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Several trees with snow on the branches.

It’s a cold night in Pittsburgh (8˚F/-13˚C), and I’ve been reading some winter haiku.  I’ve always loved winter poems — there’s a stillness I enjoy, and perhaps crave.   A few winter haiku and tanka follow.  But first, an explanation of the forms.

Traditional haiku often rely on image for meaning, especially images in nature.  When written in Japanese they contain 17 morae (short units of sound similar to syllables) in a 5-7-5 pattern, although they are often written on one line.  The first or third five-mora section usually has a season word (kigo 季語).  The season word is sometimes indirect.  For example, hototogisu, meaning “little cuckoo,” is a summer season word because that is when one would see this bird in Japan.

There should also be a punctuation or cutting word (kireji 切れ字) that divides the haiku and gives the reader a chance to reflect.  My Japanese dictionary gives examples of ya and kana as punctuation words.  Kana means “I wonder,” and ya is often translated as “and so on.” Both have a trailing-off quality in everyday conversation, which creates a natural pause.

When a haiku has been translated into English, the kireji may be hard to spot.  In my opinion, it’s not necessary to point to a single word and say, “There it is!  That’s the punctuation word!”  Plus, the word itself is often lost in the translation process.  It’s more important to note and appreciate when the poem is inviting participation from the reader.  In the haiku below, I notice a sense of anticipation at the end of the second lines.  For me, it’s the kind of anticipation I feel when I read a poem in English with a well-placed enjambment.  For just a moment I pause and wonder what will come next.

Tanka have a 5-7-5-7-7 mora pattern (31 morae).  Although they can, like haiku, rely on image and nature, they can also take a more lyrical path.

On a final note, I think it’s useful to realize that morae are not exactly the same as syllables.  Take the word “ice” (meaning ice cream in Japanese).  In English, this is one syllable.  In Japanese, it is three morae (a-i-su, アイス).  Although the Etheridge Knight haiku below does follow a 5-7-5 syllable form, many writers of haiku in English choose to focus on the spirit of haiku rather than the syllable count.

Enough explanation.  Enjoy the poems, and stay warm!


Matsuo Bashō, translated by Robert Hass*

Awake at night,
the lamp low,
the oil freezing.


When the winter chrysanthemums go,
there’s nothing to write about
but radishes.

Several daikon -- Japanese radishes, which are long (like thick carrots) and white with green leaves on one end.

Daikon, or Japanese radishes. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

Etheridge Knight**

Under moon shadows
A tall boy flashes knife and
Slices star bright ice.


Kitahara Hakushū, translated by Makoto Ueda***

winter day
on a chilly plate
lies a pheasant
its eyes looking white
with the eyelids closed


*From The Essential Haiku, Ed. Robert Hass, published by HarperCollins, New York, 1994, ISBN 978-0-88001-351-2

**From The Essential Etheridge Knight, Etheridge Knight, published by University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1986, ISBN 978-0-8229-5378-4

***From Modern Japanese Tanka, Ed. Makoto Ueda, published by Columbia University Press, New York, 1996, ISBN 0-231-10433-2