Okay, this essay is long, but give it a read to better understand why it’s an urban myth to think of English-language haiku merely in terms of 5-7-5 syllables. National Haiku Writing Month (NaHaiWriMo) is not really anti-5-7-5, but counting syllables is hardly the only target for haiku (if at all). Find out why you don’t need to aim at such a syllable pattern in English, and why other targets are more important. + + + + +
“The term syllable is an inaccurate way of describing the actual metrical units of Japanese poetry.”
—Haruo Shirane, in his introduction to Kōji Kawamoto’s The Poetics of Japanese Verse
(Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2000)
“I don’t think counting 5,7,5 syllables is necessary or desirable. To reflect the natural world, and the season, is to reflect what is.”
“To make the three lines of a haiku 5, 7, and 5 syllables long is a merely superficial conformity to the Japanese original. What counts is the spirit.”
You may have thought that haiku was supposed to be 5-7-5, so what’s up with the logo for National Haiku Writing Month—NaHaiWriMo? Is haiku 5-7-5 or not? Well, yes and no. In Japanese, yes, haiku is indeed traditionally 5-7-5. But 5-7-5 what? In English and other languages, haiku has mistakenly been taught as having 5-7-5 syllables, but that’s not really accurate. You probably aren’t in the mood for a linguistics lecture that explains all the reasons why, but Japanese haiku counts sounds, not strictly syllables (the linguistic term is mora—Japanese is a moraic language, not a syllabic one). For example, the word “haiku” itself counts as two syllables in English (hi-ku), but three sounds in Japanese (ha-i-ku). This isn’t how “haiku” is said in Japanese, but it is how its sounds are counted. Similarly, consider “Tokyo.” How many syllables? Most Westerners, thinking that Japan’s capital city is pronounced as “toe-key-oh,” will say three syllables, but that’s incorrect. It’s actually pronounced as “toe-kyo.” So two syllables, right? Actually, no. Rather, it counts as “toe-oh-kyo-oh”—four syllables. Or rather, sounds.
There are other differences, too. For example, if a word ends with the letter “n,” that letter is counted as a separate sound (all words in Japanese end with vowels, or sometimes the “n” sound). So how many sounds are counted in the word “Nippon,” Japan’s name for itself? It actually counts as four sounds (ni-p-po-n). And consider words that Japanese has borrowed from other languages, and how they gain more sounds in Japanese. For example, “Christmas” (with its consonant clusters) becomes “ku-ri-su-ma-su.” In The Haiku Apprentice, Abigail Friedman points out that “scarf” becomes “su-ka-a-fu”—an increase from one syllable to four sounds. In The Poetics of Japanese Verse, Koji Sakamoto uses the word “sign” as a further example. We would count it as one syllable, but the Japanese would count it as three sounds (sigh-ya-n). Sure, some words have the same number of sounds (for example, “sushi” is two sounds or syllables in both languages), but there are enough words that count differently for practically all translators, linguists, scholars, and leading haiku poets to say and show that about 10 to 14 syllables is approximately equal to the 17 sounds they count in Japanese haiku (and not all haiku in Japanese are 17 sounds either). If you’re writing a poem of 17 syllables in English, you’re actually writing something that contains significantly more content than 17 sounds contain in Japanese. In Grit, Grace, and Gold: Haiku Celebrating the Sports of Summer, published in 2020 by Kodansha USA in Tokyo, Kit Pancoast Nagamura says that “Based purely on a 17-syllable counting method, a poet writing in English could easily slip in enough words for two haiku in Japanese” (xvi). Indeed, I would even say that writing 5-7-5 syllables in English is a violation of the haiku form rather than a preservation of it.
Furthermore, Japanese has another difference that makes 5-7-5 syllables sort of an “urban myth” for haiku in English. In addition to counting sounds and syllables differently, most Japanese words tend to have more sounds or syllables than their English counterparts. For example, when we say “cuckoo” (two syllables), the Japanese say “hototogisu” (five syllables). Some Japanese words have the same number of syllables as their English equivalents (and occasionally fewer), but a great majority of Japanese words have more syllables than the same concepts in English. In Japanese, every consonant is pronounced with a vowel (with the exception of the “n” sound, which is counted as a separate sound at the ends of words and in certain other cases, as already mentioned). Quite simply, because Japanese words have more syllables, you can say a lot more in 17 syllables in English than you can in Japanese. That’s why, if you write a 17-syllable haiku in English, more often than not one entire line of its three lines will have to be amputated to make the poem fit 17 sounds in Japanese (if you translate it). Thus, despite the way haiku has been widely mistaught in English for decades as 5-7-5 syllables, it actually should not surprise you that the vast majority of haiku published in leading haiku journals and anthologies are not 5-7-5.
Another factor to be aware of is that the misguided focus on 5-7-5 syllables in English puts excess emphasis on form, to the great detriment of content and other strategies necessary to writing haiku. Two of these strategies, often completely ignored and not taught in Western schools, are the use of a kigo, or season word, and a kireji, or cutting word, and they are just two of the vital aspects of haiku that make this art much more challenging than most people realize. In his book Empire of Signs, Roland Barthes said that “Haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we ourselves can write such things easily.”
