Opening Book: Wedding Preamble Page 39

This is a poem I wrote for my own wedding and had only two days to do it. For the fun of it (and to make it easier) I based it on the Elizabethan model for working out ideas – which they called the Topics of Invention and taught in grade school. (So… the poem has that sound to it). My preamble has actually been a very popular poem and if you would like to use it, please feel free. But I have two favors to ask.

Leave a comment. It will make my day.

Second, if anybody asks, remember where you found it. Be sure to send them here.

Page 39 Wedding Preamble

Opening Book: My Bridge is like a Rainbow Page 34-38

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Page 34 My Bridge is like a Rainbow
Page 35 My Bridge is like a Rainbow

Page 36 My Bridge is like a Rainbow

Page 37 My Bridge is like a Rainbow

Page 38 My Bridge is like a Rainbow

Opening Book: Sonnet – The Farmer Wife’s Complaint Page 33

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Page 33 The Farmer Wife's Complaint

About Haiku

  • June 29 2009 More tweaking & more updating.
  • June 12 2009 Tweaked and edited.
  • March 22 2013 Several sections expanded. Metaphor and simile discussed.
  • November 29 2015 Discussion of Hokku vs. Haiku expanded.
  • May 27 2016 Minor edits and more typos corrected

It’s tempting to start with the history of haiku, but there are better historians and a perfectly good article at Wikipedia (if you want to read some history online).

Another site I would strongly recommend offers a variety of online articles by Jane Reichhold – someone who has lived the haiku life. She recently published a complete translation of Basho’s haiku and I reviewed her book in an earlier post. She has graciously given me permission to repost her list of techniques here. She’s also starting her own blog and when I know the address, I will provide a link.

Another excellent site, Mushimegane,  provides samplings of haiku by ten Japanese poets – the site offers a smattering of haiku by the older Japanese poets the west is mostly familiar with – Basho, Buson – and the rest are 20th Century practitioners. The tradition of haiku is alive and well in Japan, and the site relates some of the heated aesthetic controversies that still swirl around the form- proving it’s still worth fighting over.

The best that I can do, I think, is to share how I read and enjoy haiku – and what I look for.

The Shape of Haiku

Many sites, including Wikipedia, will state that Japanese haiku are “traditionally” written in single vertical lines. Far be it for me to dispute this. However, in the two examples I am posting here, Basho & Issa have *not* written their haiku in single vertical lines but have written them in three lines. Both are written vertically. If only from this evidence, by two of Japan’s greatest practitioners, one can at least reason that the Japanese saw the haiku as being  a tripartite form. Cutting words (words that, roughly like English punctuation marks, designate a break in thought or verse) also typically reinforce the tripartite structure of the haiku.

I have tried to find examples online but couldn’t, so I copied these illustrations from one of R.H. Byth’s books on haiku – Haiku: Volume 4 Autumn-Winter.


I have “highlighted”, with rectangles, the haiku as written on the painting. Here is the same haiku written vertically so that, if you’re like me, you can try to match the Kanji to the actual words and translation.


And here is a haiku by Issa.


And here is the same haiku written horizontally:


Even if you can’t read Japanese, you can follow the Kanji and see the the haiku is written in three lines, vertically, right to left. The bottom line: the haiku’s presentation wasn’t written in stone, being as much art as science; but the tripartite form of the haiku is an established characteristic of the haiku.

The Shape of Haiku in English

English poets wishing to write haiku in English recognized the poem’s tripartite form and so, mirroring this, most English language poets write haiku in three lines. And that’s where most agreement ends. Up until the mid-seventies, the overwhelming opinion was that an English language haiku should be written as follows:

5 syllables/
7 syllables/
5 syllables

Why? The Japanese count what are called on. Five in the first line, seven in the second, five in the third – 5/7/5. The Japanese “on” has traditionally been considered a parallel to the syllable in the English language. But it’s not. Here is how Wikipedia explains the difference:

“The word ‘on’ is often translated as “syllable”, but there are subtle differences between an ‘on’ and an English-language “syllable”… One on is counted for a short syllable, an additional one for an elongated vowel, diphthong, or doubled consonant, and one for an “n” at the end of a syllable. Thus, the word “haibun”, though two syllables in English, is counted as four on in Japanese (ha-i-bu-n).”

This means that any given word in Japanese will have more Japanese “syllables” than an equivalent word in English.  The fact that writing 5/7/5 poems in English isn’t equivalent to the Japanese system is revealed, tellingly, by translators who try to retain the 5/7/5 syllable count in English. The haiku tend to feel wordy and the translator is nearly always forced to introduce “filler” words that are not in the Japanese. Here, for example, is Basho’s most famous haiku:

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

Notice the 5/7/5 “syllable” count. Now watch what happens when a translator tries to preserve this “count” in English (translated byEli Siegel):

Pond, there, still and old!
A frog has jumped from the shore.
The splash can be heard.

Another (Translated by Earl Miner & Hiroko Odagiri):

The old pond is still
a frog leaps right into it
splashing the water

Not only do the translators miss the sense switching that is essential to understanding the genius of the poem (the frog jumped into the sound of water, not the water), but they are forced to add all kinds of words and meanings that aren’t in the original. Here is a recent translation by Jane Reichhold:


old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water.

Reichhold’s translation comes closest to the original in my judgement. Here is the original with a literal translation (notice the cutting words ya & no – for which there is no equivalent in English:

furuike | ya | kawazu | tobikomu | mizo | no |oto
old-pond |: | frog | jump-in | water | sound

So, at least by these standards, writing 5/7/5 haiku in English can’t really be considered an equivalent to the Japanese 5/7/5 on. After all, notice that the Japanese treat cutting words, which in some cases are essentially punctuation marks, as syllables. When is the last time an exclamation point or colon was counted as a syllable in English? So… the 5/7/5 stricture is useful, inasmuch as it provides a form or scaffold on which to build a haiku, but it requires too many words in English to really capture the spirit of the Japanese haiku – at least  as the Japanese read it in their own language.

Note: The late William J Higginson, who has increasingly seemed, to me, to be the most informed and knowledgeable western scholar, had this to say of Riechhold’s term “sense switching”:  It would have been better had Reichhold identified logic, rather than the senses, as being scrambled here, and unfortunately she wrongly classifies this as an example of synesthesia (taking one sensation as if perceived by a different sensory mode, such as “colors of music” or “sweet pain”). Her version of Bashô’s poem, however, comes far closer to the original than most translations, and the “mind puzzle” certainly does exist in the original, though it fails to show up in most of those other translations.

A more equivalent form, in my view (and I don’t take credit for this), is to write English haiku on an accentual basis rather than a syllabic one. So, the form would look like this:

2 stresses/
3 stresses/
2 stresses

Reichhold’s translation, as it so happens, falls into this accentual 2/3/2 form. I don’t think it’s intentional since many of her other translations do not, but I think it indicates that this accentual method is a closer approximation to the spirit of the original.


