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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."
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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:iconsomethingzenzen:
somethingzenzen Featured By Owner Nov 24, 2014   General Artist
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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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Jan 15, 2016  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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:iconhavetales-willtell:
HaveTales-WillTell Featured By Owner Mar 9, 2013  Professional Writer
:+fav: This is the perfect starter tutorial for our new micropoetry group, #minimalit. Thank you for providing it.
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Apr 28, 2014  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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:iconscottman2th:
ScottMan2th Featured By Owner Dec 9, 2012  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...
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Dec 16, 2012  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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:iconscottman2th:
ScottMan2th Featured By Owner Dec 16, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
i will endeavor to do so forthrightly in the future with the utmost speed
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Dec 16, 2012  Professional Writer
:D
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:iconmeerkat14:
meerkat14 Featured By Owner Aug 30, 2011
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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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Aug 30, 2011  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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:iconmeerkat14:
meerkat14 Featured By Owner Aug 31, 2011
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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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Aug 31, 2011  Professional Writer
Well yeah, certain poems require counting, but with the iambic pentameter, aren't you counting beats?
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:iconmeerkat14:
meerkat14 Featured By Owner Aug 31, 2011
i think you're supposed to - but i haven't quite figured out the difference, so i count syllables instead.

i don't often write with a set meter, so i haven't bothered to figure them out too much. haiku just happened to catch my attention.
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Aug 31, 2011  Professional Writer
I have a pretty good book, The Making of a Poem, that deals with a number of fixed forms; an explanation can be found there, but I think counting beats is not as hard and fast as syllables--more like a rhythm, which I also listen to in my head when writing many of my free-verse poems.

I hope you keep writing haiku.
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:iconmeerkat14:
meerkat14 Featured By Owner Aug 31, 2011
thanks! i enjoy writing haiku, so it is likely i will :)

happy writing!
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Sep 1, 2011  Professional Writer
I look forward to seeing them. :)
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:iconplaugh:
Plaugh Featured By Owner Aug 7, 2011
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.
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Aug 9, 2011  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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:iconplaugh:
Plaugh Featured By Owner Aug 9, 2011
Thank you very much. I appreciate this a lot. :)
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Aug 13, 2011  Professional Writer
It is my great pleasure. :)
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:iconfayzbub:
Fayzbub Featured By Owner Jul 17, 2011
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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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Jul 17, 2011  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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:iconprettycrazy:
PrettyCrazy Featured By Owner Jul 5, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
For me, coward that I am, 5-7-5 is some sort of safety net...
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Jul 5, 2011  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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:iconprettycrazy:
PrettyCrazy Featured By Owner Jul 5, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
I know. It's just sorta something to hold on to, in my case.
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Jul 5, 2011  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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:iconprettycrazy:
PrettyCrazy Featured By Owner Jul 6, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
It's not that I need the 'extra' sylls or something, I just feel I need to follow the counts to make it a 'real poem'. Chris has some forms with eight and nine sylls and I easily write in them, but I just gotta comply or I feel ill at ease. ;)
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Jul 6, 2011  Professional Writer
Yeah, I understand that, I just happen to apply it to haiku. :)
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:iconibrunswick:
ibrunswick Featured By Owner Jun 30, 2011  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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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Jul 2, 2011  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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:iconrichardleach:
RichardLeach Featured By Owner Jun 30, 2011   Traditional Artist
Hey Al - I think your essay is great and the comment thread is interesting too. I don't really have anything to add, just wanted to give you props for this.
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Jul 2, 2011  Professional Writer
Thanks. I really appreciate the support. This one has be stewing for awhile. Finally got it out, but I can see it needs revisions. I just want to encourage those who are counting because they think they have to.
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:iconromanysoup:
romanysoup Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2011  Hobbyist Artist
Unless it's made a requirement by a contest...
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2011  Professional Writer
The creator of such a contest would be obviously ignorant of what it takes to write good haiku.
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:iconromanysoup:
romanysoup Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2011  Hobbyist Artist
Then I think it's your artistic duty to march over to Ito En teas website and tell them just how wrong they've been.
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2011  Professional Writer
Japanese tend to think that all haiku should follow the 5-7-5 pattern. May say something about why they've produced so few great poets since Shiki. Not my problem, however as I'm more concerned with haiku written in English.
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:iconcompusician:
Compusician Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2011  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Limitations and "hard rules" define an artist. So what happens if the artists rules coincide with the ones that annoy you?

How should Dali paint?
What should we tell the great master Da Vinci he should have done better?

Rules are meant to be broken, but some artists choose some rules to follow (and over indulge).

It's just part of the art. And your commentary is part of this world of great diversity (I respect your view).
.
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2011  Professional Writer
Limitations and "hard rules" define an artist.

The 'rule' doesn't annoy me; there simply is no rule, at least not in English. Now, I know well about how 'limitations and "hard rules" define an artist', especially when I sit down with my translator to convert my English haiku into Japanese, where most of the rules must apply. And besides, the 'rule' of saying just enough and no more is not only harder, but it also creates haiku that more closely resemble Japanese haiku. No where was this more aptly demonstrated than when Japanese haiku were first translated into English. Many of these early translators, when trying to maintain the 5-7-5 structure, had to always say more than was conveyed in the original poem.

I think the reason this error continues is that among all the rules and conventions of haiku, the syllable count is the easiest to duplicate. While kigo (season words) is relatively easy to convey, elements such as juxtaposing and internal comparison are more difficult. Kireji is the element most difficult to duplicate in that there is no equivalent idea in English; it is one of the more important elements so one must try however.

