In a Word

by Dan Rosen*

“Less is more,” wrote Mies van der Rohe.

“The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao,” said Lao Tzu, some 2,500 years earlier.

They keep trying to tell us, but we have a hard time listening or, rather, believing. Society teaches us otherwise. Expansive exposition is the epitome of erudition, we are instructed.  So, we measure intellectualism by the pound.

Academics (including me) are among the worst. Good luck publishing a one- or two-page article in the Journal of anything. And if you do somehow beat the odds, don’t expect colleagues or tenure committees to be impressed.

It’s karmic justice: payback for all those responses of  “at least . . . pages” to students who ask, “How long does the paper have to be?”

Basho and his buddies knew better. Looking deeper gets you farther than just looking around. That’s what makes writing a good haiku difficult: devoting the time and energy to really paying attention, cutting out the clutter.

A Zen priest, in a story from long ago, was renowned for his beautiful garden. The Emperor sent word that he would like to see it for himself.  On the appointed day, the Emperor arrived, only to find that all the flowers, save one, had been cut down. “How could you be so disrespectful,” he growled, “knowing that I was coming to visit?”

“To the contrary,” the priest said. “I searched for the most beautiful flower in the garden and removed the rest, so you could see it clearly.”

The 5-7-5 structure of orthodox haiku provides just enough space to write the garden and the one flower; gestalt in a teacup. But if 17 syllables are insightful, why not even fewer? Especially in English, which has a different orthography from Japanese.

Take the most venerable of all haiku. It could be stretched into 5-7-5 in English, but further reduction yields greater results:

Old pond
Frog jumps in

Basho wouldn’t mind, I’m quite sure. He might even give the inkan of approval to a haiku I wrote years ago, toddler in hand:

My son, one
Ice cream cone
Chocolate nose

Mark Twain is credited with saying, “If I’d had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.”

More time
Shorter letters
Haiku too

Dan Rosen is Professor of Law at Chuo University in Tokyo.

Editor’s Note:

Basho’s famous haiku, “old pond” is:


This separates into on as:

fu-ru-i-ke ya (5)
ka-wa-zu to-bi-ko-mu (7)
mi-zu no o-to (5)

In English translation:

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water’s sound

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