Specifically, a haiku tries to invoke the time of year with a word that is typical of that season, such as snow for winter, or frog for spring. In Japanese, lists of season words have become highly sophisticated, and have been collected into numerous references works called saijiki, which include the season words, explanations, and sample poems. Some saijiki (the word, like haiku, is both singular and plural) are as big as encyclopedias. Saijiki are also available as dedicated electronic devices, or as applications for mobile phones and computers. Japanese haiku poets routinely consult a saijiki to see that they’ve used their kigo correctly. Season words serve not only to ground the poem in a particular season, but to allude to other poems that have employed the same season word.
And then consider the kireji, which literally means “cutting word.” In Japanese, traditional haiku include words that function like a spoken sort of punctuation. More importantly, they cut the poem into two parts, creating a sort of juxtaposition, not only grammatically but also imagistically. The point is to carefully pair two images together in such a way that a shift or disjunction occurs between them. The art of haiku lies in creating the right amount of distance between the two parts, so the leap is neither too far (and thus obscure) or too close (and thus too obvious). By focusing on concrete images rather than judgment or analysis, the two juxtaposed parts of a haiku empower the reader to feel what the poet felt, without the poet telling the reader what to feel. In fact, that’s a really good piece of advice to remember as you write your own haiku: Don’t write about your feelings. Instead, write about what caused your feelings.
The point of haiku is indeed to convey feeling, not ideas, concepts, or judgments. Consider this haiku of mine, which won first place in the 2000 Henderson haiku contest, sponsored by the Haiku Society of America:
meteor shower . . .
a gentle wave
wets our sandals
How do you feel when you read this poem? Do you feel the surprise of the tide turning, thus wetting your sandalled feet? Do you feel the moment’s summerness? Do you notice the effect of the word “our,” which makes this a shared rather than solitary experience? Even if you’ve never been to the ocean, I hope you can feel the enthrallment with the meteor shower, and then the surprise wetness from a wave, showing how nature, in this case through the changing tide, caused by the gravitational pull of celestial objects, can touch us in unexpected ways. A good haiku will make you realize something that you always knew but might have forgotten. A haiku takes you back to yourself, back to who you are, and what it’s like to be human—to your “falling leaf nature,” as translator R. H. Blyth put it. And you make this realization emotionally, not intellectually. You also bring a lot of yourself to each haiku, which is sometimes called an “unfinished” poem because of what it leaves out. And what you bring to each poem is how you have personally experienced your world through your senses. Thus haiku poems are about the five senses, and how you take in the world around you through those senses. In other words, the haiku is about what takes place outside you. It is generally not about what you think about the experience or how you interpret it, at least not for beginners.
So, why the “no 5-7-5” logo for NaHaiWriMo? Quite simply, to make people think about their presumptions with haiku. If the concept is new to you that haiku shouldn’t necessarily be 5-7-5, then the logo has done its job, making you stop and question it. At the very least, it will hopefully have given you something to think about. So why not give haiku a try with a goal other than 5-7-5 in mind? Indeed, the point of the “no 5-7-5” NaHaiWriMo logo is to emphasize that it’s a widespread misunderstanding to think of haiku merely as anything written in 5-7-5 syllables. Remember, 5-7-5 does not a haiku make. For more explanation of this matter, please read Keiko Imaoka’s “Forms in English Haiku,” John Dunphy’s “What Is Haiku—And What Isn’t,” and my own essay, “Becoming a Haiku Poet” (links below). Be careful not to get a case of mumpsimus, or being stuck in your ways despite evidence to the contrary (but alas, you can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into). With English-language haiku, you have no need to persist in any adherence to the incorrect idea or belief in 5-7-5 syllables.
And do give NaHaiWriMo a try! Let yourself write freely, if you wish, all month long in February—or at any other time if February is too far away. Each day, or at the end of the month, you could look closely at your haiku and ask yourself the questions outlined in the “Haiku Checklist.” As with any art, your first attempts may not be the most successful, but it’s worthwhile to persist in learning and studying haiku, because few poetic forms manage to capture life’s joys and pleasures (and also its sadnesses) as well as haiku. And, as William J. Higginson, author of The Haiku Handbook, has written, the real purpose of haiku is to share them. So why not join others who are trying their hand at writing haiku daily this February, and share the poems you write with others?
—Michael Dylan Welch
For a discerning discussion on the problem of pseudo-haiku and the love/hate relationship one might have with different kinds of haiku (that is, literary haiku versus mere syllable-counting), listen to Jacke Wilson’s 25 July 2022 podcast “On Matsuo Bashō, Haiku’s Greatest Master” (the haiku part gets going with 48:40 remaining in the podcast).
The preceding essay was republished in Steel Jackdaw #13, January 2024, pages 61–64.