The Myth of the So-called 5-7-5 Syllable Count in English, Hence in Haiku in All Occidental Languages:
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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.
“The term syllable is an inaccurate way of describing the actual metrical units of Japanese poetry.”
—Haruo Shirane, in his introduction to Koji 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.”
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. 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 (nip-p-on-n).
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 allow 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 sandaled 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 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.
So, in a nutshell, here is my own take on the thrust of this article:
THE CONCEPT OF THE SO-CALLED “RULE” OF 5-7-5 SYLLABLES IN HAIKU IN OCCIDENTAL LANGUAGES CONSTITUTES A COMPLETE MISUNDERSTANDING OF THE 5-7-5 SOUND COUNT OF CLASSICAL JAPANESE HAIKU. This does not necessarily mean that some of your haiku may indeed end up with a 5-7-5 syllable count, i.e. 5 syllables in the first line, 7 in the second and 5 in the third, but if any such haiku do end up with this syllable count, it is merely by happenstance. The vast majority of haiku in Occidental languages do not strictly run to 5-7-5 syllables. And even if a particular haiku is 5-7-5 = 17 syllables long in English, if it is bilingual, as are my Canadian haiku, it is almost a dead certainty that the same (or similar) haiku in French will not run to the same number of syllables, given that the syntactical and grammatical structures of these 2 languages are so unalike. And what goes for bilingual English and French haiku must necessarily also apply to bilingual English and Spanish, English and Italian, English and German, Spanish and French, Spanish and Italian, Spanish and German and so on and so on, ad nauseam. You simply cannot stuff into a predetermined 5-7-5 syllable count box the same or similar haiku in two or more Occidental languages. Besides, so-called “syllables” in Japanese haiku are not syllables at all, but rather discrete sounds. Caveat poeta!
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