A few days ago I was browsing around looking for some material in Latin. I've forgotten almost all of my Latin, and though I don't have any particular enthusiasm for that language, much material for Greek has notes and commentary in Latin. For example, even M.L. West's recent books published by Teubner have all non-Greek text in Latin.

I eventually ended up at Bolchazy-Carducci and saw that they had in their "Living Latin" section Tonight They All Dance: 92 Latin and English Haiku I've not seen it, but the blurb on the web site says it "can serve as a primer to the composition of Latin verse and, as such, can lend students and scholars alike insight into the intricacies and joys of writing poetry in a non-native language."

My first thought, after the surprise at seeing such a book, was "why not do this in classical Greek?" Syllable counting is easier than constructing the iambic trimeter used in Greek verse composition texts, writing anything novel in Greek is likely to improve your vocabulary. It sounds like a lot of fun.

And if people can do this with Latin, well, the Hellenists should get to work!

First Steps

The classical haiku (τὸ αἱκύ), as many of us learned in elementary school, takes the form of three lines with 5, 7 and 5 syllables. This works well in Japanese, but in English you can say quite a bit more in 17 syllables, which is also true of Greek. Some English-speaking haiku writers, in an attempt to reproduce the brevity of the Japanese model, have shortened the traditional form somewhat. For example, some use a 2-3-2 accents pattern. These can be harder to write since English is particular about word order.

Other writers simply ignore the syllable restrictions - provided the lines are short - and focus on the other aspects of haiku. Before starting in on your own haiku I recommend reading this Haiku Techniques article. Other good articles can be found a the same site. Obviously an English (or whatever your native language) to Greek dictionary is also going to be handy. I'm lucky enough to have a copy of Woodhouse, but it is also available online.

The Indo-European poetic tradition has plenty of syllable counting schemes, including lines of 5 and 7 syllables, and Greek retained strong traces this. So perhaps haiku and Greek aren't such a bad match.

So, here's my first attempt, inspired by a recent morning walk through my yard:

κρόκος ἀνθέει
ἡμέρας νιφομένης·
λαγῶς γεύεται

The first word, κρόκος is the same in English, "crocus;" ἀνθέω "bloom;" νίφομαι "get snowed on;" λαγῶς "hare;" γεύομαι "take a taste".

Notice how I decided not to contract ἀνθέω, giving me an extra syllable. Not contracting ‐έω verbs is sanctioned by Epic practice (but if it were an ‐όω verb it'd have to contract). Also, I've used a genitive absolute phrase for the second line. The unspecific relationship between the main clause and the absolute phrase is quite suited to haiku.

After a second glance, though, it's clear that this isn't the best Greek ever produced. This degree of parataxis — stringing along phrases without connecting words — typical of haiku, is alien to classical Greek of all genres. After fixing that up a bit, I get this:

κρόκος μὲν ἀνθεῖ
ἡμέρας νιφομένης·
λαγῶς δ’ ἐσθίει

Bringing μέν... δέ... into the picture has messed up the syllable count. This time I contracted ἀνθέω and I had to change the verb in the last line, replacing γεύομαι with ἐσθίω , simply "eat." The resulting Greek is a little better, though perhaps now I'm laying out the relationship between my poor, little crocus and the hare a little too strongly for the best haiku style. But we're working toward a haiku/Greek poetic hybrid, so erring in favor of the Greek seems the best route.

Now, I don't actually know that it was a hare that nibbled on my crocus. But I do recall quite vividly the realization that the crocus had been munched on. Perhaps I can convey some of that suddenness, and my uncertainty, with a different final line:

κρόκος μὲν ἀνθεῖ
ἡμέρας νιφομένης·
θὴρ δέ τις φάγεν

We've lost the hare and replaced him with some random animal, θήρ τις, and we've shifted the eating into the (augmentless) aorist emphasizing the singleness of the event. (Note: the augmentless aorists and imperfects actually reflect a grammatical category from early stages of the Greek language, not just a metrical convenience. You can only use the augmentless forms after you have already used a tensed verb to establish a temporal context. The augmentless forms then refer to the established tense, but change to reflect aspect.)

So, with a few revisions I've produced a haiku in at least an approximation of good Greek. One last change I'd like to make is in diction and, indirectly, dialect. This flows from my fondness for Homer. I'm using the wrong word for "day" for this case. Homer uses ἡμέρη (not Attic ἡμέρα, which I've used so far) mostly in the nominative. For the other cases he uses τὸ ἦμαρ. So, the final version:

κρόκος μὲν ἀνθεῖ
ἡμέρας νιφομένης·
θὴρ δέ τις φάγεν

And that's another benefit of working on these small poems in Greek, apart from the entertainment of it. You can spend time thinking about matters like Greek diction and word usage in the small. Hunting for 6-8 words with the right number of syllables means I now probably know most of the words for "eat" in Greek, and which ones are used with people, and which with animals. I have a better understanding of how Homer talks about "day." And all of this happened in a about two hours of work, about half of that in a dictionary.

Next, some formalism.


