5-7-5 Haiku form: strengths and weaknesses

writing a haiku
five, seven, five syllables
still, this doesn’t count

I was taught -like so many others- that a haiku is three lines with syllable lengths of five, seven, and five, totaling seventeen syllables. The 5-7-5 formula. Unfortunately, that conception of haiku is way oversimplified (and arguably just plain wrong).

This post is just about the form of haiku, not its many features (like the seasonal reference, or juxtaposition of images). Mostly, it is a close look at the 5-7-5 form -it’s strengths and weaknesses.

 

Note: An Intractable Translation Problem

This might seem a pretty obvious point, but it’s important: English haiku are different from Japanese haiku. The writing system is different, the sound system is different, the culture is different, the history is different, the poetic tradition is different. Whatever we’re doing when we’re writing English haiku, it’s different from writing Japanese haiku.

The definition of English haiku is necessarily contentious and subjective. It is an act of imprecise translation. People with different sensibilities attempt to carry into the English language what they perceive to be the heart of Japanese haiku. Even if it were possible to precisely define haiku in Japanese -I don’t think that’s possible either- it’s even harder to do so in English. (Maybe even twice as impossible.)

Many people writing English haiku have no idea how to write in Japanese (I’m one of them), nor any understanding of the nuances of Japanese haiku (or Japanese cultural references, or historical references, or poetic allusions). These are all parts of Japanese haiku that English haiku often has to do without. English haiku (hereafter “haiku”) is evolving on its own terms in the English speaking world, within the English language.

Haiku is an amorphous, flexible, vague, subjective, and negotiable category. It is sensed rather than demonstrated. It is a category that can change, over time and from person to person. It’s vague enough that it may sometimes be difficult to say if a poem fits. It is open to argumentation. Different people will have different ideas about what should or shouldn’t count, based on the presence or absence of this-or-that feature. Different sorts of arguments can be brought to bear on this question.

The definition of haiku is inextricably bound with aesthetic sensibility. Disagreements over what does and does not constitute “real” haiku are often disguised disagreements about what haiku should be.

Formal Structure: 5-7-5 syllables versus 2-3-2 beats

first, five syllables
second, seven syllables
third, five syllables

In “The Haiku Handbook”, William J. Higginson writes:

“Many Western authors have fallen into the simplistic trap of saying that the haiku is a seventeen-syllable poem in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. This has led to whole classrooms of teachers and children counting English syllables as they attempt to write haiku. But Japanese haiku are written in Japanese, which is quite different from English or other Western languages… In fact Japanese poets do not count ‘syllables’ at all. Rather, they count onji[sic].”

can-you-haiku-web

The sound symbols (“on”) counted in Japanese haiku do not correspond to English syllables.

If we measured speaking duration, we could say Japanese haiku are roughly twelve English syllables, not the 17 of 5-7-5 (Higginson, pp.101-102: “As a result of this study I concluded that an English-language translation of a typical Japanese haiku should have from ten to twelve syllables in order to simulate the duration of the original”; “Approximately twelve English syllables best duplicates the length of Japanese haiku in the traditional form of seventeen onji[sic]”); not only is this approximate -since different sounds take different lengths of time to produce, and different poems take different lengths of time to speak- but there is also no reason why speaking duration should decide haiku form.

Higginson also makes a point of noting that many good poems have been written in the 5-7-5 pattern, just as they have using other conceptions of English haiku. This assertion may have been intended to placate the 5-7-5 formalists among his readers. Although Higginson suggests there can be no definitive answer to what constitutes English haiku -it’s a necessarily insoluble translation problem- he is equally clear in arguing that we can do better than the overly simplistic (and maybe-just-plain-wrong) 5-7-5 formula.

After discussing the differences in Japanese and English sound systems and the rhythm of haiku, Higginson makes a compelling case that the best English equivalent of the haiku form is successive lines of 2, 3, and 2 accented syllables, for a total of 7 accented syllables (and roughly 12 syllables overall, including the unaccented syllables). This would “approximate the duration of Japanese haiku”, establish similar rhythmical proportions, and yield a similar “sense of rhythmical incompleteness” that is characteristic of Japanese haiku. (This latter point recognizes that the English poetic tradition, with deep roots in iambic verse, and in particular iambic pentameter, creates a sensation that the poem should continue after the final line in a 2/3/2 accented pattern, leading to a feeling of openness.)

