Thursday, November 29, 2007



Haiku is one of the oldest forms of poetry yet the form has recently been discovered and embraced by writers around the world. It is believed that in 1970’s haiku as a literary genre got highlighted internationally. Today, it is written in English as well as in several different languages and enjoyed widely in nearly 50 countries. But the actual credit for this haiku boom goes to Paul Louis who with the publication of his collection entitled Haiku, in the early 20th century, revived this genre. And since then the popularity and internationalization of haiku has kept on multiplying.

Haiku is short and light poetry with traditionally 5-7-5 sound syllables with a season word. Historically speaking, this poetic form had its roots in tanka, a kind of prayer/incantations to Gods by the Japanese. Tanka, with its 5-7-5-7-7 sound syllable count, its lofty ancestry and its shortness and ease for memorization, later became the favourite poetical form of the Japanese Imperial court. And from 9th to 12th centuries it reached the highest popularity and brilliance. However, in the 12th century a new form generated out of tanka, with the rival of an old Chinese form of linking tanka poems together in a novel way. The poem was ‘split’ in half, allowing one author to write the first three lines 5-7-5 and the concluding lines i.e. 7-7 part to be written by another, especially by men. This chain of writing did not stop there, again a new 5-7-5 was written as an answer to the previous 7-7 links and this genre was called ‘renga’ (meaning linked elegance). Renga became a fashionable form of poetry in the 14th century with two main styles: a serious, courtly style and the comic style, especially of the merchant class. Basho was a renga master of the comic style. This poetic form was not as simple to write as it appeared. Writing a good hokku i.e. the starting verse and haikai (any verse in a renga) was really a challenging task. Thus all could not meet the standards of a good hokku/ haikai. The quality of the renga tended to fluctuate with Buson and Issa and in the beginning of the 19th century M.Shiki declared renga officially dead and also ended the ongoing debate on hokku/ haikai by combining the two names into a new one- haiku.

Haiku is the smallest literary form with lot many rules and it is difficult for one to follow all the rules. Moreover, several of the rules are so contradictory with each other that there is no way to honour them all at once. Say, for example, the sound units of the three liners have a wide range of patterns-seventeen syllables in one line, seventeen syllables written in three lines, seventeen syllables written in three lines divided into 5-7-5, seventeen syllables written in a vertical (flush left or centred) line, less than seventeen syllables written in three lines as short- long- short, less than seventeen syllables written in three vertical lines as short- long- short and writing in one breath (which nearly covers 12-17 syllables). Second, the number of images and the kind of images which again do not follow any fixity- a haiku with two images that are only comparative when illuminated by the third image; a haiku with two images that are only associative when illuminated by the third image, two images that are only in contrast when illuminated by the third image and then the kind of images- images that evoke simple rustic seclusion/accepted poverty (sabi), images evoking classical elegant separateness (shubumi), images that evoke nostalgic romantic images/austere beauty(wabi),images from nature, images not from nature, season words (kigo), non-season words (muki), lofty / uplifting images. Third, the rules of punctuation- no punctuation to attain ambiguity, all normal sentence punctuation are also admissible- a colon (:) and full stop (.), a pause (;), three dots for something left unsaid, a comma for a slight pause, a dash for saying the same thing in other words, capitalizing the first word of every line or only the first word as well as the proper names according to English rules. Next, the rules of grammar- eliminating all the possible uses of gerunds and adverbs, little use of pronouns, ending the haiku with a noun, avoiding too many/all verbs and prepositions. Finally, the rules of rhetoric- avoiding rhymes/ bringing in rhymes by rhyming the last words in the first and third lines, using rhymes in other places within the haiku, using assonance and alliteration; and using puns and paradoxes to attain levels of meaning in haiku.

It is quite natural that with so many options, a beginner of haiku might get highly confused and find it difficult to start off with. But it is to be noted here that rules are not written in stone. Thus, it can be said that there is no one way to write a haiku, there is no one style or technique that is absolutely the best. Every writer can work out for herself. In fact, the varieties in style and technique of haiku provide enough freedom for the readers and writers of haiku to expose, expand and to investigate.

