Kireji is a term in traditional Japanese poetry, particularly in haiku and tanka, that refers to “cutting words” or “pause words.” These words or phrases are strategically placed at the end of specific lines to create a pause, shift, or contrast in the poem. Kireji serves as a form of punctuation (often written as an em dash), signaling a brief moment of reflection or meditation for the reader. It adds depth and complexity to the poem’s structure, enhancing its emotional impact and inviting the reader to contemplate the deeper meaning behind the verses. By employing kireji, poets can infuse their work with a sense of harmony and rhythm, reflecting the delicate balance found in nature.
Examples of Kireji:
Kireji is typically represented by specific words or phrases that create a pause or shift in the poem. Here are three examples of kireji in haiku:
The old pond—
a frog jumps in,
sound of water.
In this famous haiku by Matsuo Bashō, the cutting word “—”(dash) appears after “old pond”. That creates a distinct pause before the next line. This pause allows the reader to contemplate the tranquil image of the pond and the sudden disruption caused by the frog’s jump.
In the twilight rain,
these brilliant-hued hibiscus—
A lovely sunset.
This haiku by Yosa Buson employs a pause after “hibiscus,” indicated by the em-dash “—”. The kireji enhances the image of the colorful hibiscus blossoms in the rain. Therefore, the poem takes on a reflective quality, reminiscent of a beautiful sunset.
Listening, that evening, to the rain
In the mountain.
Kobayashi Issa uses an implied kireji after “seclusion,” emphasizing the solitude and silence of winter. The contrast between the seclusion and the sound of the evening rain creates a moment of contemplation for the reader.