A third alternative is to ignore any kind of form whatsoever, which is what I do. Since English language haiku will never truly be the equivalent of Japanese haiku (because the English language will never be the equivalent of the Japanese language) I’m content to strive for the spirit of the form – the ku. My impression is that this is what most modern English language poets do. It has also been my impression that most translators no longer bother with the older 5/7/5 syllable count. But there are exceptions: Donald Keene’s recent translation of Basho’s The Narrow Road to Oku is a case in point. He retains the 5/7/5 syllable count and his translations are beautiful though not always “faithful”. He is forced to introduce words & meanings that are not in the original (and I can only judge this if kanji is provided) – though his additions might match the tenor and reinforce certain aspects of the haiku (allowing that the reader accepts his interpretations).

As for me, I have read Sato’s very faithful translation of the same work, Narrow Road. Sato translates Basho’s haiku as a single line in English but his translations lack a sense of poetry. So, I keep Keene’s translation right next to me reasoning that somewhere in between their translations, something of the original Japanese can  be felt.

Bottom line: You will come across forceful arguments for all three methods. None of them is right. It’s up to you to decide which form works for you. I personally prefer brevity and as little interpretation as possible. I like to get as close to the literal words of the original as possible. But that’s just me.

Hokku & Haiku: Forceful arguments are not limited to form. A very good site strongly argues that since haiku was a term initiated by the Japanese Poet Shiki (1867-1902), it should not be retroactively applied to poems written before him (as I have done). Note:The original link was apparently removed by the blogger at the Hokku site, and so I’ve linked to the site in general. These poems, the argument goes, should be called hokku – haiku and hokku representing two diverse principles and aesthetics. According to this argument: Hokku (traditional haiku) concern themselves with nature  and the cycle of nature as it reveals us to ourselves and our oneness with nature. “Haiku”, on the other hand, are primarily 20th Century diversions that can be altogether unrelated to nature, to hokku (traditional haiku), and to anything that would have been written or understood by Japanese poets prior to the 20th Century. If one accepts this assertion, then this post should be called “About Hokku”, and not “About Haiku”. And, if one accepts this assertion, many (if not most) of the three line poems written by modern poets and bloggers are not, in fact, haiku. Wikipedia also offers a brief entry on this subject.

November 29th 2015: I’ve recently been reading an excellent translation of Basho’s haiku by David Landis Barnhill — the best in my opinion. Haikai referred both to haikai no renga, a comic linked verse form (linked in the sense that it was comprised of alternating stanzas 5-7-5, 7-7, 5-7-5, 7-7, etc…) and the more general aesthetic aims of the form—cultivating both “earthy humor and spiritual depth”. Barnhill allows that we might more accurately refer to Basho as a master of haikai poetry.  Hokku historically referred to the first stanza (5-7-5) of the classical renga or its haikai form. As for the distinction between Haiku and Hokku, Barnhill sensibly writes:

“[Haiku] is a modern word. It was popularized by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), the first great modern haiku poet, as a way to distinguish his type of verse from its antecedents, haikai and hokku. In partiular, Shiki emphasized that a haiku is a completely independent poem, not part of a linked-verse. During most of the twentieth century Western scholars and translators used the term haiku for both modern haiku and postmodern hokku, and haiku has thus come to be the generally accepted term in the West for both premodern and modern forms. In addition, Basho’s hokku now function in modern culture (both in Japan and the West) the same way Shiki’s haiku does, as independent verses.” [Basho’s Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho, p. 4]

As a final parting thought on form in English Haiku, consider this passage from The Haiku Handbook by the late William J. Higginson:

“As a result of this study [in which Higginson timed how long the Japanese took to read or perform Haiku) I concluded that an English-language translation of a typical haiku should have from ten to twelve syllables in order to simulate the duration of the original.

A well known translator of Japanese poetry, Hiroaki Sato, has also concluded that his haiku translations “must come to about… 12 syllables in the case of those written in the orthodox 5-7-5”. Maeda Cana, a scholar who has made an extensive study of quantity in Japanese and English poems, has worked very hard at duplicating the durations and rhythmical patterns of Japanese haiku in her English translations. Her translations average just under twelve syllables each, I find it significant that two other translators agree with the finding which I independently arrived at: Approximately 12 English syllables best duplicates the length of Japanese haiku in the traditional form of seventeen onji.

The simplistic notion of 17 syllable haiku has obscured another important feature of traditional haiku form in the west. Most traditional haiku have a kireji, or “cutting word”. The kireji usually divides the stanza into two rhythmical parts, one of 12 onji and the other of five. The kireji is a sort of sounded, rather than merely written, punctuation. It indicates a pause, both rhythmically and grammatically. Some kireji also lend a particular emotional flavor to the five [roughly like an exclamation point]…

The starting verse of a renga also had to leave room for an additonal thought, to be added in the next verse [haiku partly originated as the starting verse of a renga]. Often the starting verse was grammatically incomplete. The tendency toward grammatical incompleteness carried over into haiku–as either incomplete sentences or very clipped, almost telegraphic speech. This allows haiku poets to concentrate on image-making words as they omit much of the complex grammar that occurs in everyday conversational Japanese.” [p. 102]

The Seasons of Haiku ~ Kigo

All haiku are traditionally written with one of the four seasons explicitly in mind. (The observation of nature and seasonal cycles is what separates traditional haiku (or Hokku), in the minds of many scholars, from modern haiku.) In many cases, the seasonal clues are explicit enough that even a western reader, with just a little experience, can recognize the Kigo (season word).

the snow on my hut
Melted away
In a clumsy manner.

~Issa [Snow melts in the spring.]

tilling the field;
my house also is seen
as evening falls

~ Buson [Fields are tilled in the spring – tilling would be the kigo.]

on the lotus leaf
the dew of this world
is distorted

~ Issa [The kigo would be lotus leaf – summer.]

the cool breeze
fills the emptiness of heaven
with the voice of pine trees

~ Onitsura [The kigo would be cool breeze – summer.]

the flying leaves
in the field at the front
entice the cat

yosa_buson~ Issa [The kigo would be flying leaves – autumn.]

the sparrows are flying
from scarecrow
to scarecrow

~ Sazanami [The kigo would be scarecrow – autumn.]

after killing the spider,
a lonely
cold night

~ Shiki [The kigo would be cold – winter.]

a camellia –
it falls into the dark
of an old well

~ Buson [The kigo would be camellia – winter.]

In large part, the poets will also simply state the season.

summer grasses
all that remain
of the warriors’ dreams

~ Basho

Although Kigo may seem mysterious at first, one does begin to recognize them (especially if the translator has been kind enough to organize the haiku by season). After a little experience, one even begins to enjoy ferreting out the haiku’s season and which word or image is meant to signify the season.

