A Hundred Gourds 5:1 December 2015

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The Variorum Project – Haiku Variations

by J. Zimmerman

edge of the world the protector’s hand-carved gunstock

The idea of the variorum project is to draft dozens of variations of a haiku in a few minutes or hours. This is one way of developing depth as a writer. The variations can reflect different facets or even voices. Later the poet prunes the results dispassionately, discarding most of the haiku written, just as a photographer discards hundreds of shots and keeps only a handful.

What is a Variorum?

scanning the horizon for wildfire smoke – the protector of water

In literature, a variorum is an edition that contains multiple versions of a text, often with notes and commentaries by several editors or critics (variorum being Latin for “of various persons”). Those versions can arise due to differing opinions about what was the original text and how to interpret the text. For example, in the eighteenth-century Dr. Samuel Johnson edited the first variorum edition of Shakespeare.

In the haiku community, readers of Japanese literature might notice that different translators create different translations. In a few cases, translations of the same poem have been assembled in a variorum. A small web example is an annotated comparison of translations by several translators of three Basho haiku (Zimmerman, 2007). A larger example is the currently unpublished Haiku Database, created and maintained by Charles Trumbull. He reported in 2012 that it held more than a quarter-million entries (Trumbull, 2012). He reported in 2015 that it has grown to about a third of a million entries (Charles Trumbull, personal e-mail, September 12, 2015).

Variorum in the Buson One Hundred

the youthfulness of the water protector hands too big for his arms

J. Zimmerman and Gregory Longenecker (2014) documented how five modern haiku poets completed Buson’s practice of attempting to write ten haiku a day for a hundred days. Of particular relevance to the variorum practice was that each poet often referred to saijiki and other seasonal reference works for inspiration. They would pick a kigo (season phrase) or a keyword to include in all ten (or more) haiku they wrote in a day.

Such a variorum practice is also useful when working on entries for contests like the annual Yuki Teikei Tokutomi Haiku Contest , which specifies a set of kigo for each year’s competition. One (and only one) kigo from the list can appear in any haiku submitted to the contest. A particularly useful variorum practice is to take one of those kigo each day (or even each week) and write haiku containing that kigo alone.

A similar opportunity arises when organizations issue “Challenge Kigo”. For example, in a recent Yuki Teikei Haiku Society newsletter, June Hopper Hymas proposed the phrase “migrating birds” for a Challenge Kigo. She provided a variety of inspiration through five examples by classical and modern poets. Again, a poet can make a variorum practice with a challenge kigo: write many haiku using that phrase; discard most of the haiku; improve the best; and submit the strongest.

Variorum Practice in General

naked torso the water protector at the refugee camp

The idea of the variorum practice is simply to select one or two core words or phrases and to include one (or a synonym) in every haiku written in a session. Those words support and focus the writing practice, simply by giving the poet at least one known word for each haiku. This can calm the inner-critic’s worries of what to write about.

The actual practice can be to write a particular number of poems in a day, such as the daily ten in the Buson One Hundred. Or one can write as many haiku as possible in a timed period, perhaps ten minutes, or half-hour, or dawn-till-dusk. Another practice is to write a haiku on each thing seen on a day-long hike, or at a birthday party, or in the time it takes to drink a cup of tea, coffee, or lemonade.

Artwork can offer a terrific source of inspiration. Rather than moving between dozens or hundreds of pieces, a poet could sit with a single painting or sculpture, collage or ceramic, and identify a word or two that is core to the experience. Then one writes lots of haiku using such a word. For example, I’ve written dozens of haiku in response to many of Nerdrum’s paintings in Pettersson (1998). The initial poems are usually in close response to the piece, with later poems moving a little afield.

Another source of words for the variorum practice is poetry itself. A poet, inspired by reading another haiku or tanka or any poem or even prose, might extract a word or phrase and use it for the day’s variorum practice.

Finally, a significant part of the practice is the pruning of the results. It is better to wait at least overnight (and best to wait a week or a month) before returning to a batch of haiku. The poet benefits from some emotional distance when discarding most of the haiku written, and might also be able to improve the poems retained.

Many poets are, of course, making their own variorum practice in this end stage of editing. They have pruned and discarded their weaker drafts. Now they can spend quality time with one haiku that is almost perfect. The many ways that they tweak a haiku – altering a verb here, switching a pair of lines there, changing the season of the kigo, and so on – gives them many related versions of the haiku that they are searching for, until they finally discover what they like best.

