Wednesday, December 18, 2013

To the Lighthouse: Collage-esque Perspectives on the Syllabic Structure of Haiku


First: five syllables
Second: seven syllables
Third: five syllables

New & Selected Poems, 1995

Ron Padgett
(for more information, see Poetic Musings: Ron Padgett’s "Haiku")

Haiku: A form of Japanese lyric verse that encapsulates a single impression of a natural object or scene, within a particular season, in seventeen syllables arranged in three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables....

-- Chris Baldick,  The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (3 ed.),  P. 148.

five, seven, five
I count on my fingers
deep fall

Imprints of dreams

Damir Janjalija

Hard as it was for many to take, and hard as it was to convince many practitioners of this simplistic adaptive ‘solution’ to writing haiku in another language (and, unfortunately, to this day in the American educational system it persists!), it meant moving away from the dictum of 17 English-language—and later foreign-language—‘syllables’! Throughout the book The Japanese Haiku by Kenneth Yasuda, the top of every page all the way across reads: 57557557557557557557. And at the back of the book where he had his own haiku in English, he wrote them in 17 English syllables. How is a beginner to ever shake this off? Talk about subliminal messages! Yes, to the Japanese it had relevance, but to some of us outlanders, it was not the whole story. It was rarely applicable when writing in English.

In critiquing the poems of that era, it was not too difficult to see where the writers in English added words SIMPLY FOR THE SAKE OF MAKING THAT 17-SYLLABLE COUNT. It was referred to as “padding.” In most every instance, these ‘extra’ words were no more than redundancies. They did not add to the poem. To the contrary, they weakened the impact by dragging it out, repeating the same idea. Since the greatest beauty of the haiku for me is their power of concision with which one can open up worlds of implication, suggestion—if one selects only the essence of the moving experience that gave rise to the poem, this verbosity was a real handicap. In the main line poetry circles of those days (and still today somewhat) American haiku was totally disdained. Ignored. Not published. Dismissed.
-- excerpted from Anita Virgil's 2005 Simply Haiku interview with Robert Wilson:
Stop counting syllables,
start counting the dead.

Past All Traps

Don Wentworth

English words, so many of which have Latin origins, can be cumbersomely multisyllabic, and English syntax requires parts of speech that pile on still more syllables. A strict syllable count is the least important part of a haiku. Even the Japanese poets honor this rule more in the breach than in the keeping. Thousands of well-known Japanese haiku have between twelve and twenty-two syllables...

... Basho's famous crow haiku, to cite only one of many examples, is written 5-9-5...

-- Hiag Akmakjian, Snow Falling from a Bamboo Leaf: The Art of Haiku, pp. 35 &40.

in five-seven-five
I compact confusing thoughts . . .
New Year's morning dew

Simply Haiku: 10:3, Spring/Summer 2013

Damir Janjalija

Updated, December 19

Below is excerpted from  Richard Gilbert's and Judy Yoneoka's essay, titled "From 5-7-5 to 8-8-8 Haiku Metrics and Issues of Emulation -- New Paradigms for Japanese and English Haiku Form," Language Issues: Journal of the Foreign Language Education Center, #1, March 2000


The question of how English-language haiku form may best emulate Japanese 5-7-5 haiku (or whether it even should at all) has been hotly debated for decades. A recent trend in Japanese poetic analysis, however, interprets haiku in terms of 3 lines of 8 beats each onto which the 5-7-5 -on are mapped. This paper presents an overview of this trend, supported both by theory from metrical phonology and by observed experimental data of subjects reading haiku in Japanese. It was found that the 8-8-8 metrical pattern is indeed verifiably present in haiku reading, and that this pattern serves to map both haiku with 5-7-5 -on and other  -on counts. Based on these findings, implications for English haiku form, especially with respect to emulation, lineation, and metricality are discussed within the context of the North American haiku movement. It is proposed that haiku in both Japanese verse and English free verse may naturally fit into a similar metrical form. It is hoped that a metrical analysis, operating across both languages, may help clear up some misconceptions regarding the Japanese haiku in the West, while providing an impetus to bridge the gap between the Japanese and world haiku movements.


Contemporary English Haiku Examples and Issues

Just as a person may best be known not through analysis in absentia but through actual meeting, the English haiku is perhaps best met through example rather than definition or analysis. Although many authors discuss the "English haiku tradition," this tradition, traceable to the first "hokku-like" success in English by Ezra Pound (1913),[6] for the most part begins in the post-WWII era--so is a tradition barely fifty years old.[7] Variability, variation, and experiment remain rife and vital in all aspects of the poetic form.


my head in the clouds in the lake

-- Ruby Spriggs (1)

sitting here
without the mountains

-- Gary Hotham (4)

spring    wind --
I      too
am     dust

-- Patricia Donegan (6)

 a barking dog
 little bits of night
                                  breaking off

-- Jane Reichhold (11)

subway woman asleep
picked daisies
in her hand

-- Raffael De Gruttola (16)

Some of the main issues in contemporary English haiku are that: 1) the syllable counts and 2) rhythms in English haiku are more variable than prescriptive guidelines for emulation of the Japanese haiku allow. Also, 3) rhythmical divisions are more varied. In Donegan (Ex. 6) we have a haiku of 6 total syllables. De Gruttola"s haiku (Ex. 16) contains 12 syllables, twice as many as Donegan. Which takes longer to read in a typical reading by the same individual? We can see that Donegan, through word-spacing and selection, choice of line breaks, and punctuation, has created qualities which suggest rhythmic lengthening. Thus, total syllable counts cannot be considered apart from their intimate relation with rhythm and phrasal cadence. Donegan"s haiku is a good example of the creative possibilities of free-verse English poetry, and it is this tradition that most adequately defines the basis of English haiku, in terms of rhythmic and verse-line variation....


  1. The original haiku written by Damir D. Damir is as follows:

    in five-seven-five
    I compact confusing thoughts . . .
    New Year's day

    With his permission, I replaced L3 with the following line:

    New Year's morning dew

    The revision (with its 5-7-5 syllabic structure) works effectively as a meta-haiku; furthermore, the new L3 not only enhances the visual power of the poem, but also adds at least one more layer of meaning to the poem.

  2. I just added relevant excerpts and haiku examples from Richard Gilbert's and Judy Yoneoka's essay, titled "From 5-7-5 to 8-8-8 Haiku Metrics and Issues of Emulation -- New Paradigms for Japanese and English Haiku Form," Language Issues: Journal of the Foreign Language Education Center, #1, March 2000, which can be accessed at