Friday, March 23, 2018

The definite and indefinite article - how a house passes along the train of haiku

photo©Alan Summers
A cross section of a haiku will show various things including the common article [a; an; the]
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The definite and indefinite article - 
how a house passes along the train of haiku
by Alan Summers

The definite and indefinite article feel as if they are more important in English-language haiku than perhaps in any other genre of writing. Is it solely due to the extreme brevity of this genre? I don’t think so. Haiku can often be a bridge of nuance. 

Bridge of Nuance? Okay, you ask, what the heck is that, and I don’t blame you. 

The Bridge of Nuance is a term I’ve created for this article, and came to me when I looked at how we often undermine our own haiku by leaving out important bits of grammar. A haiku builds up its meaning, or atmosphere or mood, just like any good piece of writing, or film direction will do. From the opening line the poem starts to span a gulf or valley, it lifts words and transports us over that space, just like a bridge is designed to do. And it’s all in how we select our words to give nuance:

“a subtle difference and shade of meaning, expression, or sound.” 

It’s as if we arc our words over a chasm, and they can fall if we do not pay attention.

There are so many useful devices to pick from and construct the arcing of words from the first word or words to the last ones. First of all, lets delve into the often overlooked building bricks of haiku such as articles. So what is an article?

“Basically, an article is an adjective. Like adjectives, articles modify nouns.”

So although we sometimes avoid adjectives in general, the humble article can make or break a haiku. Let us begin again…

Paul Lynch, Allen Brizee, and Elizabeth Angeli continue to say that “English has two articles: the and a/an. The is used to refer to specific or particular nouns; a/an is used to modify non-specific or non-particular nouns. We call the the definite article and a/an the indefinite article.”

the = definite article
a/an = indefinite article

Okay, seems simple enough, but why do we leave them out when we should leave them in?

Let’s give a couple of examples of fictional versions:

sunlit brick
the house passes
along a train


sunlit brick
a house passes
along a train

At first glance we could fool ourselves that “Hey! That’ll do.” But the bridge of nuance is skewed or diminished, lacking, or simply not there.  Sunlit brick version one has a ho-hum feel to it, doesn’t it? So okay, there’s sunlight on a brick but how does a house pass along a train, and what train? Where is the narrator of the poem (fictional or otherwise)? Version two has two indefinite articles [a] and feels equally mundane, lacking resonance and tension, and that ‘bridge of nuance’ that is so important in haiku. [Note: haiku is not a Proper Noun - if we mean the poem - so it’s lowercase unless it starts a sentence; It’s also singular and plural just like sheep or fish or deer.)

That second sunlit brick poem has two indistinct and unindividualised concrete images. Whose house and which or what train? Any train, even at night? That doesn’t make sense. See where I’m getting? Articles act as identifiers, even if we don’t have the street number for the house, or know it’s the 10.22 am train to London or New York or Zurich, we might need to know it’s “the” train! And that it’s not a house or the house, but each house, as if the sunlit brick is passing from house to house and along the train too! This is both an optical allusion and a poetic device and I was on that train! 

sunlit brick
each house passes
along the train

Alan Summers
    Anthology Credit: Yanty’s Butterfly Haiku Nook: An Anthology (2016) 
    ed. Jacob Salzer & The Nook Editorial Staff  ISBN-13: 978-1329915411

With the next haiku, incidentally composed in 5-7-5 syllables, it would blow that pattern out of the water if I added an article to the first line. Note also that when a single line fragment acts as the opening line sometimes we can often dispense with an article: see the revealed original haiku further below.

So, that first version, do we really need to say it’s a night of…? Isn’t night, well, simply night, anyway in fact where it is night? And what is “the night of…” it’s either night or it isn’t, surely? Unless we might mark an anniversary, or the name of a play or movie [The Night at the Museum]? 

Let’s get to the middle lines in these versions, and version one simply makes no sense to me. Which or what part becomes a heron, or the heron? Okay we know herons are into night fishing so we are kind of getting there, but ‘the’ starting the middle line is getting in the way isn’t it? And all four versions have three articles ranging from ‘the’ to ‘a’ and it’s all a bit too much for a short poem.

a night of small colour
the part of an underworld
becomes a heron

a night of small colour
the part of an underworld
becomes the heron

the night of small colour
parts of an underworld
become a heron

the night of small colour
parts of an underworld
become the heron

Version four has a good feel if it wasn’t for that pesky definite article [the] starting off the opening line! 

So let’s move down to the multiple-anthologised actual published version, and all in a 575 pattern too! 

photo & haiku©Alan Summers

night of small colour
a part of the underworld
becomes one heron

night of small colour©Alan Summers
Latest Publication: Poetry as Consciousness - Haiku Forests, Space of Mind, and an Ethics of Freedom
Author: Richard Gilbert  Illustrator: Sabine Miller. ISBN978-4-86330-189-4 
Pub. Keibunsha (2018, Japan)

The opening line is okay without an article: It feels like a setting and a statement of intention; it doesn’t require further embellishment, it vibrates. Now, for the middle line, that indefinite article [a] is quiet, and also suggesting an indistinct part of the underworld, a darker part of the night maybe, that could be an opening or mouth to the fabled land of the dead. The last line avoids an article altogether. But interestingly enough the indefinite article of “an” originally came from “one” so it’s there, but invisible. So much depends on being invisible doesn’t it, from herons to whitespace.

Suggestion and Exercise

If your haiku is already published, or you are deciding which version might work best, or haven't got that far yet, I suggest you check if you have any articles [a, an, or the].

If you don't, what do they look like with one or more?

If your haiku does have articles, count the number of them. Do you have two definite articles [the] when a mix of definite [the] and indefinite article [a] might lift the bridge of nuance even better?

Test your already published haiku and see if they might benefit from adding, removing, or switching articles. There are always opportunities to further publish your haiku again, be it in an online feature, an anthology, or if you are considering your first or next collection.

Play the Articles Game, because it's astonishing how the humble a, an, or the can raise that haiku even further.

Use articles sparingly, and know when they are really needed, and engage with the fluidity of a line, as sometimes neglecting our articles we might sound like an Orc (The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien) or a Dalek (Dr Who) or even Yoda (Star Wars) and it might sound fun for a short time, but it will start to grate. Don’t Exterminate! articles, love them, they are your little friends in the land of haiku. 

Alan Summers
President, United Haiku and Tanka Society
co-founder, Call of the Page

The definite and indefinite article - how a house passes along the train of haiku©Alan Summers 2018
a bridge of nuance©Alan Summers 2018

Grunk-speak (my term) or Orc-speak:

Source of the Orcs

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