The American Haiku

"I will not stop," seattle, 2011

"I will not stop," seattle, 2011

The American Haiku is not exactly the Japanese Haiku. The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don’t think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again... bursting to pop.

“Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella.
— Jack Kerouac

“American haiku" has come about through the endeavoring of countless fascinated (and fascinating) poets to find a closer English approximation of the Japanese Haiku, not only for purposes of precise translation but for the [exactness of feeling] a haiku demonstrates. Note: English is an analytic language while Japanese is synthetic (spec. agglutinative). The [gap] is less about problems with meaning than it is about uncertainties in formal language theory (and the fact that English syllables are “heavier" than Japanese syllables).

While haiku is of course firmly rooted in the contemplative soil of Japanese life and language, it would be imprecise to trace all short-form American poetics back to the Japanese form/way. The American haiku as lune—per this particular exposé—owes much of its growth to the sail-and-settle cultural consistency of the North American continent. All the same, the country—the land, the once-wild—known today as the United States of America has been a space of spiritual expansion for millions of years. Perhaps Gertrude Stein said it best:

“In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is.”₁

And despite all manners of national development, the idea retains a certain veracity. People—from the very earliest indigenous peoples to contemporary American citizens—have responded to such seemingly endless environmental plenitude (above and below) by humbling themselves to the great surrounding power(s). Lorine Niedecker’s poem “Poet’s Work” strikes such a balance in uniquely contemporary American terms.₂

   advised me:
         Learn a trade

I learned
   to sit at desk
         and condense

No layoff
   from this

The poet’s context pours beautifully through the final word: “condensery” situates her praxis in both language and culture, juxtaposing the implications of industry and trade in poetry and dairy farming. As a verbal noun, “condensery” taps a certain transitive wisdom built into language; we come to understand that meaning cannot be discrete without being relational.

To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.
— Mary Oliver₃
“Sappho embrassant sa lyre,"  Jules Elie Delaunay (1828 - 1891)

“Sappho embrassant sa lyre," Jules Elie Delaunay (1828 - 1891)

In poetry, our “attention” is manifest in form after form, approach after approach to feeling and understanding. There is haiku and there is the elfchen (“little eleven"), an eleven word form of German origin (five lines: one word, two words, three words, four words, one word). And of course there are the fragments of Ancient Greek lyric poetry, especially those credited to the mysterious poet Sappho, whose transcendent impact is thoughtfully explicated by David A. Campbell:

Clarity of language and simplicity of thought are everywhere evident in our fragments; wit and rhetoric, so common in English love-poetry and not quite absent from Catullus' love poems, are nowhere to be found. [Sappho's] images are sharp—the sparrows that draw Aphrodite's chariot, the full moon in a starry sky, the solitary red apple at the tree-top—and she sometimes lingers over them to elaborate them for their own sake. She quotes the direct words of conversations real or imaginary and so gains immediacy. When the subject is the turbulence of her emotions, she displays a cool control in their expression. Above all, her words are chosen for their sheer melody: the skill with which she placed her vowels and consonants, admired by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, is evidenced by almost any stanza; the music to which she sang them has gone, but the spoken sounds may still enchant.₄

The poetic qualities noted above—clarity, simplicity, sharpness, patience, immediacy, sheer melody—predate the ideals of a number of western literary movements that occurred over two thousand years later: acmeism, objectivism, imagism, minimalism, &c. Poets continue to ask: How is it that experience is (best) communicated in language? What is a moment? What is a fragment? What is breath?

Joyce's notorious thought (after the publication of Ulysses) remains relevant: “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal."₅ Short-forms abound. Condensery is a natural phenomenon—a specific of “work." We all remember bits and pieces at a time. The grass is wet in the morning.


  1. The Unswept Path: Contemporary American Haiku, edited by John Brandi and Dennis Maloney, published by White Pine Press

  2. Prairie Style by C. S. Giscombe, published by Dalkey Archive Press

  3. The Infinite Moment: Poems from Ancient Greek, translated by Sam Hamill, published by New Directions

  4. Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, edited by Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, and Allan Burns, published by W. W. Norton & Co.

  5. The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Bashō


  1. Stein, Gertrude. The Geographical History of America; Or, The Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind. New York: Vintage, 1973.

  2. Niedecker, Lorine. Collected Works. Ed. Jenny Penberthy. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2002.

  3. Oliver, Mary. “Yes! No!" White Pine: Poems and Prose Poems. New York: Mariner, 1994.

  4. Campbell, David A. Greek Lyric Poetry: A Selection of Early Greek Lyric, Elegiac and Iambic Poetry. London: Macmillan, 1967. 267.

  5. Power, Arthur. From the Old Waterford House. London: Mellifont, 1949. 63-64.