How to Read Haiku

First, although Basho is considered Japan’s greatest poets and although he wrote over a thousand haiku, even a devout partisan of haiku like R.H. Blyth stated that, really, only about a hundred of them were truly great. Shiki also famously made the same claim. The same could be said, more or less, for Buson, Issa, Shikki. Don’t read haiku expecting every haiku to be a masterpiece. Don’t blame yourself if you find yourself asking: Just what is so great about this little blip? It’s possible that, in fact, there isn’t anything great about it. haiku are like all the things we do. Some burn with a brilliant white light, others glow warmly and others, well, they sputter out in a little poof of ash & soot.  Then there’s taste. Even the Japanese cannot agree on which haiku are great and which are not. Some consider Basho’s “greatest” poem, Old Pond, to be nothing but a trite piece of fluff.

So it goes.

Second, although some critics seem to wrap haiku in a veil of mystery and Zen ineffability, the Japanese have ten toes like us, breath the same air, and did not evolve on a different planet. For the most part, they write, understand and read poetry just like we do. The techniques they use in haiku are, for the most part, identical to the techniques in our own poetry because they are, in fact, homo sapiens like us.  There are differences, obviously, but they are more reflective of poetic philosophy and emphasis. One does not have to master Zen to understand or appreciate haiku.( That whole line of thinking is overblown.)

However, like the game of GO, which is a game much older than Chess, originating in China and perfected in Japan, the rules of haiku are easy to learn but take a lifetime to master.

But the rules are simple.

Nearly every haiku is an attempt make us consider ordinary experiences in a poetic and extra-ordinary way (thus, the haiku’s resemblance to the experience of oneness, satori, the sudden and abrupt moment of enlightenment – the Ah-Ha! moment). Some two hundred years ago, on a warm spring day, a poet named Issa saw that as the snow was melting, the children came out to play in the warmer weather. This is an ordinary thing to see on an ordinary day in spring. The snow melts. There is nothing extraordinary about melting snow. In every part of the world where the snow comes and goes, men and women have seen the same thing. But one day, Issa, a self-deprecating Japanese poet, saw it  in an extraordinary way.  This is what poets do. He wrote:

snow melts
and the village is flooded
by children

We read the first line, then the second, thinking that he will tell us the snow has flooded the village. But this would be ordinary. The meaning of the second sentence is like a hinge that will be swung from the first line to the third. The village is not flooded by snow, but by children. The effect is to transform the melting snow into the colors and motion of playing children. The effect is magical. The reader experiences the ordinary in an extraordinary way. And this is what great haiku do. They use a variety of techniques to accomplish, but the best all have this in common – that Ah! moment.

I have already posted Basho’s famous haiku, but it bears reposting because, again, it exemplifies that unique capacity of the haiku to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.

old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

This haiku has been so frequently mistranslated that westerners wonder what is so profound about a frog jumping into an old pond. And there is nothing profound about that. It’s the last line, when the frog jumps into the sound of water, that the ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary. (It perfectly expresses the moment of oneness that is such a feature of Zen – and it is in this respect that the philosophy of the haiku finds its analogy in Zen.) In this case, the technique is different than that which Issa used. Reichhold, as I mentioned before, calls this technique Sense Switching, Higginson prefers to call it a scrambling of logic .

What if you were sitting with guests and something happened. Maybe it shocked all of you? You sit in stunned silence? Here is a rendition of what Oshima Ryota wrote:

the guest, the host, the white

This is my own rendition, based on the literal translation of the Kanji. This haiku has to be among my all time favorites. The first two lines are perfectly ordinary. And then the third! What should we imagine? Are they shocked? Are they meditating? Whatever has happened, the white chrysanthemum is suddenly, fully and wholly a part of the narrative. It is a brillant stroke and I can’t help detecting humor (though Patricia Donegan, in haiku mind, treats the poem with reverential seriousness).

And here’s another in a similar vein by Issa:

As if nothing had happened,
The crow
And the willow.

Not all haiku burn with the white hot brilliance of these last three. Sometimes the transformation from ordinary to extraordinary is not so white hot, but more of warm glow. Issa was especially gifted with this sort of awareness & gentleness.  He could write:

visiting graves –
the old dog
leads the way

The oneness is warm and gentle in this haiku. It is as though Issa grants the dog an awareness of its own age and mortality, but does so without anthropomorphizing. There is simply the awareness that, in its own way, the dog is no different than ourselves, instinctively aware but serenely un-aware of its mortality; knowing its way home the way we all, ultimately, know our way home. Not ah-ha! But simply, ah…

Variations on Haiku

Haiga – A haiga is simply a haiku which is part of an illustration or painting – each art form, ideally, informing and enriching the other. The samples above, with which  I started this post, are haiga. Buson was especially famous for haiga, being considered  as talented a painter as he was a poet. Once one begins to become familiar with the different Japanese poets, a reader does begin to notice a certain painterly quality to Buson’s haiku.

Haibun – The combination of prose and haiku. Usually the prose is brief, highly descriptive and evocative. This is the genre in which Basho’s Narrow Road to the North is written, perhaps Japan’s most famous and most read piece of literature – in and out of Japan. Basho’s Narrow Road is a kind of travelogue. The haiku enrich and inform the prose tracts while the prose provides insight for better appreciating the haiku.

Senryu – Senryu are almost like haiku but for tone and subject matter. Senryu frequently dispense with kigo, are humorous, satirical, and wryly underscore the foibles of human nature.  The form is named after Edo period haiku poet Senryū Karai.

the robber,
when I catch him,
my own son

Higginson writes in The Haiku Handbook that “to some purists only the absence of season words and kireji divides senryu from haiku… Others note that senryu tend to focus on the humor in a situation, and do not always speak of the specific here and now, while haiku usually do. Human concerns, though not absent from haiku, dominate senryu.”

My own experience is that the majority of “haiku” written by Western bloggers and poets are really Senryu or Zappai. The term “Erotic Haiku”, for example, is very nearly a contradiction in terms. However, since many (if not most) western readers probably aren’t familiar with the distinction between haiku and senryu, there is some justification for the collocation “Erotic Haiku”.

A very general distinction:

  • Haiku: The predominant themes of haiku are seasonal and concerned with nature. Haiku relate nature to human beings.
  • Senryu: Senryu are no longer limited to humorous or satirical subjects. They do emphasize human concerns over the natural world and often do not reference nature at all.
  • In modern times, and especially in English, the distinction between a senryu and a haiku can be permeable.

In the book, Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, (in my opinion one of the best book on writing haiku) Lee Gurga argues that while the distinction remains strong in Japan, the difference between haiku and senryu is much less severe in English:

“While it is similar to haiku in form, senryu is different in effect. Senryu does not require a season word, and it relies on wit, irony, and satire  to comment on the human condition. Haiku, senryu and zappai are quite separate genres in Japan, but the distinctions in English-language circles are blurred. Many of the poems written in seventeen syllables and presented as haiku in the West would actually be senryu or zappai in Japan.”

