Style and Spirit in French Haikus
by Georges C. Friedenkraft
Paris, France


The French use of the haiku (and of its related genre, the tanka) has both followed the traditional Japanese values in style and spirit as well as modifying them. As for the style, since the French language has little accentuation, authors have attempted to improve the rhythm by shortening of the verses, using rhymes, alliterations or more specific techniques. As for the spirit, the seasonal word is not always present in French haikus and the "weight of being" is no more related to the enlightenment of Japanese Buddhism, but to a non-religious existentialist stance. Thus many poems written nowadays in French-speaking countries, though not presented by their authors as haikus, could clearly be included in the genre. This is shown in several examples selected from the works of modern French poets.


The traditional Japanese haiku is defined both by its style and its spirit. The style (the form) involves three verses (five for the related tanka) with precise metrics (5-7-5 feet fot the haiku and 5-7-5-7-7 feet for the tanka). The spririt (the content) should be related to the seasonal mood (a seasonal word should be included in the poem) and to the "weight of being", as interpreted by the enlightenment of Zen Buddhism. In the present article, I would like to show how the French language use of the haiku has followed these traditional values in style and spirit as well as modyfying them. Evidence will be provided by the quotation of several French haikus, for which the original French text will be followed by an English translation.

As for the form, many French haikus follow the traditional metrics without any adding that could give "a French touch", i.e. Anick Baulard (1) :

Est-ce pour les fées
Que la digitale tisse
Ses longs gants des pourpre ? (1)
Is it for the fairies
That the foxglove weaves
Its long gloves of purple ? (1)

Improvements in Rhythm

As the French language has little accentuation, several authors have tried however to strenghten the tonic accents and thus the rhythm. The first technique used was to shorten the verses (and thus abandoning the 5-7-5 metrics) in producing three short and very rhythmic verses. An example will be chosen in the work on the sea by the modern writer Alain Kervern (2) :

Ma fringale de brise
La chaleur du sel
Et j'ai soif de nuit (2)
Sharp hunger of breeze
The heat of the salt
My thirst for the night (2)

Other authors, whether they follow the 5-7-5 metrics or not, often include discreet rhymes or alliterations. In the following examples, rhymes have been put in bold characters and alliterations underlined. The two first poems have been written at the beginning of the century by the first authors attempting to make haikus in French. The first is by Paul Eluard (3), the second by Julien Vocance (4). Speaking for a young girl, Eluard let her say :

Paysage de paradis
Nul ne sait que je rougis
Au contact d'un homme, la nuit (3)
Paradise landscape
Nobody knows I am blushing
When touching a man, at night (3)

And Vocance brings us to a circus where acrobats are performing :

Des galops égaux
Au dessous de sauts
Crevant des cerceaux (4)
Smoth gallops
Beneath jumps
That burst into hoops (4)

Several modern poets still use these rhymes, for exemple Philippe Caquant describing an autumn scene (5) and Patrick Blanche when noticing the changing of the year in the middle of winter (6) :

La feuille indécise
glisse entre les nénuphars
et s'immobilise (5)
Undecided the leaf
slips between the nenuphars
and comes to a stop (5)
Une année s'en va
Le chrysanthème blanc a
changé de couleur (6)
A departing year
The white chrysanthemum
has changed color (6)

Alliterations are even more common, such as when French Canadian poet André Duhaime tell us of an old orchard (7), when Jean Antonini explain to us, with humour, the relationship between peeling potatoes and thinking (8) or when Daniel Py simply enjoys the heat of the sun (9) :

au bout de la rue
deux tas de pierres veillent
sur le vieux verger (7)
at the end of the street
two piles of stones keep watch
over the old orchard (7)
éclats de pensée
épluchant des patates
au-dessus d'une poubelle (8)
chips of thought
when peeling potatoes
over a dust-bin (8)
Le soleil entoure
la maison La chaleur
cherche l'ouverture (9)
The sun surrounds
the house The heat
looks for an opening (9)

Alliterations have also been used in tankas. A famous master of the French tanka was René Galichet. In the tanka devoted to the spidder reproduced underneath (10), three different alliterations can be noticed :

Dans l'ombre tissée 
Par ces minces fils d'argent
Elle dort sans trêve
Parfois rôde un rêve d'aile
Un frisson parcourt la toile (10)
In the shadow woven
By its thin silver treads
It always sleeps
Sometimes a dream of wing comes prawling
A thrill passes all over the web (10)

Combinations can be found of both rhyming and alliterations, such as in this haiku on smile written by Daniel Richard (11) where internal rhyming (in bold) is combined with alliterations (underlined) :

D'un demi sourire
Le visage de l'ami
A ma vue s'éclaire (11)
With a half smile
The face of a friend
Lights up when he sees me (11)

Special attempts

Always concerning the style of French haikus, three rather original attempts should be mentioned here. In several works, not only involving haikus, Jacques Arnold, originally trained as a German teacher, suggested to read the French poems in emphasizing the tonic accents. For the haikus, this would lead to three verses of 2-3-2 tonic accents. In the following haiku (12), Arnold's "accentual metrics" (underlined) do not exclude the classical 5-7-5 feet metrics as well as discreet rhyming :

asons : Dieu merci
ça sent si bon la forêt
la soupe au persil (12)
Let us chat : thanks God
it smells so nicely like forest
the parsley soup (12)

