Under the Bashō 2017

One-line haiku
(just a few words)

This is not going to be a one-line haiku school. I am no scholar and don’t have the words (or mind) to express what it  is that makes one-line haiku work or not, how various techniques work and such, but I will merely list a few points where the one-line haiku (might) differ from its three-line sister.

Time and space matters when we read, when we write. The time it takes us to see the poem on the paper (screen) and the time it takes to read it – and then the time it takes us to complete and digest what we have read. (It may be just a few milliseconds but they matter). Space is how a haiku is visually placed on a page (screen) - how we perceive it in relation to what is around it (on the page/screen).

In a three-line haiku we start at the top left and read to the bottom right - like we usually do in the West - which makes us (our mind, attention) move in two directions (from left to right and down). This works in conjunction with the most frequent structure of a three-line haiku: fragment + phrase (or phrase+fragment). We pin our attention to the first line and let a kind of gravity do the rest; a gravity that is our normal (Western) way of reading. It’s easy for us to keep the two most frequently used building blocks apart and we usually pause (break) after the fragment (especially if that break is marked by a typographical sign symbolising a break/cut ( - or ...) and add the totality of the phrase next. We get an opening and a conclusion in an easily “digested” order.

In a one-line line haiku you’re “forced” to read the whole thing in one go following your normal reading habit (how we usually read) – and perhaps you go back to read it again (and maybe thrice) because after all a one-line haiku just isn’t a “normal” sentence. That’s an “internal” (in the poem as well as in the reader) dynamic.  Even if you say your haiku aloud (read them (to yourself)) you’ll (probably) notice that you read them/say them differently depending on whether it’s a three-line or one-line haiku. On a page (and in our minds) the two forms present themselves differently and that influences how we read them. Form influences perception. When we read top left to bottom right we perceive what we read differently than when we read a single line.

Perhaps you can say that a three-line haiku is a two-breath verse while the one-line haiku is a one breath verse/sentence.

All this means that language is the foremost tool of one-line haiku, language, syntax, ways of speaking, ways of thinking. Embedded in our language(s) are natural pauses, breaks, ways we normally verbalise our thoughts, our speaking patterns that are also reflected in our written language(s)  – and mostly we speak in (depending on our language, of course) in measured beats (why the Japanese haiku became 5-7-5 on reflecting the Japanese speech pattern (Higginson)) and we can use these “mechanisms” as tools to have breaks and cuts in one-line haiku. (Of course, when writing in English for people for whom English is not the first language this can prove to be a challenge; but challenges make us grow ;-) and often the unexpected, but interesting, arise from “the clash of languages” in the writer’s mind).

Over the years I have come in contact with a humongous list of theories and “rules” concerning haiku and the argument that these apply to one-line haiku as well as to three-line (normal) haiku, but the only one I myself have found any sense in adhering to is “katakoto” (don’t we just looooove Japanese terms in the haiku world ;-) - and after all “rules” are merely techniques you can use or not, none of them are mandatory i.e. you cannot use them to determine what is haiku and what isn’t) which is “babytalk” i.e. the fragmented language of babies which describes very much the attitude to and the handling of language in one-line haiku. Normally we in the haiku world say that haiku is a condensed poetry. I would argue that one-line haiku is (or can be) a condensed version of an already condensed poetry; one that challenges the reader further – but maybe reflects our thought patterns more correctly. The idea that one-line haiku might be more true comparing to the Japanese way of writing haiku in one line is (mostly) nonsense. In Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook the correlation between Japanese spoken language and the 5-7-5 structure is nicely covered and explains why a Japanese reader automatically would add breaks/cuts when reading a haiku. Western languages have, as said, their own rhythm, their own innate periods of talk and pause – or pauses when spoken and THAT is our tool. Furthermore there are various techniques that can be fruitfully utilised when writing one-line haiku (as well as three-line ditto), all of which are splendidly explained in Richard Gilbert’s Poems of Consciousness and The Disjunctive Dragonfly (which elaborates on the chapter of the same name in “Poems …”) and as Richard has done a splendid job there I will refrain from repeating them here. But get the book if you want to go deeper into the various techniques he as observed and described. It’s a gem! and indispensable if you want to add more tools to your writing be it in any kind of haiku.

Perhaps it’s easier to cast an indirect light on what one-line haiku is by saying a little about what it’s not (apophatically) (and remember, all this (text) is merely my subjective, personal thoughts and ruminations and represents (for all it’s shortcomings) only MY point(s) of view).

One-line haiku isn’t merely a three-line haiku written in one line with more or less emphasised breaks/cuts (the use of extra spaces between the sections of the haiku, the use of various typographical symbols to mark those breaks/cuts like :  or :: or | or ~  which just makes the reading more difficult). Do not assume your readers are stupid and cannot by themselves recognise the break/cuts (if any) – and if your haiku has those clear breaks in it why not just write a three-line version? 

a poem like

in the marrow
a seasonal change
to consonants

- Johannes S. H. Bjerg

could as well be

in the marrow a seasonal change to consonants

and still carry and jux the two images because of the natural (it’s in the language) break after marrow

but a poem like

steamy mirror
no room for a desert
in yr face

-  Johannes S. H. Bjerg

(in my eyes) couldn’t become

steamy mirror no room for a desert in yr face

I would have to take the “no” out and that would change the poem entirely.

One-line haiku seems to be a discipline of its own. What I have discovered is that it represents another way of thinking, perceiving (sensing), of “speaking” than a three-line haiku and often with more energy in it as it’s even more condensed in thought and sensing than a three-line verse. It also represents a “remark in passing” …

For the past 4 years I have been fortunate to be the editor for one-line haiku at UtB. Being an editor is a lesson in humility: you get sent the works of people and you have to treat it with respect knowing you (I) risk nothing but they expose themselves. And I try to respond to every submission respectfully and – if I don’t find the material sent to me quite “does it” for me – I try to point the writer in the right direction by listing a number of web-sites and zines, journals and books that perhaps will help getting closer to the one-line form. And the age-old advise: read and write, read and write … is always at the top of the list.

Recommended reading:


  • Jim Kacian: where I left off (handles/shows/names various types of one-line haiku)
  • Hosai Ozaki: Right under the big sky I don’t wear a hat
  • Sumitako Kenshin: https://terebess.hu/english/haiku/sumitaku_kenshin.doc
  • Richard Gilbert: The Disjunctive Dragonfly (Red Moon Press - 2013)

Web – selected:

Johannes S. H. Bjerg
UtB editor for one-line haiku