  • Zappai – Gurga calls this “a term that encompasses more than twenty-five types of light verse in haiku form.”  Zappai means “miscellaneous haikai verse” [p. 58]. Gurga also uses the term pseudohaiku.

Simile and Metaphor in and Haiku

You will commonly be told that Japanese poets do not use metaphor or simile in haiku. This is only partially true. Japanese poets do not use metaphor or simile like western poets but scholarship is increasingly revealing a different sort of metaphor associated with the “icononcity” of the language itself. This is a complex subject and an extract from the following essay should give you an idea of what’s involved:

“One of the most controversial criteria often stressed in haiku handbooks is that haiku should be an objective record of things experienced (Arkenberg, 2008). The poet does not use one object or idea to describe another, using A to understand B. In other words, haiku is often defined as a poem which avoids poetic devices, even metaphor (Shirane, 2000: 53).

However, numerous legendary Japanese haiku masters (Basho, Issa, Busson) are known to have used metaphor in their poetry, for example:

About to bloom,
and exhale a rainbow,
The peony

(translated by R. Roseliep ) Busson ( On a Rhyming Planet, 20 )

The peony is pictured both literally and figuratively: every flower blooms at its proper time but the one in the haiku above is endowed with a kind of magical power, for it is capable of breathing out a rainbow when breaking into blossom. An unusual hyperbole based on the conceptual metaphor PLANTS ARE LIVING BEINGS implies rainbow flecks of sun rays – an optical effect emerging quite often in sunny weather.

Today more and more haiku researchers claim that metaphor is central to haiku as to any other kind of poetry ( see Carriello , 2010 ; Shirane, 2000; Swede, 2000). However, the fundamental difference between the use of metaphor in haiku and that in other poetry is that in haiku it tends to be extremely subtle and indirect, to the point of not being readily apparent (Carriello, 2010 ). The metaphor in good haiku is often hidden or even deeply concealed within a poem. Even the seasonal word in Japanese haiku often tends to be inherently metaphorical, since it conveys very specific literary and cultural associations, but its dominant function remains to be descriptive, leaving the metaphorical dimension implied (Shirane, 2010: 56 ) .

Metaphor in Japanese haiku has been widely studied by Masaka Hiraga (see Hiraga 1998; 2002; 2005; 2006 ), who claims that metaphor is tightly linked to iconicity which is defined as a mapping between the structure of a text and the meaning or image it conveys. In poetic texts this interplay of metaphor and iconicity is particularly foregrounded (Hiraga 2005: 27). Still, while the Japanese language displays pure iconicity, for the system of its hieroglyphic writing visually signals the meaning, English haiku show iconicity and its interplay with metaphor more subtly, which is the focus of our research. ” [Metaphor in English Haiku: A Cognitive Approach Anna Shershnyova, Kyiv National Linguistic University]

My own opinion is that translators who studiously avoid, for example, verbal metaphors (see my post on The Art of Haiku by Stephen Addiss) because they think that Japanese poets didn’t use metaphor are potentially doing a considerable disservice to the poetry of the original Japanese haiku.
  • March 21rst 2016 · Being in the middle of my haiku year, writing a haiku a day, I’ve also been reading a wide variety of Japanese haiku from their origins through the 19th century. At this point I would say that the Japanese poets do use simile and metaphor (as we understand it). The difference is that they don’t preface their similes or metaphors the way western poets do. The brevity of the haiku, if nothing else, prevents that. Consider a recently discovered trove of haiku by Buson. One of the haiku reads as follows:


The umbrella
····changes form, a moon-lit night
········with eyes


This is essentially a simile. There are holes in the umbrella where the moon shines through. So: The umbrella is like a moon-lit night with eyes. Of course, because Buson doesn’t use like — which never would have occurred to him anyway — the simile is less direct and therefore more powerful. It’s not just the umbrella that is altered (becoming like something else) but the entire night now has eyes. The umbrella becomes (as opposed to being like) a moon-lit night with eyes. So, the takeaway in my opinion is not that Japanese poets didn’t use simile and metaphor, but that they used these poetic techniques in a different guise. At its simplest perhaps, they would never write that X is like Y but that X becomes and is Y. Some might call this the Zen influence in haiku.


The Techniques of Haiku

And now for the entomology. Read no further if you faint at the sight of these flitting little poems pinned through their hearts – examined under a magnifying glass. The following techniques are the result of Jane Reichhold’s work, not mine. They spring from Appendix 1 of her book: Basho: The Complete Haiku. I have her to thank for them. I have paraphrased and have not used the haiku she gives as examples (at her request). I have also condensed some for the sake of brevity and because some of the distinctions seemed slight to me. If you want to read a more thorough explanation of each technique with an example by Basho, check out her book. It’s worth it. Only one of the techniques is my own (and she may tell me that it’s not Japanese or a genuine technique).

Note: Higginson has this to say concerning this list: Reichhold’s list-making gets away from her, however, with twenty-four “techniques” for writing haiku, many of which seem minor variations on one another, or which ignore the time-honored vocabulary used to name and discuss such things. She does not seem to understand the meanings of such words as “metaphor” and “simile,” for example.

With this in mind, recognize that the Japanese may have more traditional Japanese terms for these poetic techniques. I still find this list useful; a good way to approach haiku through more familiar terms and concepts.

1.) Association – How different things may be associated.

A handle
On the moon –
And what a splendid fan.

2.) Comparison – How different things may be compared.

In traveling attire,
A stork in late autumn rain:
The old master Basho.

~ Chora

3.) Contrast

Into the distance,
The straight line of the canal,
And the willow trees

~ Shiki

4.) Close Linkage – Linking images – a kind of subcategory of Association.

A pear tree in bloom
In the moonlight,
A woman reading a letter.

~ Buson

5.) Leap Linkage– This operates the same as the previous technique, except that the linkage between the images may be much more difficult to discern. (Reichhold gives a better example in her book.) Sometimes the linkage is simply impossible for a western reader to discern without a knowledge of Japanese history, literature and culture.

autumn evening;
a crow
on a withered bough

~ Basho

6.) Metaphor – This is much less common in haiku, if only because of their brevity. The example Reichhold gives in her book seems more like a simile to me – the gay boy/a plumb and the willow/a woman ~ Basho. The following is the closest that I could find to something like metaphor in my particular selection of haiku.

a stream
rowing through the town,
and the willows

~ Shiki

[My thought, and I may be incorrect, is that the stream is itself a metaphor for Shiki.]

7.) Simile – The Japanese don’t spell it out the way western poets do. However, substitute like for what and viola! – you have a simile.

a handle
on the moon –
what a splendid fan

~ Sokan

8.) Rhyme This needs no explanation. However, rhymes in Japanese are much easier than rhymes in English since, as Reichhold points out, there are only five vowels – a bit like Italian. Rhyming is actually far more ubiquitous than English translations would lead you to believe but, unlike Sonnets, rhyming is not considered part and parcel of the haiku form. It happens when it happens. Nonetheless, for the sake of completion, I’ll give an example from one of my own haiku – master that I am. My self-appointed haiku name is bottlecap, (because of my glasses).

