Body, Mind, Spirit Magazine

Haiku Tip #6

By Fiercebuddhist @fiercebuddhist

Recently I was contacted and asked “How can I call what I write haiku as I do not use 5-7-5″ I hope that this posting helps explain why 5-7-5 is not a requirement of haiku.

If one wonders why 5-7-5 does not a haiku make. I turn to Lee Gurga who in his book “Haiku: A poet’s guide” explains it thusly.

“‘Japanese Syllables’ are not syllables at all in our sense of the word. Japanese syllables are uniformly short, differing considerably in length from syllables in English, so it might be better to think of them as ‘sounds’ rather than syllables… These Japanese sounds consist of a either s single vowel sound, a combination of a consonant followed by a vowel, or a single consonant.
These syllables are ALL (emphasis mine) about the same length as the syllable ‘be’ in English.”

As we know in English there are short words with one syllable such as “be” but then there are longer words too.

Gurga goes on to say “the average Japanese haiku contains only 5-6 words, while the average 17 syllable haiku in English has 12 or more.”

Gurga and other haiku editors suggest that if you want to count syllables then you must do it as the Japanese do. For example the word haiku is counted as ha-i-ku or 3 syllables not hai-ku as it is counted in English. A 17 syllable haiku in English usually comes across as wordy.

That said I like the “one breath” rule. Take a breath, say your haiku, if you can say it slowly in one breath then you have properly used brevity.

Furthermore the majority of literary haiku published in English today are not 5-7-5 (even in Geppo). In the second edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (Touchstone, 1986), 88.2 percent of the poems are not 5-7-5. And in Bruce Ross’s Haiku Moment (Tuttle, 1993), an even greater 96.5 percent of the poems are not 5-7-5. A similar dominance of non-5-7-5 poems prevails in most of the leading English-language haiku journals.

Which is all to say that, among published literary haiku today (and in recent decades), 5-7-5 haiku are vastly in the minority. But if the counting of syllables is important to conscientious “traditional” haiku poets, those poets should have a clear understanding of basic phonetics, and know how to identify syllables and count them correctly and that my dear reader will have to wait for another day.

Blyth, R.H: History of Haiku 1964
Gurga, Lee: Haiku: A Poets Guide Modern Haiku Press, 2003
Higginson, William: The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku McGraw-Hill, 1985

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