(People unfamiliar with Greek poetic form and terminology will probably want to read the introduction to Greek meter. Since the UNICODE metrical symbols are not yet widely available in fonts, here I will use x for anceps, - for heavy positions and u for light.)

After writing syllable-counting verse for a while, some may want to move closer to Greek poetic practice. You could start off by reverting to older practice and only regulate the syllables at the end of the line, so that each line ends with, say, u-u-. However, there are plenty of cola to grab from real Greek poetry:

5 syllables
adonean -uu--
iambic + anceps x-u-x
7 syllables
hemiepes -uu-uu-
hemiamb x-u-u--
iambic dimeter catalectic x-u-x--
telesillean x-uu-u-
pherecratic xx-uu--

Browsing through a good book on Greek meter will probably provide a few more patterns to work with. For example, you could force a caesura after the fifth syllable of an iambic trimeter, giving you 5+7. Most flexible, of course, are the lines with anceps syllables. Also keep in mind that the last syllable of a line is free. It can be long or short, with the idea that a final short syllable takes on some length from the pause.

When constructing a meter for haiku I recommend sticking to like types for the different lines, and to have the two 5 syllable lines use the same cola, in order to give a metrical unity to the poem. For example, if you start with an adonean, with that choriamb (-uu-), use another aeolic colon, such as the telesillean or the pherecratic. If you start with an iamb, use the hemiamb or dimeter catalectic for the middle line. I think the hemiepes will go with any of the 5-syllable cola.

Let's try this regulated haiku with Basho's famous pond and jumping frog:

τέλμα παλαίον·
ἐνήλετο βάτραχος·
νάματος ἠχώ.

τὸ τέλμα "pond, pool;" παλαιός "old, ancient;" ἐν‐άλλομαι "jump in;" ὁ βάτραχος "frog;" τὸ νᾶμα "(flowing) water;" ἡ ἠχώ "sound."

This is very close to the original style: terse, paratactic. But, ignoring for the moment that no Greek would probably ever used the meters this way, it does fit into a nicely aeolic scheme of adonean, telesillean, adonean:


This is pretty stiff, though, and not very good Greek. Also, to make the last line work I've used a slighty strange word for water. ὕδωρ would be the best choice, since τὸ νᾶμα is based on the root for flowing, like a stream, something that water in a pond doesn't do much. But I couldn't make ὕδωρ fit, nor could I change the first line into something a last line with ὕδωρ would match.

Haiku Resolution

Let's make one final step which will take us further yet from formal Japanese haiku and closest to Greek practice, and that is to allow resolution and contraction in some haiku metrical scheme. Say, for example, we want to use the hemiepes as the 7-syllable line most of the time. Well, let's allow the dactyls (-uu) to contract into spondees (--). This means the middle line could have 7, 6 or even 5 syllables. Or, say we take a single iambic trimeter line for lines 1 and 2, with a 5+7 caesura, and allow the various contractions, resolutions and substitutions that Attic drama allows within that verse, tribrachs (uuu) and anapests (uu-) and so on. We could follow Pindar and the choral poets and allow single anceps syllables to be long, short, or a resolved long, two short syllables.

The problem with all these alterations is that it will be very easy to obliterate the character of the original meter in the 17 or so syllables allotted to us. It's best to use such substitutions with restraint.

Another technique available to us, sanctioned by both Japanese and Greek practice, is enjambment, that is, not matching phrasing exactly to lines. For example, allow a word from the first phrase flow over into the second line. In Japan, haiku are printed as a single line. Though the phrasing is often 5-7-5, there are many exceptions. Certainly Greek poetry does this. The first line of the Iliad overflows into the second hexameter. Finally, in Greek strophic forms - which these haiku approximate - individual words may cross the line boundry.

One year I lived unpleasantly close to a pig farming operation. When I first read of Circe's magic on Odysseus' men, I had a particular first thought:

φαρμακίς· χοιρέου οἵ‐
‐η σκατὸς ὀδμή

οἰνοχοεύω "pour/offer wine;" ἡ φαρμακίς "sorceress" - note relationship to "poison, potion"; χοίρεος η ον "of a pig;" οἷος η ον "what (a), what kind of;" σκῶρ, σκατός τὸ "dung, manure;" ὀδμή "odor"

Tricky syntax notes: χοιρέου modifies σκατός in the next line. Its last syllable is scanned short by epic correption. Also, οἵη goes with ὀδμή.


That is, adonean, hemiepes, adonean.

This time I've located the conceptual break in the middle of the second line. The first phrase takes in the first two words. I've also split οἵη "what a!" across the line boundry.

There are probably ways this poem could be tweaked to make it a bit more Greek. But I think you should be able to see the possibilities of the haiku as a way to start composing Greek verse, to learn the language better, and to have some creative fun from time to time. There are always different things to try:

The Future

ἐμοὶ πέμπε τὰ αἱκέα σευ.

Send me your haiku! I'd love to collect a page (or pages) of these. If you picked some particular meter please let me know about it, and I'll include that. If you want to talk about how a poem developed, I'm happy to publish that, too. Just use Betacode for the Greek, I beg you.

Feel free to post your poems on the composition discussion boards at Textkit.