····running round and round as the leaves
········fall down

bottlecap · edited May 27th 2016

(This would be more of a slant rhyme and internal rhyme, I suppose.)

9.) The Sketch (or Shasei) – Shiki was considered the leading proponent of this sort of haiku. The depiction of a thing just as it is. Interspersed with other haiku, the effect can be refreshing, but too much and the effect begins to feel dull. Also, this technique is one that eschews the aesthetic of making the ordinary extraordinary. Many modern haiku, I notice, (and especially among newcomers) are really Shasei.

the lights are lit
on the islands far and near:
the spring sea.

~ Shiki

10.) Narrowing Focus – Start big, end small. According to Reichhold, this was a favored technique of Buson.

icy moonlight
small stones
crunch underfoot

~ Buson

11.) Riddle – Reichhold writes: “The trick in using this technique is to state the riddle in as puzzling terms as possible. The more intriguing the setup, and the closer the correlation between the images, the better the haiku seems to work.”

····the birch?—or my daughter
········behind it?

~ bottlecap

you are the butterfly
and I the dreaming heart
of soshi?

~ Basho

12.) Paradox

In the eye of the dragonfly
the mountains

~ Issa

13.) Wordplay -This includes double-entendres and puns, difficult to reproduce in translation.

14.) Humor – Issa, in my experience, is easily the most gently humorous of all the Japanese haikuists.

The young girl
blows her nose
in the evening glory

~ Issa

One man
One fly
In one room.

~ Issa

(The latter haiku is my rendition. I find Blyth’s translation too wordy – ruining the understated humor of the haiku.)

15.) Pseudo-science – “A distorted view of science” Reichhold calls it. She writes that this method creates an “other reality” and that it is an old Japanese tool meant to make the poet “sound simple and childlike” while confounding the reader. On the other hand, it’s hard to see the difference between this and what Reichhold calls sense-switching or Higginson’s Logic Scrambling. I actually find that I prefer Reichhold’s term. It has the feeling of synesthesia which the terms sense switching, in my view, better captures.

the temple bell
still ringing in the scent
of evening flowers

~ Basho

(This is my rendition of Basho’s haiku. The version by R.H. Blythe seemed clumsy to me.)

16.) Sense Switching – This is considered a favorite of Japanese poets. Hearing what one sees. Seeing what one smells, etc… Basho’s famous haiku – Old Pond, is a prime example.

17.) Frame Rhyme – This is the term Reichhold uses for off-rhymes, slant rhymes, half rhymes, etc… My own haiku, Round and round, is an example.

18.) Coining new words – This is self-explanatory and very difficult to reproduce in translation. Shakespeare was a master of word coinage, but all his haiku are tragically lost…

19.) Twist Reichhold calls this the most common method in writing “waka” poetry. Quite simply, the poet creates a set of expectations then, in the middle of the verse, turns or twists those expectations. Issa’s haiku, transforming the melting snow into a flood of children is a prime example.

20.) Pivoting This is similar to the twist. The difference is that the middle line can be applied to both the first line, meaning one thing, and the last line, so that it means another. Again, Issa’s poem is a perfect example of this – possessing both a twist in meaning and a 2nd line pivot.

21.) Literary References (Reichhold adds Response to Another Poem as its own technique – but I mention it here as a variation on Literary References.) The Japanese (and Chinese) revered their elders and their poetic traditions. They, like Robert Frost, preferred the old way to do new things. They weren’t the least embarrassed by quoting or paraphrasing whole lines of poetry. They didn’t give credit where credit was due. They simply assumed that readers would immediately recognize the reference. There’s a story of a Japanese warlord who was caught in rain while hunting. He went to a farmer’s house and requested a raincoat. If memory serves, the girl returned with a cut vine of Clematis. The warlord was infuriated by the girl’s disrespect but when the Warlord’s retainer patiently explained that this was an allusion to a famous poem (dating back hundreds of years ago and about a similar situation), the warlord was so embarrassed by his ignorance (that a mere peasant girl knew more about great poem than he did) that he sheepishly hurried home and devoted his life to the study of literature. The Japanese took these matters seriously.

Anyway, Basho’s Narrow Road is chalk full of literary borrowings and references. He frequently mentioned uta-makuras for example. An uta-makura is a landmark (it could be a stone in a field or the north side of a river) that had usually been mentioned in an older poem. A whole tourist industry was built around uta-makuras and Basho saw as many as he could during his famous journey to the north. Unless your edition of haiku is annotated. Just forget it. You will never recognize all the references. Unfortunately for us, understanding the reference, in some cases, is the better part of understanding the poem. I prefer translations with annotations – whenever possible.

Here’s an example from the very first haiku from Basho’s Narrow Road to the north. I’ll reprint the haiku as it was translated so that you can get the feel of a single line translation (this is Sato’s translation, mentioned above).

Departing spring: birds cry and, in the eyes of fish, tears.

Sato writes: “Alludes to the third and fourth lines of “A Spring View”, a poem by Tu Fu: ‘Touched by the times, I shed tears on the flowers; / resenting separation, I am startled by the birds.'”

22.) Hiding the Author This can be difficult to spot. The haikuist talks about himself without explicitly mentioning himself – the idea being to make the poem more universal. This runs against the grain of American confessional poetry, which has taken navel gazing to irredeemable heights.

departing Spring
in the late cherry blossoms

~ Buson

In Buson’s haiku, I suspect that Buson is referring to himself when he writes “departing Spring”. In other words, he is no longer young but, like the cherry blossoms, chooses to linger a little while in fading beauty.

23.) Hidden Subject – Reichhold states that “Asian poets often praised a missing thing”.  The technique risks being maudlin and sentimental. Here is one by Issa.

Mountains seen also
By my father, like this,
In his winter confinement.

~ Issa

24.) Sabi – Reichhold makes the point that the Japanese themselves cannot agree on what exactly Sabi means, but seem doubly certain that it can’t be explained to westerners. It’s not so mysterious, though what sparks the experience differs for each person – which is why it may be so difficult to describe. For me, it’s a kind of beauty experienced with the sorrow of transcience.

grasses in mist
and the brook is quiet –
daylight fades

~ Buson

(This is my own rendition.)

25.) Wabi – This adds the element of simplicity to Sabi. Frost captures Sabi and Wabi in his great poem Directive.

“The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.”

It is in the last line of this passage that I, myself, have the feeling of Wabi. The little plastic cup, worn, with the marks of childhood, and thrown aside, has in it a simple, and perhaps heartbreaking beauty that no work of craft could ever match.

in the winter river,
pulled up and thrown away –
a red turnip.

~ Buson

26.) Yugen – This is best expressed, perhaps, as finding mystery in common things – a kind of unknowable meaning in an everyday observance.

autumn beginning:
lamplight from someone’s house –
not quite dark

~ Buson

27.) Divinity in the Commonplace

the blossoms fall
our minds
become tranquil

– Koyo-Ni

(This is my rendition.)

