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Haiku Without Counting

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By almcdermid   |   Watch
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Published: June 29, 2011
The idea that haiku should be written in 17 syllables, arranged in three line pattern of 5-7-5 is perhaps the best known 'rule' governing the writing of haiku. It is also the least understood, and the least important, particularly when composing haiku in English. This rule, as it applies to haiku composed in Japanese, is at best a convention, one that emerged from conditions relative to Japanese culture and language. It is, however, a convention ill-suited to the English language.

Japanese poets count on (or onji), a sound represented by one kana; the closest English equivalent to this is a syllable. Thus, the 'syllable' count is a function of the Japanese language, in that Japanese is written in kanji (Chinese characters-which can contain one or more on) and kana (Japanese phonetic script).  There are also on, called 'particles' in English, that serve a precise function in Japanese, but that have no English equivalent; these are used in haiku to create a pause, provide emphasis, or sometimes simply to allow for the proper number of on; some poems achieve the desired emphasis by adding an extra  on, or by subtracting one.

The origin of the 5-7-5 pattern stems from the one consonant, one vowel, structure of all but six of the Japanese on, and a belief among the Japanese in the melodic rhythm this arrangement creates. This closely approximates the effect of rhyming in some English poetry, but the rhythm of Japanese haiku cannot be duplicated in English.

Furthermore, in Japanese, 'restricting' the poem to 17 on creates a particular impact on the poem (similar to the impact the rules of a sonnet creates). Japanese haiku are very sparse, written in a rarefied, even abbreviated, form of Japanese (most haiku would require many more on if written in standard Japanese), the idea being to say 'just enough' to allow the reader to enter the poem.

In English, insisting on 17 syllables usually has the opposite effect because it forces the poet to say more than is required to convey the moment or image. In fact, English haiku that insist on the 17 syllables arranged strictly into three lines of 5-7-5 syllables respectively are often wordy and unwieldy. I have read many potentially good haiku that have been made less so by being 'padded' with extra syllables.  

Some poets argue that the 'discipline' imposed by the syllable count allows them to create better poetry, but for the most part, I've seen that the opposite is the case; a much more useful convention/restriction would be to use as few words as possible.

This prescription is also not a rule. Rules are established by governing bodies and no such organization exists for English haiku, though the first substantial non-Japanese haiku organization is the Haiku Society of America. In response to this issue, and in an effort to correct definitions that began to appear in English-language dictionaries, they wrote:

The definition of haiku has been made more difficult by the fact that many uninformed persons have considered it to be a "form" like a sonnet or triolet (17 syllables divided 5, 7, and 5). That it is not simply a "form" is amply demonstrated by the fact that the Japanese differentiate haiku from senryu──a type of verse (or poem) that has exactly the same "form" as haiku but differs in content from it. Actually, there is no rigid "form" for Japanese haiku. Seventeen Japanese on (sound-symbols) is the norm, but some 5% of "classical" haiku depart from it, and so do a still greater percentage of "modern" Japanese haiku. To the Japanese and to American haiku poets, it is the content and not the form alone that makes a haiku.


Furthermore, Cor Van Den Heuvel, a well-known haijin and translator of Japanese poetry in 1987 wrote:

"A haiku is not just a pretty picture in three lines of 5-7-5 syllables each. In fact, most haiku in English are not written in 5-7-5 syllables at all--many are not even written in three lines. What distinguishes a haiku is concision, perception and awareness--not a set number of syllables. A haiku is a short poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which Nature is linked to human nature. . . The poem is refined into a touchstone of suggestiveness. In the mind of an aware reader it opens again into an image that is immediate and palpable, and pulsing with that delight of the senses that carries a conviction of one's unity with all of existence."
© 2011 - 2019 almcdermid
Actually a work in progress. I want to eventually cover all of the elements that guide traditional haiku, many of which are difficult to duplicate in English.

Comments welcome.

Got some good ones so far, on both sides of the 'fence'. Many thanks.
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Comments (48)
somethingzenzen's avatar
I'm so glad I found this through minimalit! I think I might just start sending people here instead of trying to argue when people insist on 5-7-5. :)
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almcdermid's avatar
almcdermid|Professional Writer
Sorry for the delay in answering. I've been absent for here for some time. 

I basically wrote it because I got tired of arguing about this. A 5-7-5 poem has to be really good to get my attention. 
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HaveTales-WillTell's avatar
HaveTales-WillTell|Professional Writer
:+fav: This is the perfect starter tutorial for our new micropoetry group, #minimalit. Thank you for providing it.
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almcdermid's avatar
almcdermid|Professional Writer
Sorry to have taken so very long in replying. I'm glad you've found it useful. I have recently found some article that may change my thinking about haiku, so I may end up revising it. Or writing something new.
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ScottMan2th's avatar
ScottMan2th|Hobbyist General Artist
i enjoyed reading this very much. lately i have been frustrated in finding the exact or precise words that i need to convey the idea or concept that is in my brain. many of the words i could use just sound too awkward or their meanings distract from what i want to say...
Reply  ·  
almcdermid's avatar
almcdermid|Professional Writer
That is the problem we all face. In truth, I'm satisfied with very few of my haiku; writing them mostly helps me achieve brevity in my other work.

