School of Haiku 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson Six
Verbs in Haiku

Another universally agreed upon aspect of the haiku is that it is written in the present tense so the reader has the feeling that the observed event is happening right now. Because, in truth, one cannot write about the present, since one is always the observer setting down something that occurred in the past, even if it was only a few seconds ago. The feeling is so strong that all we truly have is the present, this very moment, that when one begins to think about the past, the present and the future, one either comes to the conclusion that “now” does not exist (because it has already become the past) or that there is no past nor future but only a continuous ‘now’. Still our language offers us several possibilities of time placement for what we write.
            When most of our poetry was involved with the retelling of past events or even legends and stories, it was accepted that one spoke of them as having happened in the past. Yet, at some point, it was discovered that a tale was more gripping if the story-teller made the audience feel the events were unfolding in that very moment.
            And since haiku is an interactive collaboration – the writer is attempting to lead the reader to experience a past event in this moment, it makes perfect sense that the poem places the action in the present tense.
            In addition to the option of using the present tense of verbs, English also has a continuing present form which is called a gerund that is formed by adding ‘ing’ to a verb. A strange little prejudice has built up against the use of this verb form. Because the Japanese language does not have a similar verb form, early Japanese haiku authorities spoke out against the use of the gerund in English. Thus, one of the early  ‘laws of haiku’ is that we should restrict our use of it.
            The only real problem that the gerund causes in English haiku is when more than one is used. The ‘ing’ sound is so strong that when two or more verbs have it (raining, shining) , along with perhaps an adjective (dazzling, amazing) added to a noun that accidentally ends in ‘ing’ (morning, evening) the haiku can seem over burdened with the strong, repeated sound.
            Some people have a natural tendency to use gerunds more than others. For them, part of the rewriting chores is to count the occurrences of ‘ing’ in the verse. It has developed that some authors tend to use the gerund when the verb in the haiku refers an action taken by a human – perhaps because in their vision of the incident they were doing and not just observing.        
            Many cultures have developed their languages without the form of “to be.” Thus, they would not think of saying, “I am sad,” but would reduce the importance of self while at the same time elevating the importance of the emotion with a more picturesque speech by saying, “Sadness comes to my doorstep.” It is only with the increased emphasis on the individual in a society and an increased self awareness that the verb form of “being” was formed. The advantage of the ‘be’ form ( I am, you are, we are, I have been, I will be) is that it allows a shortcut to an accurate accounting of a report of an individual. But in a poetry form like haiku, that minimalizes  the importance of humanity, and emphasizes the outer world, dropping the ego-centric mode of expression automatically places the poem closer to the realm of eternal nature.
           The writer should always understand that the verb carries the emotional packet in a haiku. In naming an action the author, who is normally supposed to be non-existant or at least invisible, shows what he or she is feeling. This is a way of checking out what you are feeling about life in general.

One friend of mine, who was kept at home taking care of her husband who had a stroke, noticed how many of her haiku used the verbs "capture,"" caught," and "held down." From this she was able to ask for more hospice help.

Just to check yourself, make a list of the verbs you have used in your haiku.

Are they all in the present tense? BTW all of Basho's 1013 haiku poems are in the present tense except one -

on a bare branch
a crow settled down
autumn dusk

So, if you break the rule, know why and what you are doing.

Do you tend to use too many gerunds?

What is the emotion your work sends out to others?



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