Variorum Practice: Two Risks

dying bracken the protector’s animal pelt

One risk of the variorum practice is specific to the situation where a poet selects a seed word or phrase from a poem by another poet. Try to avoid even the appearance of plagiarism. Be clear in your notes (whether carbon-based or silicon-based) what was the original poem, where and when it was published or heard, and who was the original poet. Use this information to ensure that your own haiku do not accidentally plagiarize anyone else’s work.

Another risk of a variorum practice can arise from a lapse in conscientious record keeping, particularly if a poet submits similar poems from a variorum practice to different journals or contests. A poem might be thrilling as a single haiku in one journal. But it can look tawdry if a poet later publishes effectively the same haiku (ostensibly as a new poem but with the same sensibility and almost identical words) in a different journal or as a winner in a contest.

One way to minimize the latter risk might be to assemble the retained haiku into a series that could either be offered to a haiku journal or to a Western-style poetry journal. That way, all the versions are tied together.

A Postscript of Variorum Examples

unspent sea of clouds passing by the water protector

Poet Catie Rosemurgy is a groundbreaker in the variorum form. In her second collection, The Stranger Manual (Rosemurgy, 2010), she included a 15-line poem in which each line served as a different commentary on a single hypothetical text. Aptly, she called the poem simply “Variorum”. The opening, middle, and closing lines are:

At least most of the violence has been off the page.
Most of the violence, at least, has been kept off the page.

The violence thus far has been implied.

As usual, most violence happens off the page.
As usual, the page. Mostly the violence.

One of my own examples is an assemblage of haiku from the thirty-plus that I wrote in response to Nerdrum’s painting “The Water Protectors” (Pettersson, 1998). My self-assignment was to include one or more of the words “protector(s)”, “water”, and “gun” in each haiku. The result was “‘The Water Protectors’ Variorum”. The juxtaposition of haiku gives a collaged sense that is much richer than each haiku by itself. One of those haiku is at the start of each of this article’s sections.

Finally here is a small variorum on one particularly well-known haiku by Basho. Jane Reichhold (2008) gives this literal translation of its Japanese:

summer grass (+ cutting word)
soldier common of
dream of trace

while this is her translation:

summer grass
the only remains of soldiers’

The following are the six translations of the same poem from Zimmerman (2007), starting with Donald Keene's:

The summer grasses –
Of brave soldiers' dreams
The aftermath.

Keene’s addition of “brave” seems unnecessary. Sam Hamill's version is:

Summer grasses:
all that remains of great soldiers'
imperial dreams

Hamill’s additions of “great” and “imperial” seem unnecessary. Haruo Shirane's version is:

Summer grasses –
the traces of dreams
of ancient warriors

Shirane’s use of “warriors” reads well but his addition of “ancient” seems unnecessary. Cid Corman’s is:

summer grass
dreams' ruin

Corman’s addition of “ruin” is questionable. David Landis Barnhill's is:

summer grass –
       all that remains
             of warriors' dreams

Barnhill's translation has always been my preference for its clarity and concision, even before I knew of its closeness to the original.

Nobuyuki Yuasa's version, in his signature four-line format:

A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions
Of ancient warriors.

Yuasa seems to have added “ambitions” and “ancient”; his “thicket” could be acceptable in terms of the original, where one reading of the first line could be “summer grasses and so on”. But its length seems ponderous compared to the insightful moment of the original.

The above is a small subset of translations. Charles Trumbull currently reports 51 entries in his haiku database for this “summer grass” haiku (Charles Trumbull, personal e-mail, September 12, 2015).


Jan Ake Pettersson, 1998. Odd Nerdrum: Storyteller and Self-Revealer (Aschehoug, Oslo, Norway).

Jane Reichhold, 2008. Basho: The Complete Haiku (Kodansha, Tokyo, Japan).

Catie Rosemurgy, 2010. The Stranger Manual (Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, MN).

Charles Trumbull, 2012. “The Haiku Database Tops 250,000!” in Ripples, November 2012, p.26.

J. Zimmerman, 2007. “Haiku, haibun, and renga of Basho” retrieved September 2, 2015, from http://

J. Zimmerman and Gregory Longenecker, 2014. “A Disarmingly Simple Challenge: The Buson One Hundred” in Frogpond, 37.3.


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