Today one can notice new trends emerging in haiku from several countries, including India as well. Now, there is no strict adherence to the old, traditional guidelines. Despite a small community of haiku writers in India, the haiku form has been widely experimented and written in several regional languages, including English and Hindi.

In India the traces of haiku can be found in the beginning of the 20th century. The Indian Nobel Laureate, Rabindra Nath Tagore, is probably considered to be the first haikuist of India. His collection of haiku like poems ‘Fireflies’ was published in English and Bengali. The names of Subramania Bharati, Prof. Satya Bhushan Verma and Prof. B.S. Agarwala are also familiar names in regional haiku in India. Among the Indian English haiku poets the few familiar names are- Dwarakanath H. Kabadi, N.V.Subbaraman, Angelee Deodhar, Kala Ramesh, K.Ramesh, Mujeeb Yar Jung, I.H.Rizvi, Urmila Kaul, D.C.Chambial, Kanwar Dinesh Singh, R.K.Singh Mahashweta Chaturvedi, etc. Yet, not many people are aware of haiku or its intricacies because of lack of literature and/or criticism in various languages in the Indian market.

Haiku writers from all over the country, even though small in number, have contributed their lot in promoting this poetic form in India and out of the many contributors writing in English R.K.Singh as a haikuist stands apart. R.K.Singh who has been known for economy of expression and brevity for the last three decades has drawn attention of readers to his haiku, first published in trilogies Every Stone Drop Pebble (pub.1999) and Peddling Dreams (pub.2003 in Pacem in Terris) and more recently in The River Returns (pub.2006). Abdul Rashid Bijapure seems right in his observation that “perhaps it is the single-minded journey of R.K. Singh to press for brevity in expression that leads him to devote his poetic energy to the three line haiku poems.” Even Singh says “ a haiku is terse, dynamic and complete poetry, rendering the vital energy, which animates not only an individual’s small world but also the entire cosmos.” For Singh it is rather a self- disciplining spiritual exercise marked by living momentness of a moment, imaging a moment:
After morning walk
the trio gossip each day
fresh revelation

Each day of our life is full of happenings and one such is captured here with all subtlety in the same fashion as a photographer clicks a moment.

The poem:
Ripe on the branches
mangoes fall one by one
end of the season

is highly sensuous in appeal. The reader gets an immediate image of a season. The ripeness of the mangoes can be seen and felt in the lines.

The lines:
The leaves sway
to fly like birds
free in the sky

evoke the image even before the eye blinks. Like the swaying of the leaves, the lines appear soft, light and rhythmic.

Singh’s nature poems perfectly meet the traditional haiku standards:

Smell of Kamini
In front of my house excites:
hummingbirds mate
The night queen fragrance
seeps from the window
my bedroom blooms

The naturalness of the lines instantly hits the sensory organs of the readers. The two poems:
Shining from the blade of grass
a drop on earth’s breast:
tribute to sun
The mynahs
herald the day clamourning
for moths

reflect the honesty of the poet in creating the images. There is no artificiality or imaginary renderings in these lines. With minutest details the poet constructs a striking image and allows space for reader to create his own image and interpretations.

Singh is not only a sharp watcher of the thinginess of the things in nature but is also a keen observer of complex human nature. Running away from reality is human nature and this hollowness of human beings is described in these poems with a tinge of irony:

She hides the mirror
with rose and lipstick
and keeps her fiction
He closes the eyes
expanding inner space
a short – cut tour

Some of his haiku appear as if speaking directly to the reader. To quote:

Among the white hairs
a solitary black one
keeps her hope alive
She reads my age in
the synthetic dark of moustache
and whitening chest

Singh’s haiku have distinct local and Indian cultural flavour too:

Red oleander and
hibiscus calling morning
to Kali

The poet is unconventional in his form. He does not strictly abide by the traditional haiku rules. The adjective in the following poem depicts the unconventionality in the poet’s style:
After prolonged heat wave
sky watery explosion
earth lovely doom

The use of the adjective ‘lovely’ with the noun ‘doom’ is highly contrastive.

