Repetition - For Meaning and Melody
by Florence Vilen

Here is an important essay by Florence Vilén, dealing with one of the aspects of musicality and content of haiku poetry: the question of "repetition". Repetition is widely dismissed by the current fashion of haiku. However, Florence challenges it and tries to show that it does work in haiku if it is well executed. Not only does she speak from her own conviction but she also draws many examples from leading haiku poets. Put together like this, as in a art exhibition, we experience and rejoice at a mesmorising array of fine haiku using "repetition" technique. One wonders why we have been inhibited to use such a wonderful tool of trade.

Susumu Takiguchi


Among all poetical forms the haiku is the very soul of brevity. In no more than three lines it contains a maximum of seventeen syllables, often fewer. Every word, every break counts. Yet there are haiku that have space for repetition within this narrow frame. How then is this achieved?

It goes without saying that in order to work it must be done with considerable skill, or sensitivity. It may used for quite different poetical reasons, however.

By its very element of surprise repetition of a word or part of a phrase may make the readers pay greater attention. They may feel that in order to be understood the text as it stands calls for reading aloud. Now recitation of poetry is an excellent
practice which has been neglected in these years of silent reading due to general literacy. A poem worth reading is worth reciting, and will gain by it. Often the word which is repeated changes its sense to some degree. This will encourage the reader to savour its complete range of meaning. This effect is particularly striking when different forms of the same verb are used. A word may create a definite anticipation that is then twisted to a surprise. Some haiku are written in an elusive style which it would be difficult to render into exact prose. By the repetition of words the reader is encouraged to shift them around and consider various possible interpretations of the scene. In other haiku the text may be perfectly clear and the repetition will serve as an exclamation, an expression of the sense of wonder. A scene will be compressed. A single word is used where normally a full description would be needed.

The repetition will show the reader the value of the word that has been chosen and the richness of meaning within its range.


Here are some examples achieving their aim in rather different ways by means of this particular technique (one which is hardly ever discussed). They are all taken from two comprehensive anthologies, Haiku Moment, edited by Bruce Ross, and The haiku anthology, 3rd edition, edited by Cor van den Heuvel (with a few haiku in both

A haiku may be intentionally ambiguous. Reading aloud you may find shifting images in this nightly scene of ever-deepening distance (L. A. Davidson):

stars beyond

Here the feeling of depth is almost equally compelling (Jim Kacian):

  clouds seen
through clouds
seen through

In other haiku the repetition may express pure joy, the exuberance of seeing the abundance of nature. Here there is also a fine example of focus, from small to large (Michael McClintock):

a poppy.
     a field of poppies!
the hills blowing with poppies!

The elusive movement of an insect is here (M. L. Bittle-daLapa):

firefly there
   not there

And here the very feeling of moving uncertainly upon soft snow (Anita Virgil):

walking the snow-crust
   not sinking

The brevity of this may lead some to a more general interpretation, as they may not be content with mentally seeing just a candle being lit on another candle, but it is up to the reader to think of such abstract conceptions as goodness leading to new goodness (Raymond Roseliep):


Some poets have preferred to write their haiku in one line, with breaks inside this line. In this small space there may yet be room for two worlds in space (Marlene Mountain):

      above the mountain mountains of the moon

Equally brief and evocative is this scene of calm after commotion (Ruth Yarrow):

      after the garden party the garden

There are haiku with movement "stone by stone", or "leaves by leaves". There is also this wonderful scene of reckoning your way (Jane Reichhold):

coming home

The repetition has a descriptive function in haiku like this, where fog clearing up is shown as sound is replaced, or complemented, by sight (Emily Romano):

through thinning mist
      the bawl of the calf
      the calf

On the contrary less and less is visible in this landscape (George Ralph):

      midday blizzard:
      not seeing beyond the pines
      not seeing the pines

A word is repeated to emphasize the repeated action of a scene (George Swede):

Dropping stone after stone
      into the lake - I keep

The repetition may serve to express the similarity between the poet and something in the world around him (Gary Hotham):

      the sound they make
      the sound I make

      autumn leaves

Occasionally the haiku is ring-formed, i. e. the first word is also the last, not easy to bring out successfully in this short form. In the first example this composition could be said to encircle the subject, forming a frame for its movement (Virginia Brady Young):

Frog's shadow reaches the rock
before the frog.

Here sadness permeates the scene (Sandra Fuhringer):

alone on the lake
until the loon's cry
still alone

In a more relaxed mood various repetitions are found in several haiku on cats (Denver Stull):

winter ice storm;
the old cat wants out
wants in

or (Arizona Zipper):

Opening its eyes
closing its eyes
a cat in the sun

and, much more compressed (Vincent Tripi):

the cat in
the fog in

This could be compared with the different constructions of the word repeated here (Gary Hotham):

      the dog out -
      the stars out

Sometimes there is a change in grammatical category. A noun is repeated by a corresponding verb (Margaret Chula):

      sudden shower
      in the empty park
      a swing still swinging

There may be a pleasant surprise waiting for us in the end (Garry Gay)

      Weight lifter
      slowly lifting
      the tea cup

Or a verb is turned from active to passive (William J. Higginson):

      Holding the water
      held by it -
      the dark mud.

or (Foster Jewell):

      Finding this cavern -
      following the lantern light.
      followed by silence.

The word or words repeated are usually central to grammar, a position not often given to an adverbial phrase. It has been done, though, to great effect (Nick Virgilio, punctuation differs with anthologies used):

      out of the water.
      out of itself.

(This is a water lily, not a bulbous lily, a fundamental fact for finding meaning in this often-quoted haiku.)


Repetition of a word, or even a phrase, can increase the impact of a haiku. Like all other tools of poetry this one should be used with discrimination. A scene must already seem charged for most readers to care for going through it again. Yet it is well worth trying. Thus, repetition, if skilfully used, enhances the meaning. It also
offers a musical pleasure. This is an aspect of Western haiku that has been less observed than it should. Emphasis is usually given to the presentation of the image - which is of course essential - and also, particularly in the English-speaking haiku world, to the reduction until an absolute minimum of words is left. Paring down is
praised and practised to the point where the haiku may seem lean, only vertebrae knocking on each other.

There is need for the flesh of a musical flow as well. This can be achieved by many means. There are single sound rhymes, such as alliteration. There is rhythm itself, a conscious use of the change between stressed and unstressed syllables (and an analysis should also differentiate between the amount of stress in the stressed
syllables, a problem neglected by conventional metrics).

Certainly we should strive for a natural diction but this does not mean that haiku is some kind of chopped prose. Haiku is poetry, and poetry has for millennia used various effects of sound to create a sense of music. Do not say that the language of Shakespeare and Keats is unable to provide that!

First publication in English : WHCessay mailing list of the World Haiku Club.