What is haiku kireji?

I occasionally read a haiku or two when I was reading poetry publicly (before covid closed all the local venues). I found them interesting but knew nothing about haiku as a form. However, I noticed that often there was an emdash (— ) in the poem. I had no idea what to do with it, so I skipped over it. Of course, I was reading a translation from Japanese to English. I didn’t know there was American haiku.

I purchased a copy of Jane Reichhold’s book Writing and Enjoying Haiku (WEAH) and learned a little about haiku. There I discovered what those dashes – kireji (KEY-RAY-GEE) – were: “words of punctuation…used as emphasis and carry various emotional messages as well… often translated as alas or oh!.” (WEAH p 29)

Well, I’m not too fond of the word alas, but oh is ok. But that can be boring for the listener, so I decided to use whatever word or phrase I thought appropriate. Then, of course, since my audience might be primarily Anglo or Mexican (I live in Mexico), I needed a language-dependent kireji. That was not a problem.

For instance, I wrote a short haiku:

of her body —

and being who I am, I would pronounce the kireje — as ‘what! ‘ and in Spanish

las curvas
de su cuerpo —

I would use ‘qué! ‘ (how).

The word or words I used also depended upon my sense of what would be appropriate for the current audience. If, for instance, I were in a bar or some venue with much drinking, I might use ‘wow! what beauty! ‘ or ‘ayyyy qué bellisima! ‘

After thinking about this a little longer, I came up with two other kireji that would be useful to give a reader a hint on how to read the following line. The first one is “— !” which would indicate the reader should say the following line louder for emphasis. The second is “— ?” to warn the reader that the following line is a question. These hints are probably not useful when reading silently, but when reading publicly I think they are useful.

Some (purists) may object to the technique I describe, but my mother often said, “try it; you’ll like it.” Maybe you’ll like it too!


WAEH   Reichhold, Jane.
Writing and Enjoying Haiku
1st ed., Kodansha America, Inc, 2002.
out of print

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