The poet’s experimentation with the syllabic pattern is again his break away from the rigid rules. Some of his poems are in 5-7-5 pattern, while the others are in 4-6-4, 3-5-3 and 4-7-4 patterns:

No letters today
addresses of his dead friends
graying in diary

Monsoon shower
after a long heat wave
monotony breaks

My bedroom
a maze of cobweb
spiders breed

Seeking good news
I watch the lines on my palms
taking new turns

This experimentation with the syllabic structure is actually due to the globalization of haiku and thus Singh alone is not to be blamed for it. In fact, it is to be noted here that the varied syllabic structures do not mar the haikuness of his haiku. His three liners, even though roped in different sound patterns/breathe, evoke the images explicitly.

In haiku there is no place for didacticism or philosophy. But Singh tries out even this trait in his poems. To cite-
He sweeps yellow leaves
or gathers years in a heap
burns to merge with dust

The first line gives a clear picture of the persona who is engaged in a task of cleaning the garden. The second line is suggestive of aging or nearing of death or the autumn of one’s life whereas the ‘yellow leaves’ of the first line suggests winter i.e. death. Thus both the lines focus the temporality of all existence, which further gets strengthened in the last line- ‘burns to merge with dust’. The last line sounds philosophical and recalls to one’s mind the Biblical line-‘ Thou from dust and thou returneth to dust’. Moreover, the word ‘burn’ is again related to Hindu rites where the body is brought to the crematorium ground to burn on the funeral pyre. It seems that the poet was all set to bring in the epigrammatic terseness in this haiku. It is to be remembered here that haiku celebrates the beauty of the moment, the truth and minuteness of the moment with clear images rather than witty and layered meanings.

Similarly, the following haiku is highly philosophical in tone:

Long forgotten
the beginning and the end
exist in middles

Except for the three-liner haiku pattern, the lines do not fulfill any of the requirements of a haiku. Neither the reader gets an instant flash of the image nor does he come to a clear idea. He is only left with an option of reading between the lines. And if this is done to a haiku, it is then no haiku. The second line of the poem-‘beginning and the end’ is here, probably suggestive of the cycle of life and death. And the last line depicts the mediocrity of people in the present times. Man has forgotten the essence of his existence. He is only given to materiality and his comfort zone is his ‘present’, which he never wants to leave. This haiku is a poor one. In a book review R.K. Singh comments, “It often depresses me to read in the ‘form’ of haiku moral commands, philosophical teaching, sentimental reflections and didactic expressions. Haiku is not epigrammatic poetry or short saying; nor is it intellectualizing, romanticizing, or pedantry”. The poet fails to create a haiku in those three lines; he fails to practice what he says.

Singh puts the first letter of his three liners in capital. Most of his haiku is expressed in a concise and crystallized form, in present tense with a seasonal word. The poems focus on “what is happening” at a particular moment with all its freshness and truth.

Challenging/experimenting with established/classical rules requires a lot of guts. Singh’s experiments with the classical rules of haiku and the dexterity with which he handles his haiku are sufficient enough to define his poetic talent /craftsmanship.


1. Abdul Rashid Bijapure. “The Poetry of R.K. Singh,” New Indian English Poetry: An Alternative Voice, edited by I.K. Sharma, Jaipur: Book Enclave, 2004, p.161.

2. R. K. Singh. Book review. Deuce: Haiku Poems (New Delhi: K.K. Publishers and Distributors, 2001) in Indian Book Chronicle, vol. 28, no.4 April 2003, p. 5.

3. Catherine Mair, Patricia Prime, R.K. Singh. Every Stone Drop Pebble New Delhi: Bahri Publications, 1999.

4. Patricia Prime. “Secrets Need Words: Critical Essay on the Haiku and Tanka of R.K. Singh,” New Indian English Poetry: An Alternative Voice edited by I.K. Sharma, Jaipur: Book Enclave, 2004.

5. Urmila Kaul. “Indian Haiku and Peddling Dream,” New Indian English Poetry: An Alternative Voice edited by I.K. Sharma, Jaipur: Book Enclave, 2004.

