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Haiku and Riddim

17 Sounds, Infinite Possibilities

By Geoffrey Philp Published 3 months ago Updated 2 months ago 4 min read

“Music rots when it gets too far from the dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.”― Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading.

I've always loved the toasting of DJs like U-Roy, Dennis Alcapone, I-Roy, and Big Youth. My favorite is Big Youth—not because we're friends on Facebook (LOL)—but for the range of sounds he plays with on his recordings from "Isaiah, First Prophet of Old" to "Hit The Road Jack." Sounds fascinate me. Since I began writing haiku, I have often listened to my Big Youth playlist to find a riddim or beat to set the mood for my haiku. It's sorta like another of my favorite literary heroes, Emily Dickinson. Tie my verse to a riddim and let 'er rip!

The haiku I write are piling up, so after the urging of some friends, I've begun to send my work to journals that publish haiku in English. However, after reading their guidelines, I often hesitate to submit because many have extensive treatises on the difference between Japanese “onji sound units” and English syllables and whether or not haiku should be written with capital letters.

Many journals also advocate for various haiku forms that deviate from the traditional 17-beat structure, such as Minimalist Haiku, which focuses on brevity and simplicity, or Two-line haiku, also known as couplets, conveying the haiku's message in a pair of lines. However, the pursuit of brevity as an end often contracts the circle of connection, sacrifices a sense of place in haiku, and betrays haiku’s Shinto roots with its emphasis on place and the seasons.

And in a time of climate change, we need to not only record the daily beauties (and the ones that are disappearing) but also fall in love again with the flora and fauna of our hometowns, our place in the cycle of the seasons, each other, and ourselves. Haiku is uniquely poised for this purpose.

While these alternative forms provide interesting takes on haiku's evolution in English, I believe that reducing haiku to a purely cerebral linguistic exercise focused on brevity overlooks the music a poem should convey-- beauty that appeals to the mind and ear. Listening to Basho's haiku in Japanese reveals the musicality in his work - a perfect fusion of reason and riddim. In translations, you get the ideas, but not the music.

Far from the monotony of beats often associated with forms like iambic pentameter (Don’t shoot, I'm just the drummer), haiku in English can incorporate--as I will show once I slip into my former English teacher persona-- a diverse range of riddims.

• A 5-beat line using one iamb (Da/Dum) followed by an anapest: (Da/Da/Dum) ("the sun warms softly").

• A 7-beat line blending a trochee (Dum/Da), an anapest (Da/Da/Dum), and an iamb (Da/Dum) ("Waves crash light and warm on sand"): Dum/Da/Da/Da/Dum/Da/Dum.

• Another 5-beat line combining a dactyl (Dum/Da/Da) and a trochee (Dum/Da) ("palm fronds sway slowly"): Dum/Da/Da/Dum/Da.

The real magic happens when these riddims are mixed and matched. Just as reggae DJs artfully combine words and riddims to evoke feelings beyond what each could alone, haiku poets can use the 17-beat structure (yes, it’s arbitrary, but tell me what isn’t arbitrary—we just agree on stuff) as a framework for emotional and visual expression. Like Miles Davis pushing jazz's boundaries, working within haiku's beats fosters immense creativity through play. Never forget to play.

And besides, we’re all working things out in this medium that is being converted into a new space. Compared to the sonnet or “Little Song” that originated in Italy--and look what we’ve done with that--haiku in English is still in its infancy.

But why make haiku even more difficult for readers to understand a form that demands their attention by making the poem even more obscure? Poets writing haiku in English must be aware of the cultural differences between Japan, where the form originated, and the English-speaking world, particularly America and the United Kingdom--especially the stance taken by poets like Walt Whitman and William Wordsworth, who emphasized writing for the common person rather than an elite group. Wordsworth famously stated, "I write as a man speaking to men." In light of this, haiku poets should consider their intended audience: are they writing for a small circle of haiku enthusiasts, or are they writing for a broader audience that includes their neighbors and the general public?

So, some journals will choose the 17-beat haiku, and others won’t. I choose the 17-beat haiku with seasonal references (kigo) and Ueda punctuation style to maintain the reason and riddim. And if this means I won’t be able to connect with some readers, that’s fine. You gotta do what you gotta do.

Here are links to a few of my haiku, haibun, and essays on Vocal:


"Winter Moon": https://vocal.media/poets/winter-moon

"Snapshots of my Family": https://vocal.media/poets/snapshots-of-my-family


"The Persistence of Green": https://vocal.media/poets/the-persistence-of-green

"An Island Escapade": https://vocal.media/poets/an-island-escapade

"Ten Days in Turkey": https://vocal.media/poets/ten-days-in-turkey

"Ten Days in Israel": https://vocal.media/poets/ten-days-in-israel

"New Eyes, Old Fears": https://vocal.media/poets/new-eyes-old-fears


"Zen and the Art of Haiku": https://vocal.media/poets/zen-and-the-art-of-haiku

'Writing Haiku": https://vocal.media/poets/writing-haiku-l05b0z2z


The "Bare Bones School of Haiku" is a valuable resource for those interested in learning about and appreciating haiku poetry and is part of the larger AHApoetry.com website. The site is closely associated with Jane Reichhold, a respected haiku poet and mentor who has been instrumental in providing books and information about the art form.https://www.ahapoetry.com/Bare%20Bones/BBless4.html

Graceguts hosts an essay on "Punctuation in Haiku," examining how different punctuation marks can shape the tone and meaning of haiku, supported by examples from various poets: https://www.graceguts.com/essays/punctuation-in-haiku.

how toHaiku

About the Creator

Geoffrey Philp

I am a Jamaican writer. I write poems (haiku & haibun), stories & essays about climate change, Marcus Garvey, music icons such as Bob Marley, and the craft of writing. For more info, visit my webpage: https://www.geoffreyphilp.com/

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Comments (3)

  • Andrene Bonner Writes3 months ago

    Insightful essay, Geoffrey. Even di essay got riddim.

  • Excellent work and an interesting article. I shy away from short-form works but can't write long-form, I loved the image you created /used as well

  • Christopher Damian3 months ago

    Hi I really like your poem and I'm just a young poet who still needs tutoring Can we link on?

Geoffrey Philp Written by Geoffrey Philp

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