The Phrase and a Fragment
First and foremost, and certainly the guideline which has been followed the longest, is the one that a haiku must be divided into two sections. This is the positive side of the other rule that haiku should not be a run-on sentence. There needs to be a syntactical break separating the verse into two distinct divisions. From the Japanese-language examples this meant that one line – 5 sound units, was separated from the rest by either grammar or punctuation.
For purposes of this discussion, I would like to call the shorter portion, the fragment, and the longer portion, or two-line rest of the poem, the phrase.
The need for distinguishing between the two sections of the haiku takes on importance when one begins to discuss the use of articles – a, an, & the, because it is possible to have different rules concerning these two parts. Before getting into that, let me state that the fragment can be, or usually is, either in the first line or in the last one – either of the short lines. Here is an example for you to test your ability to distinguish the two parts of a haiku.
the electricity goes
on and off
Even without punctuation the reader can hear and feel the break between the fragment – “rain gusts,” and the phrase – “the electricity goes on and off.” The second line break could occur after “goes,” yet, another author may find merit in continuing the line to read "the electricity goes on" and then let the final line bring in the dropped shoe – "and off." Here the goal was to establish an association between "rain gusts" and the way they go "on and off." One can write of many qualities of "rain gusts," but in this verse, the "on and off" aspect is brought forward and then reinforced by bringing in the power of electricity.
An example of the fragment found in the third line is in the next haiku.
the cemetery fence
is unable to hold back
If the fragment read as “the white lilies” the haiku would have been a run-on sentence. By dropping the article, the fragment receives its designation, and causes the proper syntaxical break.
Sometimes the reader is allowed to designate which is the phrase and which is the fragment as in this example:
no matter where they are
dancing jazz music
One can feel the connectedness of “gardenias no matter where they are” as a phrase or combine the last two lines to have: “no matter where they are dancing jazz music.” Yet the sensitive ear will hear the tiniest comma after “gardenias,” thus making this the fragment.
This brings us around to the articles and you may have already guessed the next guideline for using them. In the fragment you can often dispense with the use of an article to leave the noun stand alone.
Sometimes you can even erase the preposition from the fragment, especially if you are feeling that are tired of reading haiku which begin with “in the garden.” This guideline asks for sensitivity. It is not a hard and fast rule. But during the revising stage of writing your haiku, it is something to try. Cover up, and consider deleting, the preposition and the article in the fragment and see if the haiku holds together. Perhaps it will even get stronger! If you feel the article and preposition are needed, then by all means, use them. Do whatever works for your voice.
But if you are seeking to shorten the poem, look first to the fragment as you begin to cross out unneeded words.
However, one cannot follow the same rule in writing the phrase portion of the haiku. Sometimes critics make the comment in a workshop that a haiku is choppy.
the spring-flooded meadow
a snowy egret
What they are referring to is the feeling that at the end of each line the break in syntax is final. The two lines of the phrase are not hooked together in a flow of grammar and meaning. Reread the above haiku while adding ‘in’ to the second line. Can you feel how the words smooth out the trip of the tongue?
low winter sun
red and green
If to this 'grocery list haiku' we add a preposition and an article we get:
low winter sun
in the raspberry leaves
red and green
It pays to be aware of which two lines you wish to make into the phrase. It helps to read the two lines of a haiku which are to become your phrase out loud to see how they sound in your mouth and ears. If there is a too-clear break between the lines, ask yourself if you need an article or an article plus a preposition to be inserted. If you do, forget brevity and allow yourself the lyric pleasure of a smooth shift between these two lines. If I had chosen to make the first line the fragment I would write the haiku as:
low winter sun
raspberry leaves glow
red and green
Here, adding a verb gives the proper grammatical flow between lines two and three. If one added 'in the' to the first line, the poem would read as 'in the low winter sun raspberry leaves glow red and green' which, to my ears would be a run-on sentence.
One other variation on this subject is the haiku in which the break occurs in the middle of the second line. Often one finds this in translations of Basho's haikai (links taken out of a renga) which are two-liners set into three lines. Occasionally one will find an English haiku written in this manner. Again, it is often the result of being 'rescued' out of a renga or written by people using 5-7-5 syllable count who end up with too many images.
Often these haiku will have a comma in the middle of the second line because grammatically the author is feeling that break. An example would be:
in her eyes,
Now is the time to read back over the haiku you have written so far and see if you can establish the fragments and the phrases.
Is it clear that two of the lines make a phrase?
Do your phrases make a graceful connection between the lines?
Are you feeling you need punctuation to make the phrase separate?
Do the fragments have unnecessary articles - a, an or the?
Does the fragment have an unnecessary preposition - on, in, at?
Remember the fragment can stand alone.