6. Angelee Deodhar. “ Haiku: An Indian Perspective,”

7. http://

8., Lynx


Dr. Rajni Singh
Assistant Professor
Indian School of Mines University
Dhanbad-826004, India

Thursday, November 15, 2007



--A Review Essay by Patricia Prime(New Zealand)

All poetry is –or should be--written in love of the world . All poetry is in some sense erotic. The act of love, as opposed to lust, and the act of the imagination as opposed to technological invention, occupy the same area of human consciousness. They are acts of mutuality and exchange, from which all participants derive value and understanding, and so are indispensable. Yet they are human endeavours too, and always contain the germ of their own impossibility and failure, which is the theme of many of the tanka and haiku contained tin Ram Krishna Singh’s latest collection, The River Returns.

Ram Krishna Singh is a prolific writer, authoring over 150 academic articles, 160 book reviews, and 30 books. His poems have been anthologised in over 140 publications and translated into several languages. The River Returns is divided into two parts, tanka and haiku.

At some point in his writing career Singh has taken note of the performance of language, learned to appreciate the subtleties of emphasis, tone, placement of words; of images called forth by carefully selected words. The level of diction is simple and consistent, especially considering that even though its imagery is natural, the poems are primarily made up of straightforward observations. Plain language, and repetition reinforce the simple nature of haiku and tanka, whilst simultaneously undercutting the philosophical or rational nature of the poems’ construct. In this sense, the poems may look casual and simplistic whilst disguising the fact that they are heartfelt, both emotionally and intellectually, as we see in the following tanka:

Locked in the shadows

tears on the eyelids tell of

the load on her mind:

clothed in spring the willow twigs

reveal the changed relation

Living in dust smoke

and white darkness I know

I just flicker-

stand alone like a lighthouse

lost in the fog of seashore

This is what tanka is all about: a momentary embrace of the mystery inherent in the process of self-actualisation; a disguised direct address begging forgiveness for those tendencies towards insularity and over-intellectualisation. A celebration of the difficulties of selfhood, or whatever it is that calls us to a greater awareness of ourselves and the world of which we are a part, as described in the following tanka:

Standing at the edge

I long to float with waves and

wave with instant wind:

on the dream water’s breast

I read tomorrow’s wonder

An insomniac

weak with desires and prayers

bears the heartbeats

rising fast with dark hours

survives one more nightmare

In these two poems the poet casts around for some kind of relief, some sign of hope. The first tanka takes place at the moment when the poet, standing on the shore, allows his mind to wander over various thoughts. One of them is the longing “to float with waves”, another is that he sees on “the water’s breast” what the future has in store. In the second poem, Singh lies awake reviewing the day’s events, surviving through the night to face yet another day. All these thoughts and more flash through the poet’s mind. Yet neither the chattering of the mind, nor the thousands of thoughts that teem in his brain, can alter the fact that there on the foreshore, or awake at night, or in the midst of daily trauma, something of life’s beauty can still be captured.

The following poem seems to come out of nowhere:

Drinking evening star

blue green pattern before eyes

no meditation

no god visits to forgive

the sinning soul in solitude

The poet may speak of not knowing how, or why, he has been forsaken. He wrote the poem. It speaks from the unconscious, the hidden recesses of the mind: the proverbial experience, the forgotten, the repressed. The poem seeks to bring precise expression to something previously unstated. In this respect, then, the tanka tells us “This is what is inside you. This is what it is all about”.

For Singh, writing is an art of discovery. Some events, some people, are for him, so charged with passionate complexity, that only the process of verbalising them allows him any measure of understanding. He writes about what he knows, getting it factually correct, then follows where the words and music lead, For example;

His first winter--

recalls swirling snowflakes

at Chaluka

inside the fibrehut

warmth of blue waves surging

There’s a quantitive and geographic fact: “Chaluka” , where the hard fact of “place” distinguishes the landscape and transforms it by art to a dreamlike state.