I find Higginson’s view particularly compelling, especially since the English ear does not readily register syllable counts, but rather accents. The typical English speaker doesn’t hear the number of syllables -not without deliberate attention to counting- and more importantly, doesn’t feel the number syllables in a line -they feel the rhythm. So for the speaker to feel presence of the haiku form, it should correspond to beats, not syllables.

Higgins 2-3-2 accented-syllables formula doesn’t preclude 5-7-5 syllable forms. It’s quite possible to achieve both. But you’ll end up with a ratio of 7 to 10 accented to unaccented syllables. This limits the poet’s ability to play with tempo modulation within the lines, and will tend towards fast-moving lines, which might poorly serve the needs of the poem. Better instead to just use Higginson’s 2-3-2 formula, and forget the syllable restriction.

The number of syllables in 2-3-2 haiku is highly variable, because the number of unaccented syllables can change. The shortest poem that can be written in this formula would have seven syllables:

bus stop
cold dark night
rainstorm

We could stretch the form to twenty-one syllables with seven anapestic feet (although English tends towards iambic). We could stretch it even further by way of constructions stuffed with unaccented syllables. Here is a 2-3-2 pattern with 24 syllables:

in the dark of the dusk
the silence as it’s broken by a crow
on the gambrels of a chapel

That’s pretty awkward, and there are a lot of words that aren’t doing much, and really, there’s not much good to say about it all, but it still fits the 2-3-2 form.

So there’s a quite a bit of range for rhythmic variation and different syllable counts in the 2-3-2 form. The natural range, the one Higginson recommends, is in the neighborhood of twelve syllables.

I wouldn’t tell people not to write strict 5-7-5 haiku. It’s an art form just like any other, and people should write in whatever form they want to. But for my taste, the form draws too much attention to its own artifice. Arbitrary restrictions are nothing new to poetry, of course; one might say that all poetic forms -be it a sonnet or villanelle or  5-7-5 haiku- could be called “arbitrary” in some sense. But 5-7-5 haiku -which is not felt by the English speaker, but rather counted- is arbitrary in the severe sense of imposing a formal restriction that is outside of the immediate experience of the reader. To count syllables is to draw oneself out of the poem, to engage a mode of thinking that is not fully immersed in the words. For this reason, I would suggest that strict 5-7-5 haiku are better suited for deliberate displays of cleverness or humor. The 5-7-5 restriction is more like the rules of a game than a formula with expressive utility (it’s somewhat comparable in this way to lipograms, the challenge of which allows the writer to show off their linguistic prowess -probably the best example being Christian Bok’s Eunoia– except that lipograms can produce a definite aural effect).

haiku_1

The website Thinkgeek holds a regular haiku contest. Using the 5-7-5 form makes sense for this forum, because what they are looking for is funny and/or clever poems, not poems of deep feeling or insight. The following examples are illustrative:

Yes, I am a nerd
I have a social life, though
It is IRC
–Julia from Pennsburg, PA

Rose: red. Violet: blue.
Haikuception: a poem
within a haiku.
–Christie, from Boston, MA

Error 404:
Your haiku could not be found.
Try again later.
–Mitchell from Shubenacadie, NS, Canada

They are meant to be poems of humor and cleverness, not deep feeling or capturing the essence of a moment. And the 5-7-5 forms works well for this purpose. This is not a criticism of those poems. They achieved what they were meant to achieve.

We all understand the rules of 5-7-5, and we can all tell whether the author has followed them, because we know how to count syllables. It is the shared understanding of these arbitrary syllabic bounds that allows these displays of humor and cleverness to operate. I think that is the greatest strength of the 5-7-5 form.

5-7-5 is also a very accessible form, simple enough to teach to young children, and without barriers that would prevent non-poets from confidently and effectively participating. Organizations running a haiku contest, but which aren’t primarily dedicated to poetry (like Thinkgeek), should probably choose the 5-7-5 form.

