Katharine writes both modern and traditional poetry, and has two books of poetry in print.
What Haiku is NOT About
Everyone knows that a haiku is a Japanese style nature poem of three lines with 5, 7, and 5 syllables, right? Not so fast! The 5-7-5 count is an invented "requirement" of English haiku that has little basis in fact. In addition, when English speakers attempt to adhere to this manufactured rule, they often miss the main point of what a haiku is actually supposed to be! If you are a fan of haiku, or interested in writing them, here are some factors for you to consider.
What About the Syllables?
The syllable count in English language haiku came about as a misunderstanding of the mechanics of the Japanese haiku. In Japanese there is such a guideline, but it is not with regard to syllables as we understand them. Rather, the Japanese haiku is written in 17 "onji" which are units of sound, but not necessarily comparable with English syllables. As the reader most certainly has noticed, the sounds of Japanese, a member of the Altaic language family, are quite different from the sounds of English, which is a member of the Indo-European language family. The sound units of Japanese don't correlate with what we call syllables in English. In fact, according to Japanese translator Hiroaki Sato, 17 onji in Japanese are actually equivalent to only about 12 or 13 English syllables. (Don Baird, "Advanced Study of Writing Haiku in English") Therefore, the 17 syllable requirement is pointless when applied to an English language haiku.
This does not mean that you can't write a 5-7-5 haiku if you so desire. Despite this common misunderstanding, many beautiful haiku have been successfully written in English. It is absolutely possible to compose a wonderful haiku using the 5-7-5 formula. But it is important to know that this is not required to call your poem a haiku or for it to be a good one. The essence of haiku lies not in its syllable count, word count, or number of lines (all Japanese haiku are written in a single line!). The beauty of haiku lies in its meaning and the interplay of the thoughts presented in the poem. In addition, when English speakers try to use the 5-7-5 formula, they are often forced to insert "filler words", such as "an" or "the" or "and" in order to arrive at the right number of syllables per line. This tends to make the haiku choppy and may detract from its impact (not that these words cannot be used, but they should not be added in to a phrase unnecessarily, simply to create the "right" number of syllables).
Then What Is A Haiku?
A true haiku is defined by the way that it presents thoughts and how those thoughts work together. Its aim is to offer a moment in time, comprised of two distinct thoughts or images in such a way that the combination of these elements creates something new and unexpected, which is often revealed by the final phrase or thought. An interesting definition of the Western haiku is quoted by Johnette Downing on her website:
"Haiku is a short, un-rhymed, one breath poem of Japanese origin consisting of 17 syllables or fewer, written in three lines or fewer, with two images, separated by a pause, in juxtaposition, relating nature to human nature." (Johnette Downing, "Two Dragonflies Haiku and Music for Children")
I would only add that the 17 syllables or fewer is a rough guide, meant to keep the haiku to a size small enough to force that "one breath" feeling to the poem.
Example of a Poor Haiku
Here is an example of an attempt at haiku that does not work, using the 5-7-5 formula:
snow flakes are falling
the bitter winds are blowing
winter has arrived
This shows how filler words are sometimes used just to reach the syllable count. The words "are" and "the" in the first 2 lines may not be necessary to the images. Brevity and simplicity of thought are desirable in a good haiku. The aim is to create a clear thought or image in as few words as possible, while preserving the meaning and the rhythm you desire. So, you may want to use these smaller words, if it adds to the rhythm or meaning of the phrase. For example, while the first line might be better as "snow flakes falling", the second line might be effective as "bitter winds are blowing" or "the bitter winds blow", depending on how the third thought is constructed to illuminate the poem's meaning.
Aside from using unnecessary filler words, the first two images in this example are about the same thing - winter. Ideally, they should be unique and even appear to be unrelated. And in this poem, the final thought merely ties the two related thoughts together as a kind of conclusion. It doesn't serve to merge two different images to create something new and unexpected. So this is not a good haiku at all.
Some Examples of Haiku by Basho, a Master of Haiku
Examples of Effective Haiku
Naomi Beth Waken offers this illustration of an effective haiku in her article:
down Main Street
alone on my skateboard…
the rising sun
(Naomi Beth Waken, "Dispelling the Myth of 5,7,5: A Haiku Lesson for Elementary Students")
Here, the first thought "down Main Street" presents the location and an image in the mind. The second line "alone on my skateboard" presents a second thought and another image. Okay, so you have someone riding a skate board down Main Street. But the final phrase, "the rising sun", ties the first two together in a way that they become something new, something they weren't before. This is not just someone riding a skate board down Main Street. It now captures a whole feeling.... the still of a morning at sunrise. You can almost hear the wheels of the skateboard breaking the dawn quiet. So the third line here augments the first two separate images and creates something new... a total feeling and image that wasn't there in the first two phrases.
