Can Three Lines Say It All?

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for March 25, 2021, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Can three lines say it all?

            Not everybody agrees with what makes up good writing. Years ago, when I taught English, the motto I shared with students was, “Don’t say in twelve words what you can say in six.” Ernest Hemingway’s novels and short stories were my models of “terseness.” That is, in spite of the fact his terseness was criticized by British literary critics for being too “journalistic.” As a journalist, I both represent and resent that criticism.

            Of course, we’re talking about good prose writing here. Some of my readers do not like poetry, and I suppose in their view, no poetry writing could be considered good writing. I disagree.

            Whether in prose or poetry, verbosity, or wordiness, is a writing flaw. I say that in spite of the fact it is my nature to be wordy and go off on rabbit trails, lol. Since the time I taught English in the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s (yes, I am very old), American writing has further been influenced by the widespread use of Twitter, by texting, and by a faster pace of life. Everybody is in a hurry. No doubt these could be reasons for the popularity of Japanese poetry forms today, especially the three-line haiku.

            Several years ago, after re-discovering haiku writing (it was first introduced to Americans by the Beatnik writers in the 1950’s, and, no, I was not a Beatnik), I began reading and writing haiku to help cure myself of verbosity. When my daughters used to have questions about their homework, they would ask my wife for help, because she would give them a short, concise answer, whereas, from me, they’d get a long-winded, unwanted discourse.

            Writing haiku taught me that there is a lot more to those three lines than appears on the surface. In three lines, the writer must capture a moment in time that suggests more than the reader sees upon first glance. It must trigger thoughts, images, and/or feelings in the reader. Something that breaks the frozen seas within him or her. Although anyone can write a haiku, and I encourage you to do so, not everyone can write a good haiku each time. When you finally write a good haiku, a voice inside you says, “You nailed it!”

            Most American haiku writers have abandoned the Japanese 5-7-5 syllable count for those three lines, because the Japanese language differs so greatly from English. That’s why the term “three-line poetry” often replaces “haiku.” Ignoring the 5-7-5 syllable count, the poet writes short-long-short lines. It is quite a challenge to say something significant in so few lines with so few words.

            Since I first discovered haiku, I have published numerous 5-7-5 haiku, as well as, three-line poems in many poetry journals, and I’ve had just as many rejected. Writing a good haiku is not as easy as you may think, but it’s a wonderfully rewarding activity.

            My favorite, and what I consider my best, haiku/three-line poem was first published in 50 Haiku, Issue#13, March 2017, and was also included in Open Prairies:


the silent deaf boy

gently touched the organ’s pipes

and heard God’s voice

            As you can see, punctuation and complete sentences are not required in haiku writing, but they’re not outlawed either.

            My most recent haiku/three-line poem was published in Three Line Poetry Magazine, Issue #55. For this issue, the Editor had asked for three-line poems inspired by the COVID19 pandemic:


yule tree in Texas

blinking lights revealing gifts

daughter stuck in Queens

            Surprisingly enough, people who do not like poetry, and normally do not read it, often find the haiku/three-line poem to their liking. Outdoorsmen, like my father, who find much pleasure in hunting and fishing, planting fields and harvesting grain, etc., often are not readers of poetry, but actually enjoy the three-liners.

            Can three lines say it all? I don’t know what “all” is, but you and I are capable of choosing our words so carefully, we can say more with less.


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, a retired LCMS pastor, and the author of two books, It Must Be the Noodles and Open Prairies.

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