In the following tanka the action takes place on the war front:

From the border rings

he’s stationed dangerously:

any moment war

may break out for their follies

he must kill and live…to kill

The images of war suggest that the soldier’s innocence is short-lived. It has the quality of a bad dream where the young man “must kill and live… to kill,” a plot that turns on the presence of evil, cruelty, and death. Thus the tanka assume a larger role-- one of discovery of self, the responsibility they bring having thus embraced humanity in all its good and all its dirt and corruption. Knowing and having lived with ill health and in darkness, the poet can savour both the light and bitter experiences that life bring. So loneliness appears microscopic as one of life’s problems:

Awaiting the wave

that’ll wash away empty hours

and endless longing

in this dead silence at sea

I pull down chunks of sky

Life can either get better or worse. Life’s flame can either be extinguished or kept ablaze for the greater responsibility that ensues.

In section two--Haiku--whatever the details of the short poem say about life and art can only be apprehended and expressed aslant; indirectly and, therefore, incompletely; the reader must fill in any gaps and make his/her own judgment. “Haiku moments” are everyday experiences. They are not “enlightened” in the ultimate sense of the word. They are, nevertheless, awakenings of a sort; moments in which the deeper nature of things is revealed, when one is reminded of the beauty and mystery that lie just beneath the surface of the seemingly mundane.

Haiku generally deal with everyday things, birds, flowers, the moon, nature. Yet they reveal these thing to be mysterious and extraordinary. Haiku also tend to be contemplative and reflective, that is, the insights they contain and the experiences they describe are the fruits not of judgment but of quiet observation, not of self-seeking effort but of humble acceptance.

Allow me to quote just two haiku:

The lone hibiscus

waits for the sun to bloom:

morning’s first offering

What a lovely haiku! In these three short lines we see the poet early in the morning, watching as the flower waits for the sun to arise, then we see that this is the first offering of the day made by a religious man.

In the well

studying her image

a woman

For me this conjures an image of a villager, who perhaps doesn’t own a mirror, at the well drawing the day’s water. She sees her reflection in the still water and looks at in wonder and admiration.

Because, like the original experience, the sum of the details are unspecific, as in

“Without washing hands/ he touches hibiscus for worship/her frowning glance”, the reader is asked to make up his or her own mind about the haiku. What it means for the reader may be entirely different from the original thought of the poet. The death that is part of nature that we see in “Not sad to die/ blooming after a day’s rain/the mushroom” , might cause us to ask: Are death and life the same thing in the context of the poem? Does Singh mean to express that the brevity of the mushroom’s life is heightened by its refreshing wash of rain, even as we can be ecstatic in the midst of the thoughts of inevitable death and decay? In fact, the poem doesn’t, I think, exclude this possibility and remains therefore true to itself.

Can art, either in writing or speech, be driven to the level of the fabulous by intensity of desire, transcend mortality? Can it redeem or compensate for the indignities of ill health, physical labour or pain? These are themes that drive Singh’s haiku. The eroticism of many of Singh’s haiku have been previously remarked upon, but in this collection he puts a hard spin on traditional themes. The mortality, redemption and immortality of the poet seem to be uppermost in his mind, as in “Fearing allergies / he misses full moon party / savours white light.”

In both the poems and in everyday reality, life is crumbling into dust. Indeed, in “The long night passes / sleeplessly I deep-breathe -- / mosquitoes in bed”, the poem seems to say all lives are neither more nor less than “long nights” spent sleepless. In “the lone poet / watching his interview -- / two minutes fame” there is the reprieve of “two minutes fame”, against the final collapse and there’s the possibility of, if not immortality, at least honour through art.

Singh’s Prefactory Note to The River Returns includes the sentence: “In these selected tanka and haiku – at times providing sequences – I have tried to evoke the essence of the moment in its sensory details as selflessly as possible”.

Our world needs more of that awarencess. We could all do with more tanka and haiku moments in our lives. We can discover these moments if we learn to live simply, sit quietly and observe with open eyes and hearts.

Perhaps dreams are all, as this collection seems to suggest: “ A dead voice / calling up at dawn: / drowsy eyes”. Perhaps the work done, no matter how mundane, or how grand, is the song and the dance, and the lines and scars we bear from it dignify. And perhaps poetry honours this wild dream of living.

(Reproduced from SHINE, 21st Issue 2007, pages 60-65)