The Structure of Haiku and the Structure of Thought

For me, haiku is about living more deeply engaged in life. 

Writing, reading and sharing haiku we not only are granted opportunities to engage more deeply when we encounter situations like those captured in the poems we read. We also live more deeply our own past life through the calling up of memories and experiences perhaps forgotten. Or even repressed.

How The Mind Works

I believe the traditional 3-line structure of haiku is well-suited to this dynamic. Our brains appear to be hardwired in a certain way so that our default mode of processing information about the world is causal and teleological. We see and seek causes. We seek and see goals or purposes. The very structure of every sentence embodies this 3-part "grammar" of thought - subject, verb (or action), object in some manner of arrangement. Every sentence is therefore a microscopic "story". And the traditional 3-part form of haiku appears to perfectly match the story dynamic. There is a setting (or object), an encounter (or verb) and a response. In great haiku this subjective response is crafted in an open ended way, so that the reader can insert their own subjectivity, and so share in and even expand on the poet's experience.

So there seems to be good reason why the traditional tripartite three-line form of haiku has persisted for hundreds of years, and even while migrating across cultures has preserved a similar structure in those different languages, including English.

And yet...


—Chad Lee Robinson

Big Sky - The Canadian Prairies

There is always an exception which proves the value of a rule, and this poem by Chad Robinson is exceptional.

The first thing that strikes the reader obviously is the unusual form. Robinson has structured the poem in a single vertical line. While unexpected in English haiku, of course in Japanese haiku are always written vertically, often in a single line. 

Original calligraphy of the "Old Pond" haiku by Basho himself!

So although he has apparently "violated" the expected English form, he has very deliberately identified his work with the native form of haiku in Japan. And he does this for a very particular reason. The act of reading of the poem reproduces the experience that it contains. On a vast open field, perhaps in the American Midwest, or the prairies of Canada stands a figure looking up. The sky is overwhelming and awesome in its vastness. In its blueness it can be literally seen as another kind of ocean - a connection which Robinson appears to deliberately want us to draw, through his use of the word "deep". He is alone, surveying an ocean of sky. 

The very structure of his poem appears to represent him, standing there, a mere twig on the vast spreading plains - and yet defiantly human, standing upright against that unrelenting horizon. In an overwhelming cosmos, indifferent to humanity, the poet stands. 

The vertical line of the poem can also serve as a bridge between the earth and the sky, elevating our horizon, connecting us to the limitless sky. Like a Japanese woodblock print this poem itself is an icon, drawing us in. Deliberately Robinson is painting an artwork for transcending and perfecting human nature - just through his construction of words on page.

But unlike a static picture this artwork is dynamic. As the poet scans the sky with a downward movement of his head, when reading the poem, so do we, until we touch down on land - on the prairie.

There is something almost vertiginous in this movement and this poem, which remarkably has managed to capture the vast horizontal plains of the prairie through a vertical line of words.  Had Robinson written it in a single horizontal line, or even in the traditional three lines, it would have had none of this effect.

A Poignant Memory

The poem also captures for me a memory of childhood wonder, and brings it back to me with fresh appreciation. I have certainly stood in a field and gazed up into the sky, twirling around with arms outstretched and laughing. But not for decades, and now that memory, rekindled from this poem, is rendered with a poignancy that comes from experience and years; the knowledge and appreciation of the fragility of life.

As mentioned at the start of this post, I believe by reading and writing haiku, by sharing haiku, we are not only granted opportunities to engage more deeply when we encounter similar situations, but we also live more deeply our own past life through the calling up of memories and experiences perhaps forgotten or repressed, and colouring or flavouring them with the addition of emotions though new insights accumulated through the passage of life.

So, this wonderful haiku by Robinson, with the use of its unconventional but totally appropriate and powerful vertical structure, has triggered a personal response from my own childhood, recalling my own fears at the time.

swimming lessons
cold dread

It is yet another benefit of haiku that through these precise and specific works we can nevertheless transcend time and space and sometimes even offer a form of therapy. The adult-parent-doctor I am now, can embrace and comfort my terrified child-self, whose fears are now acknowledged and fully owned.


Copyright © 2013-2014 The Haiku Apprentice


  1. takes

    Thank you. Love the Basho calligraphy, too.

    seventeen small sounds
    a single stone dropped into
    the pool of your mind

    --lfj gill

  2. Hello Gwennhwyvar

    Thank you so much for visiting and for joining the haiku party today.
    As you might have noticed, I have not posted for months - primarily because of all-encompassing work commitments. Your comment and your poems have indeed dropped a stone into the pool of my mind - calling me back to the need for balance.

    Thank you. I needed that!



Thank you for your interest in my blog. You are clearly a thoughtful and poetic soul!

Constructive comments are always welcome. However, as I am frequently out and about living and being inspired by the Cosmos, I may not immediately be able to moderate comments for 24 hours.

Remember, patience is a poetic virtue!