Haiku (俳句) is a well known style of short Japanese poem that has become popular among English and other speakers. We’re taught that haiku has three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. An argument can be made that 5-7-5 isn’t exactly correct and that haiku can’t be the same in English as it is in the original Japanese.
古池や furui ike ya At an ancient pond
蛙飛び込む kawazu tobikomu the frogs go bounding into
水の音 mizu no oto the sound of water
by Matsuo Bashou, 1686, translation W. Milberry*
Haiku was originally first stanza of a style of old Japanese collaborative poetry called renga (連歌). These short first stanza’s became popular themselves and became their own short poems, haiku was born from them. They were written in the specific style of 5-7-5. However, ‘syllable’ means something a little different in English than it does in Japanese which throws the necessity of the 5-7-5 pattern into question when haiku are written in English.
The entirety of the Japanese language consists of a finite set of vowel or consonant-vowel combination sounds. There is a total of only 139 sounds in the enirety of the Japanese language and they can all be spelled out using the Japanese Hiragana alphabet seen below.
(Click here for a high resolution version of the Hiragana table for printing or classroom use.)
All Japanese words, including those which are written with complex Chinese kanji characters (漢字), can be spelled out with the Hiragana alphabet characters above. Haiku’s 5-7-5 pattern derives from how many Hiragana sounds are needed to write out each line.
Where Japanese phonetics differ from English is that adjacent sounds never combine and each Hiragana is pronounced with the same time duration making it not quite line up with the way English speakers see syllables in words. For example, the word ‘haiku’ is spelled out with three Hiragana sounds: ha-i-ku (はいく) but only two syllables (hai-ku), to English ears. Other well known Japanese words that we miscount syllables on are the city names of Tokyo and Sapporo. We hear these as three syllables (To-ky-o and Sap-po-ro) but they are both actually four Hiragana sounds (とうきょう or To-u-kyo-u and さっぽろ or Sa-p-po-ro.) In Sapporo you can see the effect of the small ‘tsu’ (っ), which doubles the following ‘p’. This is a distinct sound to the Japanese but one that English ears are blind to.
Because of this difference in the way the two languages interpret their basic units of sound (Hiragana for Japanese and syllables for English), you can ask if it is really meaningful to adhere to a strict 5-7-5 syllable pattern when writing haiku poems in English? Perhaps it’s better to focus on the other distinguishing characteristics, namely their invocation of natural imagery and simplicity which invites the listener to imagine.
Final rays …
Marion Clarke/UK, NHK Haiku Masters
Japan’s national broadcast station NHK has a series called Haiku Masters where they invite people to submit haiku in English. Above is the haiku of the month for 12/2016. It, like many others, doesn’t follow the 5-7-5 format but instead focuses on the more meaningful aspects of haiku. Phonetic pattern, rhythm, and rhyme in poetry is something the English world focuses on somewhat more than other languages. The frequent explanation of haiku being 5-7-5 syllable poems above being described as the invocation of natural imagery and the reader’s imagination speaks to this.
If you’ve ever wanted to write haiku but have difficulty adhering to 5-7-5 give it a try without being so strict about the form and you might create something small but full of beauty like the haiku by Marion Clarke above which makes us think about bees and how they live their short lives to fullest.
* The haku by Matsuo Bashou at the very top of this post is a well known haiku and has been translated hundreds of times. The Japanese language doesn’t apply a plural form to nouns so it’s linguistically not specified if the author was thinking of one frog or many. Haiku is meant to invoke images of nature and is intentionally simple to invite the reader to use their imagination. Only about one out of every two dozen or so translations of this haiku uses plural “frogs.” To me plural “frogs” invokes a stronger feeling of being in a place full of nature. It reminds me of a frog filled lake outside of my hometown that my departed grandmother and I used to visit during summers when I was young. Since I placed this haiku early in the article prior to any explanation I did stick to 5-7-5 syllables but would have preferred to have written the second line “a frog goes bounding in” rather than “into” if I wasn’t adhering to 5-7-5.