28.) Lightness – This was a technique which Basho developed and prized in his old age. The technique was not a hit with some of his disciples however, who (if one reads between the lines) apparently grew tired of the master’s harping on it. They parted company. Reichhold states: “Basho was trying to write poetry that was less emotional…” She notes that Basho’s favorite haiku using this technique “are the ones with few or no verbs” – as if it were the verbs that weighed the poems down. “In our times,” she notes, these haiku are “pejoratively called ‘grocery list’ haiku”. Seems that the technique never caught on. (Add grocery list haiku to desk haiku (desku) – haiku which are written from ones imagination rather than direct experience; a manner of writing treated with contempt by every self-respecting purist.)

plates and bowls
dimly in darkness
evening chill

~ Basho

[Reichhold seems to distinquish this technique from Shasei, but the difference is hard for me to discern.]

29.) Implied Narrative This is a technique I have noticed but that Reichhold doesn’t seem to mention, and that could be because it’s not a Japanese technique. I find it to be an especially powerful technique in an especially small poetic form. It is the trick of using details to imply a narrative larger than the poem. Here’s an example by Shiki.

an upright hoe
no one to be seen –
the heat!

And here is a modern haiku by an online poets I discussed in a previous post:

snowy prints
bird prints end
at my approach

~ Polona Oblak

In this last haiku, the narrative of the bird’s startled flight is omitted but implied. In Shiki’s haiku, the narrative of the overheated farmer is omitted, but implied. The reader fills in the narrative and so adds to the power of what is omitted.

Guides & Resources: The Haiku Society of America (HSA) has put together a top-notch list of haiku resources and guides. You can also find reviews of many of the books there. The reviews are well-worth reading. You will get a sense of some of the disagreements and controversies most of us are unaware of.

Questions? Suggestions? Corrections? Let me know.

Opening Book: Prologue to a Play by Thomas Holcroft Page 31-32

[The title says it all. I was invited to write this prologue for a performance by the director and lead actor of Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery. I no longer remember the actor’s name. I wish I did. If memory serves, the play was not written in heroic couplets or any kind of verse, but I thought writing the prologue this way would set it apart. Much of the subject matter, and even the wording, comes straight from a book on the history of Salem during this period. (I don’t remember the name of the book but found it locally.)

All I did was to versify the book’s prose (changing the prose to rhyming iambic pentameter). Shakespeare used to do this with his own plays – the most famous examples being from Antony & Cleopatra – in which he versified whole passages from Plutarch. If I had it to do again, I probably wouldn’t put this in my book. The couplet: “I only tell it now because it’s sad/ To see what’s good so easily go bad” is execrable. If spoken the way it should be (the actor reading the prologue was the villain of the play), the couplet might come off as humorously trite and mean-spirited – the way it was meant to be.  ]


Iambic Pentameter (Variants – I)

  • This post was edited, tweaked & improved on March 24, 2009.
  • February 22, 2009 – If you enjoy Frost (& Middleton is a scansion too far), you might like reading Birches along with a color coded scansion of Birches included in my post on Frost’s Mending Wall. To find all the posts I’ve written on Robert Frost, click here.
  • December 24, 2018 – Brief addition.

Variants That May or May Not Be Variants

Individual lines of Iambic Pentameter can be found in any poem, including free verse.

However, since free verse avoids any regular meter, there’s no meter from which to vary.

  • There tends to be a fair amount of confusion as to how something can be considered metrical without being strict in regard to its meter. In other words, how do we account for variant feet in an otherwise metrical poem and at what point do too many variant feet undermine the meter? The best way to answer this is to think of meter as a musical beat. As far as we know, much ancient poetry appears to have been associated with music. In other words, poetry started out as lyrics. The stress patterns of the words commonly reflected the music’s beat (as in Hymn Meter). A musical melody reflects a given time signature such as 6/8 or 4/4 or 3/4. Think of variant feet like syncopation or triplets in a 4/4 time signature. A melody doesn’t always follow a given beat, but it also isn’t so disruptive as to lose the beat. If you think of meter as a time signature (iambic verses anapestic meter for example), then think of variant feet as a kind of syncopation that both works against the beat and reinforces it.

So, variants are only relevant within the context of Metrical poetry. Blank verse is meter consisting of un-rhymed iambic pentameter. It is the verse of Shakespeare’s Plays and the verse of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

john-milton1This turn hath made amends; thou hast fulfill’d
Thy words, Creator bounteous and benigne,
Giver of all things faire, but fairest this
Of all thy gifts, nor enviest. I now see
Bone of my Bone, Flesh of my Flesh, my Self
Before me; Woman is her Name, of Man
Extracted; for this cause he shall forgoe
Father and Mother, and to his Wife adhere;
And they shall be one Flesh, one Heart, one Soule.

Paradise Lost Book 8 491-499

In the passage above, Adam expresses his gratitude for the creation of Eve – man’s gratitude for woman.

The first line that appears irregular is the fourth line. However, this line is not, in fact, a variant. Milton usually wrote a very strict blank verse in terms of syllable count. So, if a line looks like it might contain an extra syllable, especially in Milton, there’s usually a way to read it while maintaining the integrity of the pentameter line. In the case of the fourth line, -viest (of enviest) should be elided (0r synaeresized as some metrists say), making it one syllable instead of two.


Making the assumption that a poet means for two syllables to be elided, when habit of speech tells us they can be, is usually a safe assumption for poets through the 19th century. But this assertion, like all things, isn’t without controversy. Some metrists will assert that anapests shouldn’t be swept under the rug and that elision is simply a prudish avoidance of anapests. Anything can be carried too far; and not all anapests should be excised. On the other hand, metrists who oppose such elision (as above) give no answer as to why so many anapests during this period of poetry occur with words that can be easily elided or synaeresized. Even in the 20th Century, Robert Frost will frequently read anapestec feet as Iambic. In Birches, he writes They are but contracts the words to read They’re when reciting the poem. It’s hard for critics to argue with that! In poetry prior to the 20th century, indisputable anapests can be hard to find unless one considers all epic caesura to be anapests (more on that later). The pragmatic answer is that poets saw words like  enviest as a sort of middle ground – a compromise between anapests and a stricter iambic rhythm. Simple as that.

By the 20th century, the strictures and expectations concerning blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) loosen considerably. Also, especially toward the end of the 20th century, poets have become less knowledgeable and skilled in the use of blank verse and iambic pentameter. One need not assume that a word can be or should be elided.

The 8th line is trickier: “Father and Mother, and to his Wife adhere“. This is an eleven syllable line and there are two ways to scan it. One way, knowing that Milton was a very rule-bound writer of blank verse, is to look for another possible elision.


