Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Carpe Diem "Haiku Writing Techniques" #2, Onomatopoeia

Dear Haijin, visitors and travelers,

It's my pleasure to present to you our second episode of our Haiku Writing Techniques feature and this week I have a nice writing technique and I hope that it will help you to become better. This week our theme is Onomatopoeia, a very special writing technique based on languages like Japanese which work with "onji" (sounds).

Of all languages, Japanese is by far the richest in onomatopoeic elements, especially of the simpler variety, in which the sound of the word is directly an imitation of the thing.
I had never heard of onomatopoeia until I discovered haiku in the late eighties, but I learned through the years that haiku are made, written, composed for saying aloud twice (or more times). Haiku are written down but the essence of haiku is this onomatopoeia. How we say a thing is of more importance, of more significance, than what we say, the conscious meaning; for through the tones of the voice, the words chosen, their combination, the sounds echoing and reechoing one another, their concords suspended and reestablished, their discords sustained and resolved, through all this there is a music as free and yet as law-abiding as is that of the flute, the oboe and the violin.
Japanese is a language of sounds as we can see in the three-lined form of haiku with its 5-7-5 sound-units (or onji). Japanese people are part of nature, they are one with the sounds of nature and therefor haiku became what it is ... the poetry of nature ...

hi wa hi kure yo yo wa yo ake yo to naku kaeru

"day, ah, darken day!

night, ah, dawn away!"
chant the frogs

© Buson

Try to say the romaji-translation and listen to the sound of it. Don't you hear the frogs in that?
The Japanese are "masters" in onomatopoeia use in their poetry and they owe that to their on sound-units based language. In the Western languages we have not such a sound base, we however can imitate sound with making the emphasizing and lenghtening of unaccented syllables, as e.g. in the lines by Pope:

[...} "When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to move, the line too labours and the words move slow". [...]

In the following well-known verse of Buson the sounds of the sea strik on the ear more truly in the sound of his seventeen syllables than through the sound of the actual waves on the physical ear:

haru no umi hinemosu notari notari kana

the spring sea,

gently rising and falling,
the whole day long

© Buson

The sounds of hinemosu almost reverse the sounds of haru no umi. The repetition of notari, notari, the kana which echoes the a sounds of haru and notari, all this represents, for some unknown reason, not so much the sound of waves, but rather the meaning of the long spring day by the shore. What is the meaning of this? It is:

haru no umi
hinemosu notari
notari kana

Issa is wellknown, in spite of this fluency and the large number of verses he produced, to have revised his poems over months and sometimes years, e.g. the following:

o botaru yurari yurari to tori keri


a huge firefly
passes by

© Issa

This verse is the result of many revisions, but the final version appears artless and the work of a moment. This revision of verse is a revision of experience. The esperience had matured in the words of the haiku so that he came to know what he should have wanted to say.

We may summarize the function of onomatopoeia in the following way:

1.) The direct representation of the sounds of the outside world by the sounds of the voice;

ochikochi to utsu
kurula kana

here and there,

there and here,
beating fulling-blocks

© Buson

ichiboku to
poku poku aruku
hanami kana

he ambles along

with his man-servant:
cherry-blossom viewing

© Kigin

2.) The representation of movement, or physical sensations other than that of sound;

ishikawa wa kuwarari inuzuma sarari kana

the Stony River rippling,

the lightning

© Issa

yusa-yusa to haru ga yuku zo yo nobe no kusa

spring departs,

trembling, in the grasses
of the fields

© Issa

3.) The representation of soul states. This is always indirect, unconscious, spontaneous. Great poetry depends chiefly for its effect upon this factor. It cannot be imitated or artificially produced;

utagauna ushio no hana mo ura no haru *)

do not doubt it,

the bay has its spring too,
the flowers of the tide

© Basho

*) notice the u's and a's

osoki hi no tsumorite toki mukashi kana *)

slow days passing, accumulating,

how distant they are,
the things of the past!

© Buson

*) Buson uses the k sound to portray the bitterness of the passing of time

A last example to try to explain onomatopoeia. The following haiku by Akitoshi shows us why we should read haiku aloud to hear what the poet meant to say:

rappa fuite
fumoto no michi ga kokoro yoku
hotsiru bashaya san

blowing his horn, -

the road at the foot of the mountain stretches out peacefully,
the driver

© Akitoshi

The following series of sounds (onji) 3, 3; 4, 3, 3, 2; 3, 3, 2 give both the sound of the horn and the rhythm of the horse's hoofs. Do you hear it? Isn't it awesome to do this?

Well ... I hope that you understand this haiku writing technique, onomatopoeia.  I know it's not an easy writing technique, but maybe it challenges you to write an all new haiku based on sounds or onji as is meant with onomatopoeia.

Of course I have tried it myself, but ... I came up with nothing. So I have to try it again ... and as I have succeeded than I will publish it of course.

This episode is a little bit later on line than I had planned and it's NOW OPEN for your submissions and will remain open until January 16th at 7.00 PM (CET). I will try to publish our next episode, our third haiku by our featured haiku-poet Sogi, later on. For now .... have fun, be inspired and share your onomatopoeic haiku with us all.


  1. So much more than just "bark" and "meow" --- quite a challenging prompt! I'm hoping to have captured sense #2 -- but not *entirely* sure that I've done so. A technique that will need a lot of practice! Very interesting -- so -- thanks :)

  2. I'm not sure that I understood this line: The following series of sounds (onji) give both the sound of the horn and the rhythm of the horse's hoofs 3, 3; 4, 3, 3, 2; 3, 3, 2 Do you hear it? Isn't it awesome to do this? But this is an awesome post and will enjoy trying to use onomatopoeia!

  3. Lots of great haiku and fascinating insights to consider, thanks. Like Georgia, I wasn't sure about the above quote - a reference to word stresses? Still, I find that haiku extraordinary because of how it interjects the scenery between the driver and his actions :)

  4. Dear Georgia & Sue, I think I have written the line in a not so great way. I have changed it, maybe it's now clearer. And if you read the romaji-translation of the haiku by Akitoshi aloud maybe than you can hear that horse hoofs sound.