Another example by famed haiku writer Yosa Buson:
the sound of the bell
leaving the bell
The first thought, "coolness" is a perception that can be easily imagined. Then "the sound of the bell" offers another clear thought, unrelated to the first (the use of "the", in this case, is needed for clarity of meaning and the rhythm of the line). Then the third phrase that ties the first two together, "leaving the bell", creates a whole moment out of those first two disparate lines. Can't you hear the lingering vibration of the bell, as it fades into the cool air? This haiku is true to its form, as it presents "a moment in time" and nothing superfluous or extra.
The Best Way to Learn to Write Haiku is to Read Haiku!
Many More Elements of Haiku
There is much more to the creation of a true haiku poem, and many wonderful haiku to explore. For such a brief form of poem, the haiku is really quite complicated to explain, and has many elements that go into creating that one "moment" of experience in a beautiful way.
Topics such as presenting time and place, restricting punctuation and capitalization, the reasons behind not having a title for your haiku (often they are simply given a number) and the art of portraying sudden perception are among the elements of haiku writing to be considered. Here, I hope I have started you on the road to understanding and creating haiku by dispelled the myth of the 5-7-5 syllable requirement.
If you are trying to write haiku based on the 5-7-5 formula and are not juxtaposing two different thoughts and tying them together in a way that creates something new and unexpected... well, you may come up with a pretty poem, but it's not a haiku. Instead, try working with the elements of true haiku. It is much more difficult than simply adhering to a syllabic formula, but when you are able to create a beautiful, genuine haiku you are sure to find it an exhilarating and rewarding experience.
English Language Haiku, Written for the Japanese Tsunami Victims
What is Your Experience With Haiku?
- Dispelling the Myth of 5, 7, 5: A Haiku Lesson for Elementary Students by Naomi Beth Wakan (online article)
An in depth study of the use of syllables versus the Japanese onji (sound syllalbe) and what it means to the length of English haiku and its structure.
© 2014 Katharine L Sparrow
Janis Leslie Evans from Washington, DC on April 09, 2017:
Katharine, this was very informative and helpful in expanding my understanding of haiku. I've completed my first attempts at writing haiku and look forward to publishing. Thanks for your article.
Katharine L Sparrow (author) from Massachusetts, USA on September 16, 2014:
That's fine rebeccarave, as I said, you CAN write a perfectly good 5-7-5 haiku! It's just not required. Write on!
robertzimmerman2 on September 15, 2014:
Well explained article. It has been a few years since I wrote Haiku but you inspire me to write again.
Rebecca from US on September 14, 2014:
I never knew this! I did indeed learn the 5-7-5 format in elementary school, and it stuck with me even to this day. I even remember my teacher being a little confused as she taught it to us, as if it didn't quite make sense to her, but it was what she was required to teach.
In high school, I wrote dozens of poems in the 5-7-5 form, and I remember the challenge it presented me. For that reason alone I will probably stick to the obviously now debunked form, but I will be sure to pass this information along to my writer friends!
Katharine L Sparrow (author) from Massachusetts, USA on September 08, 2014:
Hi chef! Yes, you are correct. That's because Basho knew of no such rule, that is an English language invention! I agree with you that ultimately the beauty of a poem lies in how we like the sound of it or not. But, when you are trying to write in a particular form, it's a good thing to understand the form you're writing in! :) Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on September 08, 2014:
An informative article, thank you. I agree there are many short poems out there pretending to be haiku but falling short. Not being a haiku master I feel I'm not sufficiently qualified to criticise or judge these attempts, I can only go on feeling. Some I like, others not.
The difficulty with haiku stems from the fact that they have been absorbed into the world of English poetry, where life is a little different! Translation is a challenge and inevitably some of the essence is lost.
As I understand it you are right about the philosophy inherent in writing haiku - haiku should be little pools reflecting human nature - a mix of the everyday with the ideal. Your skateboard haiku example is a good one. Most of my inspiration came from reading a book about Basho translated by Lucien Stryk the poet - On Love and Barley - and there I discovered that Basho himself broke the traditional syllabic rules. This makes me think that haiku 'rules', especially in this free thinking age, shouldn't be set in stone so to speak. I love both traditional and contemporary/modern.