In a slighty different attitude, Lionel Le Barzig proposed to build tankas using not feet, but semantic units. This new poem would be called "tankème" and include 2-3-2-3-3 = 13 semantic units, easy to find in this "amazon" (13) :

Amazone fière
Au long corps de colonne
Ton coeur brûlant
Invoque l'ascèse qui transfigure
La lanière qui ouvre l'infini (13)
Proud amazon
With a long body of column
Your burning heart
Invokes the asceticism which tranfigures
The lash opening the infinite (13)

Finally Emmanuel Lochac proposed to used the classical French twelve feet (called "alexandrin") verses to created poems in one verse or monostiches, which could be undertstood as French equivalent to Japanese haikus (14) :

Aumône d'un regard aux plantes aquatiques (14)
Giving the aquatic plants a look, as alms (14)

An existentialist spirit

As for the content of the French haikus, the seasonal word can be present, such as in this poem by Eliane Biedermann where the month of februaty is clearly mentioned (15), but, very often, the seasonal word disappears :

Dans le blanc ciel de février
un escadron majestueux de bernacles
glisse lentement (15)
In the white sky of february
a majestic squadron of barnacles
glides slowly (15)

The "weight of being" cannot of course be related anymore to the enlightenment of Zen Buddhism, but to a non-religious existentialist stance, as examplified by Jean Paul Sartre and his followers, and which in poetry would be the description of a strong emotional moment, such as Daniel Richard when he hears a false note (16) :

Une fausse note !
on tressaille quand 
le tonnerre éclate (17)
A false note !
trembling when
the thunder then breaks out (16)

This "laicised" way of writing poems seems to be an important characteristics of French haikus as well as of a large part of modern French poetry. Thus many poems written nowadays in France or in French speaking countries, though not presented by their authors as haikus, could clearly be included in this literary genre. They do combine a succintness of the text (limited to a few words) and the creation of an intense emotional moment, which is clearly an existential approach to the "weight of being". The two examples given are from a modern poet Pierre Esperbé (17) and, using discreet rhyming, by the late famous poet Eugène Guillevic (18) :

à ce souvenir 
d'un espoir 
fixité (18)
Keep watch over
this memory
of a hope
fixity (17)
Il marchait souvent
Par pluie et par vent

Et quand il rentrait
Il me regardait
Pour trouver ma gorge (19)
Often he walked
In rain or in wind

And when he came back
He looked at me
To find my throat (18)

It is worth noting that the natural evolution of a large part of modern French poetry after the surrealist revolution led to an economy of words and to an increase in the depth of feelings, which correspond to the two main characteristics of traditional Japanese haikus.


(1) A. Baulard, Saisons, Rouville (France), Les Adex publisher, 1999, p 2
(2) A.Kervern, Les portes du monde, Bédée (France), Avoines folles publisher, 1992, p 48
(3) P.Eluard, Nouvelle Revue Française, 1920, 84, p 340
(4) J.Vocance, Nouvelle Revue Française, 1920, 84, p 333
(5) P.Caquant, Haikus, France, Publication privée, 1995, p 15
(6) P.Blanche, dans : Multilingual Haiku Troubadours 2000, (sous la direction de Ban'ya Natsuishi), Tokyo, Ginyu Press, 2000, p 36
(7) A.Duhaime, Haikus d'ici, Hull (Canada), Asticou publisher, 1987, p 66
(8) J.Antonini, dans : Le chat a des souvenirs de jungle (sous la direction de P.Blanche), France, Publication privée, 1995, p 256
(9 D.Py, J.Gits, Un poète, un peintre, Publication privée, 1995, pas de numéros de pages
(10) R.Galichet, Le miroir brisé;, Nîmes (France), Les sentiers poétiques publisher, 1981, p 9
(11) D.Richard, Le jardin japonais, Paris, La pensée universelle publisher, 1990, p 50
(12) J.Arnold, Filantes, Mortemart (France), Rougerie publisher, 1995, p 76
(13) L. Le Barzig, Tankèmes, France, Publication privée, 1978, p 13
(14) E.Lochac, dans : Emmanuel Lochac, ses visages et leurs énigmes (sous la direction de J.Arnold), Paris, La Jointée publisher, 1994, p 136
(15) E.Biedermann, Lumière douce au toucher, Charlieu (France), La Bartavelle publisher, 1995, p 30
(16) P.Costa, Petit manuel pour écrire des haïku, Arles (France), Philippe Picquier publisher, 2001
(17) D.Richard, op.cit., p 50
(18) P.Esperbé, Concerto pour marées et silences, Paris, Chambelland publisher, 1974, p 66
(19) E.Guillevic, dans : Guillevic (sous la direction de J.Tortel), Paris, Seghers publisher, 1978, p 113

Références :

Georges Friedenkraft, Style and spirit in French haiku, in (Bhaskar Roy Barman editor) El Dorado : an anthology on world literature, Authorspress, Delhi, Inde, 2006, Vol. 1, Chapter 29, ISBN 81-7273-281-3

On line : Georges Friedenkraft, Style and spirit in French haiku, World Haiku Review, 2002, 2(3)