My "remedy" is to read more and prefer Saxon-based words over those derived from Latin (when possible). :XD:
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ScottMan2th's avatar
ScottMan2th|Hobbyist General Artist
i will endeavor to do so forthrightly in the future with the utmost speed
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almcdermid's avatar
almcdermid|Professional Writer
:D
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meerkat14's avatar
i find this very interesting, but more interesting are the comment threads.

... i think that what you are trying to say is, 5-7-5 is not the be all and end all, and neither is a non 5-7-5 count? that's what i got from this in any case.
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almcdermid's avatar
almcdermid|Professional Writer
Pretty much, though I definitely come down on the side of non 5-7-5. I don't count at all, and when I read poem that is excessively wordy, and then see that it because of the 5-7-5 adherence, I tend to dismiss it.
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meerkat14's avatar
fair enough. i don't necessarily count when writing, but i tend to count once i have finish and generally edit for fewer syllables.

at least when writing haiku. i definitely count when using iambic pentameter. it would be very difficult not to.
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almcdermid's avatar
almcdermid|Professional Writer
Well yeah, certain poems require counting, but with the iambic pentameter, aren't you counting beats?
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Plaugh's avatar
An interesting article. I am looking forward to the other rules you mention that are more important to the art form.

I have been drawn to haiku because the 5-7-5 form forces me to choose carefully what I will say and keeps me from being overly verbose.

Sometimes the meaning alters a bit from my original intent as I try to puzzle together the syllables, but this turns out to not be all together bad. I have ended up with more powerful imagery or message on occasion.

I would appreciate some feed back on my haiku with they sensibility you are writing about here. I would even offer them for your article if they would help demonstrate a point, bad or good.
Reply  ·  
almcdermid's avatar
almcdermid|Professional Writer
Yes, I should finish this up; there are many aspects of haiku that are unknown among many haiku writers. I'm pretty sure I don't yet know all of them.

To approxiate the Japanese haiku experience, William J. Higginson, in The Haiku Handbook, suggests 10-13 syllables (I don't recall exactly and don't have the book in front of me) and so you'd end up with 3-5-3--though insisting on the pattern doesn't always work for reasons I've laid out here, that being that English is simply too different from Japanese.

While it is true that having some kind of 'restriction' is often helpful but there are two chief reasons I don't like 5-7-5. First, as I noted here, this convention is tied very specifically to Japanese, and second, a 5-7-5 English haiku is nearly impossible to render into Japanese--they simply say way too much.

Perhaps these will best illustrate my point: [link] [link]
[link]

I'd be happy to look at your haiku, though once this is complete, I plan to publish it and so would rather use my own examples to skip copyright hassles (and I wouldn't use another poet's work to illustrate a bad example--I've got plenty of my own poems that can do that =P).
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Plaugh's avatar
Thank you very much. I appreciate this a lot. :)
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almcdermid's avatar
almcdermid|Professional Writer
It is my great pleasure. :)
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Fayzbub's avatar
Thank you so much for this in-depth explanation. I'm an Australian currently doing a Bachelor of Languages and majoring in Japanese, and we will be doing haiku this coming semester. So your essay is very helpful to me!
I also like your gallery very much!
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almcdermid's avatar
almcdermid|Professional Writer
I'm glad you found something useful here. This is really only a start, dealing with the most well-known rule of counting. You might also find this helpful: [link] This guy really knows his haiku.

Might also find The Haiku Handbook by William J. Higginson (has a very thorough resource guide) and An Introduction to Haiku by Harold G. Henderson helpful if you can find them.

Good luck!
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PrettyCrazy's avatar
PrettyCrazy|Hobbyist Writer
For me, coward that I am, 5-7-5 is some sort of safety net...
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almcdermid's avatar
almcdermid|Professional Writer
Hard for me to imagine how that works, but my only point is that it's not a rule.
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PrettyCrazy's avatar
PrettyCrazy|Hobbyist Writer
I know. It's just sorta something to hold on to, in my case.
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almcdermid's avatar
almcdermid|Professional Writer
Hey, if that what works for you. When I finish this essay, it will discuss all of the elements of haiku and ultimately I'll argue that following all the rules AND counting makes it difficult to get good results.
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ibrunswick's avatar
ibrunswick|Hobbyist Writer
it seems a lot like the blues to me...within certain parameters, largely determined by the skill of the singer/writer, there is a good bit of freedom. the rhythm rules, i think. BTW, i generally find your writing interesting and wouldn't pay much attention to the naysayers commenting above.
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almcdermid's avatar
almcdermid|Professional Writer
Thanks. I know those critiques would be there, and actually I've found many useful points. I main reason for writing this is to help those poets who feel hemmed in by this non-rule, not to say that 5-7-5 haiku are inherently bad or wrong. I think the blues make for a good parallel; haiku that simply follow 'the format' are usually dull. All of the masters eschewed such poems.
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anonymous's avatar
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