And none of this takes into account the point of haiku, which is deeply philosophical and really has no governing rules.

Not sure about your point concerning Dali and Da Vinci. I do not question the haiku masters, if that is point. To say that a rule from one language doesn't fit a different (in this case, very different) language hardly rates as a questioning of the masters.

Sorry to rant on, but all of this is research for future modifications of the essay. Thanks for being a sounding board.
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:iconcompusician:
Compusician Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2011  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thanks for the reply. Your point is well taken.

I guess the subtitle, "Or, how not to write haiku in English" just speaks from an authoritative view.

I could start writing my Haiku's in 21 syllables. That would turn the Haiku world upside down?

My point on the "Masters" was they deviated from the norm (huh, Deviant Art). That is what made them, "Masters". To tell them how to paint properly, like everyone else would be futile. They still do things the way they have in mind.

Blame it on past teachers, or whoever. I like the 5-7-5. I prefer to leave out any kigo too. My art is for me.
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2011  Professional Writer
I did intend for it to carry some authority, though I had not meant as my authority. Should have known better; the inclination is always to shot the messenger. :)

Anyway, I changed the name so I could remove the subtitle.

I don't think your 21 syllables would have that effect since haiku is about saying more with less. The most interesting trend in haiku these days is a focus on everyday life (Shiki, citing the prevalence of urban life, was first great haijin to reject the need for kigo, though many poets writing in both languages insist kigo matters), and the one-liner ([link] he's here on DA as well).

When haiku was first introduced to the West, many argued that it was not poetry; quite obviously it is, though it operates on an entirely different set of rules, rules that Japanese poets sometimes break (successfully and not so). Take your 21 syllable example. These poems may get a lot of play; I have a hard time seeing them recognized as haiku, but who knows.

My question is, why count at all? Why not simply write the best poem you can? Of course having said that, I recognize that the restriction of counting leads to some interesting solutions in my translations, and can also have that result in English. I saw one recently where the obvious way to say 'it' was with 6 syllables, but the poet's solution to get it to 5 was very creative. I'll never see counting as a requirement, but I can already see my position softening. I can't very well rail against a rule only to replace it with a counter-rule.
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:iconcompusician:
Compusician Featured By Owner Jun 30, 2011  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I want to say that your article was worthwhile and informative, without a doubt.

Your question is, "why count at all".

I have that answer, in my situation.

Einstein's theory of relativity (Point of view theory, usually clears things up)... "Where the heck is he coming from?"

Here is why I count.

When I write songs, 5 syllables are king for hit songs. Since a measure will contain 8 beats in normal speaking tempo, or singing tempo, 5, 6, and 7 are great. 8 syllables or 4 syllables might be good for marches (depending on where you hold the notes)

I love rock'n roll (5 syllables) Joan Jett
Back in the USSR (7 syllables) Beatles

The ideal syllable count (for my taste) is usually 5-6-4.

And, I try to always make my titles 5 syllables, and it represents the Hook to the song (sometimes I go 3 syllables).

I use Haiku's to write songs. The 5-7-5 is the easiest to write and modify once the beat and music parts are applied.

This also is why my "Haiku's" sound very close to "normal speech". In song writing, it is best (now days) to be clear, short and succinct.

So, I guess I am using your art form, to get something done in my art form. And I guess that now you see my point of view, while you may not agree with it, it does answer the question of why counting syllables is important.
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Jul 1, 2011  Professional Writer
Thanks.

Okay, that makes sense then. The author of The Haiku Handbook suggests writing haiku in 11 to 13 'beats' (roughly syllables) to approximate the experience of Japanese haiku (because of language differences, 5-7-5 English haiku are about 30% longer, i.e. take longer to read). I'm not entirely sure I've remembered this correctly, but something like that (I can look it up later).

Anyway, this feed back has been great since it's helped me to refine my point, and I will probably incorporate some of this into the revisions.
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:iconcompusician:
Compusician Featured By Owner Jul 1, 2011  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I do repeat that I learned a lot of things from your article. You would make a good teacher since you listen to other's viewpoints, as well as make a great case for your own.
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Jul 2, 2011  Professional Writer
Thanks. I was teaching (history) before I moved to Japan.
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:iconsomnomollior:
somnomollior Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2011   Writer
Excellent! I want to show it to everyone!! My daughter's poetry instructor at University told her that her haiku weren't haiku because they weren't 5-7-5. The ignorance needs to be rooted out!
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2011  Professional Writer
Send it on, by all means (especially since I can't say when I'll finish it). :)

It is interesting how that error lives on considering how, as for as I know, no reputable English haiku journal supports it. Shows how little research instructors actually do.
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:iconrlkirkland:
rlkirkland Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
A 'progress' well begun. :)
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2011  Professional Writer
The comments I gather here should be very helpful toward completing this.
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:iconkaraohki:
KaraOhki Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
Very interesting - thank you! I've always struggled with the 5-7-5 concept for the very reasons you outlined. Sometimes I did end up saying more than I intended, or having to "chop" lines one and three to fit. Now I think I'll experiment with what needs to be said.
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:iconalmcdermid:
almcdermid Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2011  Professional Writer
I think this is how I first came to investigate this point; my 5-7-5 haiku are bad, bad, bad ( I have one good, but I saw that it was 5-7-5 after I wrote it).

I look forward to your new poems!
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