contents of this page rest with Kala Ramesh.