An Introduction to Haiku – Form & Structure: Syllables


Traditional Japanese Haiku has a strict form arranged around a total syllable count of seventeen. When translated into English, these verses are often presented in three lines and follow the same pattern of syllables. This sort of structural requirement is one of the aspects of Haiku that differentiates it from free verse poems. Some of the thrill of writing haiku is to shape a poem around this form, the lines commonly following a “five-seven-five” pattern.

But that requirement isn’t set in stone, and can be misleading, for two reasons:

  1. The differences between the English and Japanese languages is vast, and
  2. Other combinations of syllable count per line can still equal seventeen syllables or less. In fact, what’s more important than syllable count is the notion that a haiku should be spoken in “a single breath”, an edict that can be achieved with various combinations and totals of syllables. Take, for instance, this famous verse translated from the master haiku-poet Bashō:

Summer grasses (4)
all that remains (4)
of soldiers dreams (4)

—trans Lucien Stryk

Or this award winning haiku by Australian poet Graham Nunn:

distant thunder (4)
each stroke of the oar (5)
stirs the clouds (3)

Neither total nor individual line syllable counts conform to the traditional structure of 5-7-5.

Why is this so? Are Bashō and his translators deviants, gleefully breaking seventeenth-century conventions? Is Graham a crazed radical too? Of course not! Even if Bashō was sometimes known to break the rules, what these examples do is illustrate a difference between the two languages—namely, the difference between a syllable in English and a unit of sound in Japanese.

In Japanese haiku, what we might call syllables are actually on or “morae”. This description of sound is actually more dynamic than a syllable. For instance, in English the word “haiku” has two syllables—”hai-ku”; but in Japanese it’s made up of three on and so it becomes “ha-i-ku”. Mostly this difference equates to English syllables being longer than on, and so a contemporary English language haiku written in seventeen syllables can often feel overlong, and isn’t necessarily true to the original form.

So what next? Generally speaking, a verse in English between 12 and 15 syllables is quite acceptable—and those spanning 9-17 can also retain the feeling of brevity that’s so important to haiku.

In short: 5-7-5 and 17 in total is a-ok, but so is something a little shorter. Other aspects of the haiku are just as—or even more—important than slavishly counting syllables.

Matsuo Bashō (1644 – 1694)

Next – more on structure, where I’ll look a little at ‘cutting words’ and kigo.

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