Capitalization and Punctuation (Grammar)

Capitalization and Punctuation (Grammar)

A Lesson by Dinesh Sairam

To what extent can Poetic License be used in Haikus?


If you ever read some of the old English translations of Japanese or Chinese Haikus, you may eventually realize something- that most of them are heavily punctuated. Here are two translations of the famous frog haiku by Matuso Basho:

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

old pond
frog leaping
Translated by Cid Corman.

The difference in punctuation is easily identifiable. The usage of punctuation in Haiku may seem trivial and in any case, a matter of choice. Surprisingly, it is a subject of speculation, even as of today. It is somewhat like the division between formal and free verse poetry.

Harold G. Henderson in his 1965 book 'Haiku in English' writes "A few poets prefer to write without any punctuation marks whatever, with pauses indicated only by the ending of lines; others feel this is an unbearable restriction. The question of who is right (possibly both are) will have to be decided by the poets themselves. It does seem, however, that the resources of the English language should be thoroughly investigated and used wherever appropriate.."

If this is to be seen from the Japanese and Chinese Haikus' point-of-view, Japanese Haiku poets used only two punctuation marks in their poems: Ya (Colon, used in the middle) and Kana (Row of dots, used at the end). Even so, the original Haikus were written in feather and ink. As such, most of them did not bother to punctuate their works, and left their haikus 'floating'. 

Many Haiku publishers today recommend the non-usage of punctuation or capitalization in Haikus, as they think that punctuation stops the flow of a Haiku and nullifies its dream-like quality. It is no grave mistake to not punctuate or use grammar properly (In certain cases) in Haikus. But as Henderson states, English is grammatically richer than Japanese, at least in terms of its appliance in Haiku poetry. It would be wiser to utilize that asset, and pragmatic otherwise.

As per the classic definition, here is the list of prominent English punctuation marks used in Haiku poetry and where they should be used:

: (Colon) - End of imagery.

, (Comma) - A brief pause.

; (Semi-colon) - A briefer pause.

--- (Dash) - Saying the same thing in different words.

... (Dots) - A hidden message and/or a continuum.

. (Full stop) - End of haiku.

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Dinesh Sairam
Dinesh Sairam

Tiruchirappalli, Tamilnadu, India

Follow @DineshThePoet An aspiring poet from the shady regions of Southern India. Inspired by the capital-G Great poets like William Shakespeare, Matuso Basho, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Willia..