In this case, “to his could be elided – the two words combining so that, when one reads it quickly, the word “his” almost disappears: Father and Mother, and to’s Wife adhere. Such elisions were common practice in Milton, Shakespeare, Pope, Dryden and many other poets during this period. (Poets during the Restoration took Iambic Pentameter very seriously.)

But then again… the tricky “Art” of Scansion

But then again, as I presently devote an entire post to this passage, I’ve taken to another possibility:

Epic Caesura

In this scansion, I’ve read the line as having an Epic Caesura (to be discussed below). The rest of the feet are iambic. (In essence, an Epic Caesura is a feminine ending at a midline break.)  So… some lines can be scanned in multiple ways. As for myself, I think I’ve come to prefer this second scansion.

Missing & Extra Syllables

In my last post (Basics), we saw that even though a poem or play might be written in Iambic Pentameter, individual lines may vary from the overall pattern. The 11 syllable line beginning Hamlet’s famous, blank verse soliloquy is an example: To be or not to be, that is the question. A given line may have 9 , 11 or even 12 syllables instead of 10. And variations in Iambic Pentameter can extend even further. Shakespeare will sometimes intersperse the overall 10 syllable pattern with 6 syllable lines – called squinting lines (a term coined by George Wright).

Not all of these lines could be called Iambic Pentameter (since they’re not all Pentameter or five foot lines), but they might be variations if they vary from (but not too far from) an established iambic pentameter pattern. They also will generally be iambic. In other words, all these lines might be found in Free Verse but context is everything. In free verse, there is no meter to vary from, therefore the same line in a free verse poem wouldn’t be heard as a variation.

Let’s say a given line in an Iambic Pentameter poem has eleven syllables.

How, if one is scanning, do we decide which foot contains the extra syllable?

The following rule of thumb is fairly reliable: Choose the scansion that preserves the most Iambs. NOTE: If you were reading a poem that was Trochaic Tetrameter or Trochaic Pentameter, let’s say, then you would choose the scansion that preserves the most Trochees.

(I stress fairly because, in some cases, scanning a poem is as much art as science. If you don’t have a tin ear for the rhythm of language, the art of scansion is learned quickly.)

Missing Syllables: Headless Line

Here is an example from my own blank verse poem, Ulysses in Burlington, Vermont :

Longboard idle at the curb – I dole
My laws to boys that leer and know not me

If you divide the first line without giving thought to preserving the most iambs, marking off every two syllables, you might scan the first line as follows:


This gives us five feet (a Pentameter line). But by simply marking off every two syllables, starting with the first word, we have created a line with no Iambic Feet. They are all Trochaic – meaning that the first syllable of each foot is stressed and the second unstressed (the reverse of an Iambic Foot). If this were a free verse poem, this scansion would probably be as good as any. And if this were a free verse poem, another way to scan might be as follows:


In this case, we have a four foot line, or a tetrameter line, not pentameter. (A one foot line is a monometer line, two foot line is a dimeter line; a three foot line is trimeter; a four foot, tetrameter; five foot, pentameter; six foot, hexameter.) In the line above, the first two feet are Trochaic, the third foot is Anapestic (two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable, while the last foot is Iambic.

While tetrameter lines or trochaic pentameter is not unheard of in an Iambic Pentameter poem, consider it an option of last resort. If we follow our rule of thumb, preserve the most Iambs when scanning an Iambic Pentameter Poem (as well as trying to preserve the five feet of a pentameter line) we end up with the following:


A Cretic Foot?

The arrow indicates a missing syllable. This scansion preserves our five feet and preserves the Iambic pattern established by the poem.You might be tempted to read the first two feet as one |Long-board id|, a cretic foot – also called an amphimacer. This foot is exceedingly rare in Iambic Poetry. It also would make the line above a Tetrameter line:

Longboard id|le at| the curb| – I dole

There’s no hard and fast reason why one couldn’t read the first foot as cretic, but metrists generally prefer to read a line within the context of an established metrical pattern. Since the established metrical pattern of the poem is blank verse (I wrote it), my intention was to treat the line as a headless Iambic Pentameter variant.

  • Hint!If you just can’t make sense of a line, sometimes it helps to scan the line backwards. Start by establishing the last foot of the line first, (|I dole| in the line above), then work your way backwards.

Missing Syllables: Broken-backed Lines

A line missing an unstressed syllable before the stressed syllable in the first foot is called a headless line and is a common variant of Iambic Pentameter. A missing syllable may occur in any foot. Here’s an example from Shakespeare:


In this case, the third foot is missing an initial unstressed syllable. This is called a broken-backed line because an unstressed syllable is missing after a midline pause (Wright: Shakespeare’s Metrical Art Page 176). The final foot is an Amphibrachic Foot which, in an Iambic Pentameter poem, is called a Feminine Ending. That is, when a line ends on an unstressed syllable, it is called Feminine. When it ends with a stressed syllable, it is called Masculine.

One more important lesson to notice about the line above is that it contains ten syllables. But just because the line contains ten syllables doesn’t make it Iambic Pentameter through and through. Otherwise one might have been tempted to scan it as follows:


But this breaks our tidy rule of thumb. Instead of having three iambic feet (the first foot is still considered iambic with an intermediate stress), we now have two. For a full consideration of lines with missing syllables, try reading Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, already linked above.

Extra Syllables: The Feminine Ending

Any line in an Iambic Pentameter poem that contains more than ten syllables (syllables which can’t be elided) contains extra syllables. Perhaps the most common extra-syllabic variant is the line with a feminine ending – an amphibrach in the fifith foot.


Extra Syllables: The Anapestic Feminine Ending

In the 20th Century, Poets like Robert Frost (especially) introduced anapestic feminine endings.

In the final foot of the example above, Frost substitutes an anapest for an Iamb (in what would otherwise be an Iambic Feminine Ending). More on this line and the poem it comes from in my post on Frost’s Birches.

  • Note: The amphibrach  is also common before a midline break and is called an Epic Caesura (see example at bottom of post.)

Extra Syllables: The Heavy Feminine Ending

Another form of the feminine ending is known as the heavy feminine ending, wherein the final (and extra) syllable of the line receives an intermediate or heavy stress (example from Middleton’s The Changeling).


Like the feminine ending,  the heavy feminine ending can also occur before a midline break – another form of Epic Caesura – but, to my knowledge, never occurs in Shakespeare and very infrequently in Middleton.

Here’s another example of a Heavy Feminine Ending from Frost’s Birches:


Extra Syllables: A Triple Ending

A final foot with a kind of double feminine ending (two additional unstressed syllables in the final foot) is called a triple ending (example from my next post on Thomas Middleton).


or Shakespeare:


A triple ending can also occur before a midline break (Hamlet Act IV Scene 5).


(Note that all these examples are still pentameter: they still have five feet though they are not iambic through and through.) Any of the other metrical feet can contain extra syllables and the rule of thumb for scanning those lines remains the same – use the scansion that preserves the most iambic feet.