The Nation held a haiku contest for political haiku. It produced these winning poems:

McCain is ailin’
Chooses hockey mom Palin
You betcha, we’re pucked!
-Chaunce Windle,of South Bend, Indiana

See dust thick on text books.
Evolution was a fad.
Science dead? You betcha.
-Laura Welch, of Syracuse, NY

Habeas corpus
And that pesky Bill of Rights
Who needs ’em? Wink. Wink.
-Jean Hall, of Norwood, MA

These poems rely on the 5-7-5 form for their effect. They are not poems of deep feeling or profound sentiment or capturing the essence of a moment or authentic expressions of the human experience. But they aren’t supposed to be. They are displays of cleverness, fitting political references and comedy into the tight bounds of a rigid syllabic structure.

Vulture.com had a Tom Petty haiku contest. These were some of the finalists:

LINDSAYK29
Dance with Mary Jane –
She puts the “high” in Haiku.
[That joke was petty].

WILD1FOREVER
’77
Heard “Breakdown,” hooked forever
Still hooked in ’13

And this was one of the winners:

ELIZLOVESYOU
Youtubed ‘Free Fallin’
Autofill said ‘John Mayer’
I had a ragestroke

These poems, similarly, are all exercises in fitting cultural references and jokes into a restrictive syllabic structure. The “petty” haiku crams two puns into a small space, and two or three cultural references, depending on how you’re counting. The “77” haiku is a display of cleverness, recognizing that the two characters ’77’ already constitutes a full first line; the poem mirrors this cleverness by also ending in a year number, thereby enacting the passage of 36 years right up to the present. The last poem is definitely the best, enacting an action, reaction, and emotional response, with three cultural references and two technology references (depending on how you’re counting), as well as ending with a stab at humor (it probably works best for the right sort of fans).

There is a familiar theme running across these casual encounters with haiku. Haiku contests often work better in the 5-7-5 form. It is more democratic, more open to the casual writer, and more conducive to certain types of humor and cleverness.

There’s nothing wrong with this type of poetry. It is made for a certain purpose. But for more serious poetry, I think it’s wise to consider moving outside of the 5-7-5 form. I don’t want to suggest that 5-7-5 haiku can’t be serious. They certainly can. But the strength of the form is not there, relative to other haiku variations.

For precisely same reason that modernists moved from the confines of verse -because those confines created a felt sense of arbitrariness; of words chosen just to fit the form- writers of English haiku may choose to move from strict 5-7-5 haiku, thereby imparting a greater sense of genuine expression, where the words are chosen because they are right for the poetic experience, not because they have the right number of syllables.

Poetry Readings and Feedback – Free Online Group – Tuesday December 19th, 7:00PM EST

I’m running a small online group for poetry readings and feedback on Tuesday, December 19th, 7:00PM EST. It’s free.

Feedback should be encouraging and supportive, and should be phrased in terms of your reactions as a reader (not an editor): talk about what the poem meant to you, what images stood out, what emotions you felt, what parts connected with you, or didn’t, and so on.

We’ll warm up by first doing a few famous poems by professional poets. After things get going we’ll share some of our own work. (Sharing your work is not necessary. You are welcome to participate just to give feedback, or just as a listener, if your prefer.)

There is a max group size, so if you’re interested, RSVP ASAP.

Details and RSVP here.

Publications in Wax Poetry and Art, and “Degenerates: Voices for Peace Homelessness Edition”

I was very happy to find out that my poem “kawasaki highway” will be published in Wax Poetry and Art, and my poem “the concrete” will be published in “Degenerates: Voices for Peace Homelessness Edition”, by Weasel Press. Both of those should be coming out soon!

first date, by David F. Shultz

In this post I’ll talk about a creepy poem I wrote called ‘first date’. This poem was published in The Literary Hatchet, issue #18. The Literary Hatchet is available as pdf for free, so I recommend downloading a copy and/or buying a paperback issue for $14.00.

lh18cover200
Anyway, I’ll show you the poem first, and then say some things about what I was trying to do when I wrote it:

first date
by David F. Shultz

first date
always an adventure
blind date
I can see
you’re a tad cold.
cold feet?
shivers
I’ve got shivers
in the spine
it’s a fine thing
that I’ve got
thick skin
now where to begin
our night?

empty stomach?
(that calls for analysis)
heart on your sleeve?
(or in the vicinity)
can I pick your brain?
(a little prodding will suffice)

but first
there’s the meat
slab
silver platter
take the knife
carve carefully
after that
I’ll find out all
about you
I always do
on first dates
it just takes
precision

This poem is disguised as a “first date”. Or rather, it is a “first date” in the mind of the demented speaker, who is performing on autopsy, an activity that he finds particularly thrilling.