This is from MacBeth, IV iii Line 5. You might be tempted to think the line above has 12 syllables. However, the word spirits can be elided, and given what we know of the time and Shakespeare’s metrical habits, it probably should be (though no one can say with absolute certainty). The word woman, however, cannot be elided. This foot is amphibrachic, containing an extra unstressed syllable before a midline pause (the end of a phrase). It is called an Epic Caesuras (George Write: Shakespeare’s Metrical Art Page 165). The example is my own. The Epic Caesuras is easily among the most common extra-syllabic variant after the feminine ending. It is, in fact, a kind of feminine ending that occurs midline.

Extra Syllables: Epic Caesuras & Epic Controversies

But, as I mentioned earlier, calling this pattern an epic caesura is not without controversy among cut-throat scansion professionals (and they do cut throats). Some metrists, like Robert Wallace, seem exasperated with the term and the seeming avoidance of anapests. They would read the line above as follows:


This dispenses with the “pretense” of an epic caesura and the elision of the word spirits. I could go along with treating spirits as two syllables (who knows how they really pronounced it). In this case one has an anapest in the final foot.  But simply stamping this as an anapest somewhat ignores the history of meter and how it was practiced during the time.  Again, my own view is that poets like Shakespeare treated such words as an acceptable middle ground – a sort of neither/nor. In the same way that Canterbury was pronounced as a three syllable word (see my post on Chaucer), I have frequently heard spirit  pronounced as having a single syllable.

As to the whole concept of an epic caesura, I’m for it. Dicing up woman, in my view, ignores the phrase. There is some art to scansion and this is where I, personally, would apply it. Why ignore phrasing just to hang an anapest on the wall? A metrist like David Baker (Meter in English pp. 328-329) may not like the term, epic caesura, but if not, then he has to answer why these “anapests” all seem to occur with a midline break. It is the most common “anapest” in Shakespeare – and so was clearly considered an acceptable iambic pentameter variant. If all anapests were equally acceptable then one should expect to find them at every point of the line and with equal regularity – but prior to the 20th Century one simply does not. This tells us that the midline “anapest” was considered a special case – a sort of midline feminine ending. Given the evidence, I think it’s worth discriminating this foot from the run-of-the-mill anapest.

Extra Syllables: On to the Anapest

That said, the anapest is the second most common extra-syllabic variant (though far behind the epic caesura), a variant which readily picked up speed two centuries after Shakespeare died. Prior to the 19th Century, the anapest was considered a sign of decadence and depravity – literally. Critics and poets were scandalized by them. By the 20th century though, and after free verse had become the dominant verse form, the anapest became a regular (if not too regular) feature of iambic pentameter poetry. It’s overuse (overused by poets too accustomed to free verse and unskilled formal poets) frequently threatens to break down any regular metrical pattern – casting into doubt a poem’s claim to an iambic pentameter pattern. Frost used the anapest regularly but was also careful to ground the the meter just regularly by writing solid Iambic Pentameter lines – that is, without variants.

In case it’s not clear already, the anapest consists of a metrical foot containing two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. Here is a possible example from Browning’s the Last Duchess.

She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech

The second line could be scanned as follows:


Notice the extra syllable in the fourth foot. This is an anapest if we judge it by 20th century standards. However, that said, this poem was written in the 19th century, Browning learned from poets like Shakespeare, Milton and Keats and the rest of the poem, My Last Duchess, is perfectly Iambic. It’s possible that we once again have two syllables that should be elided: the approving could be read as th’approving. Browning doesn’t write it this way though. He doesn’t use synaloephasignaling the omission or elision of one or two vowels with an apostrophe as in t’other for the other. Perhaps he doesn’t feel the need to (it was assumed), but he did use synaloepha elsewhere in the poem. It is for the reader or performer to decide. I’m willing to call it an anapest – a little variation is a good thing.

The Primary Variant Feet and Their Names

If the nominal pattern for a poem were Iambic (unstressed followed by a stressed syllable) the following feet would be considered variants. By in large, these feet account for almost all of the variants you will find.

Trochaic : Stressed followed by unstressed. Hamlet Act I Scene I


Spondee: Intermediate Stress followed by Stressed. Hamlet ActI Scene III


Pyrrhic: Unstressed followed by unstressed or intermediate Stress.  Hamlet Act II Scene V



Spondaic: Stressed followed by a stressed syllable.  Act III Scene 4


Dactylic: Stressed followed by two unstressed syllables. Tempest Act V Scene 1 (Notice that this line is a tetrameter line due to the two Dactylic feet.)


Amphibrachic: Unstressed followed by stressed followed by unstressed. Hamlet Act III Scene 4. In the fifth foot, this is called a Feminine Ending. In the examples below, they would more particularly be called Iambic Feminine Endings.


If the Amphibrach occurs before a midline break, it is called an Epic Caesura (example from my own All Hallows’ Eve). (The Epic Caesura, an extra unstressed syllable, was a frequent Shakespearean variant.)


Anapestic: Two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable. 2 Henry VI Act II Scene 1


In my previous post (Basics) I mentioned that sometimes phrases can define a metrical foot. The anapest would be an example of this. If a line has 11 syllables, or even twelve, and the last foot isn’t a feminine ending, then it’s likely that one or two of the metrical feet are anapests (not Iambic). In this case, it doesn’t make sense to simply mark off a foot at every two syllables, especially if the line is part of a larger poem with an established meter like Iambic Pentameter (and, as with the line above,  it would defeat the rule that one should preserve as many Iambs as possible).  In the line above, the phrase, in a day, defines the metrical foot.

All of the variations above can occur in any of the five feet in a Pentameter line.

  • Note: There are critics & poets who deny that meter “exists”. I tend to group them with flat-earthers and moon landing denialists. Dan Schneider, of Cosmoetica, is one of them. If you’re curious to read my response to some of his writing, read Critiquing the Critic: Is Meter Real.

What’s Next?

The third post, Iambic Pentameter & Shakespeare, tries to answer the question: Who cares? Why does any of this matter? Why on God’s green earth would anyone want to scan a poem? And we’ll answer the question using Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116.

The fourth post , Iambic Pentameter: Variants & Long Lines, is more or less the second half of this post. It takes a look at some variants (not discussed here) by actually scanning some of Thomas Middleton’s blank verse (a contemporary of Shakespeare).  The verse isn’t pretty, which is why it’s useful for demonstrating the extremes of metrical variants. Between these four posts, you will hopefully have a good fix on how to scan Iambic Pentameter.

And finally, know who said this?

scott-patton“You know. . .if I had my way, I’d send that genius son of a bitch an engraved invitation in iambic pentameter: A challenge in two stanzas to meet me alone in the desert. I’ll deliver it. Rommel in his tank and me in mine. We’d stop about paces. We’d get out, we’d shake hands. . . then we’d button up and do battle, just the two of us. That battle would decide the outcome of the war. It’s too bad jousting’s gone out of style.”

Feel free to comment if you have questions, suggestions or if you would like to see some part of this subject treated more fully – I’ll add it.