The first stanza is meant to create a subtle awkward note. It’s supposed to give the impression of an overeager person on a date, perhaps off-putting, repeating and stumbling over their words, making awkward and cliche comments, variously either too probing or too self-centered.

You might notice already by this point the body-metaphors piling up, “thick skin” and “cold feet” and “shivers in the spine”. These body metaphors continue in the next stanza with “empty stomach” and so on. The speaker really has bodies on his mind.

The second stanza, besides piling on the body metaphors, is also meant to introduce a more clinical tone. It’s phrased as a procedural question-and-response, like checking items off a list. We also see the introduction of polysyllabic words capping off every second line -“analysis”, “vicinity”, “suffice”- in a poem that has mostly consisted of monosyllables. Each of those words contains an ‘s’ sound, which I hoped would create an insidious, snake-like edge.

In the final stanza the “meat/slab” arrives, which is really the body about to be autopsied. Humans being compared to meat is always unsettling (and maybe especially when there is a demented human standing over them with a knife).

I want to focus in particular on what I was trying to do with the final word of the poem: “precision”. The entire poem was building up to this word, and this moment in the poem. This is the moment that our demented speaker has been waiting for. I tried to do several things to make this word “pop”.

  • content: “precision” is a strange word to cap off the speaker’s thought about what it takes to learn about someone, and this odd word choice might signal that something interesting is happening
  • rhyme: the previous four lines established a rhyming structure that is broken “you/do” and “dates/takes”
  • number of words per line: 2 or 3 words in the previous 4 lines, down to 1
  • length of words: 1 or 2 syllable words in the previous 4 lines, up to 3
  • echoing second stanza: “precision” echoes the clinical words used in the second stanza -“analysis”, “vicinity”, “suffice”- including the ‘s’ sound

The reason I tried so hard to make this word pop was because it is the central moment that the poem -and the speaker- has been building to: this is the scalpel making an incision. I hoped to convey this incision without mentioning it directly, by way of resemblance with “precision”, by drawing attention to the final line (in the various ways itemized above), and by talking about a knife and meat and carving carefully.

As to whether any of those techniques worked, that judgment has to be left to the reader, of course. But either way, I thought some people might be interested in what was going through my mind as I was building this poem.

I hope you liked the poem and that you found my thoughts on it interesting!

Also, please support the publisher of the poem, The Literary Hatchet, by checking out the website and downloading (free!) and/or purchasing a copy of issue #18, in which this poem appears.

 

 

 

Goodnight – by David F. Shultz

In this post, I want to take a look at a poem that I wrote, called ‘Goodnight’. This poem was published in Polar Borealis magazine, issue #4. (Polar Borealis is a Canadian speculative fiction magazine that is available for free; if you’re not familiar with it, you should check it out).

Here’s the poem:

She looks at me
with big brown eyes
Remember, Daddy,
the time we died?

I tuck her in.
She shuts her eyes.
I say goodnight.
She says goodbye.

No, sweetie,
we say goodnight.
But, daddy, it’s
goodbye this time.

I pull up the covers.
She says from her bed,
remember the men
that cut off our heads?

when you were with mommy,
in the village shop,
and they came with swords?
Then she mimes the chop.

I shush her quiet,
ask her to sleep,
hoping she stops
her disquieting peeps.

She’s almost sleeping,
and with a sigh her
tired voice whispers,
we died in a fire

last time, daddy.
What do you mean?
Don’t you remember
the burning dream?

If we should die
before we wake,
I think she will
remember why

This is a poem about a child saying creepy things while being tucked in, as children sometimes do. There is an ambiguity about whether there might be some truth to this child’s foreboding words. I was hoping to generate some feelings of unease.

There are a lot of short lines, small words, and simple, end-stopped rhymes. Normally I would want to avoid this kind of poem because, for my taste, it tends to impart a childish, nursery rhyme flavor. But that was the right tone for this poem, which is really about a child going to bed. I think using simple, end-stopped rhymes works well with this subject matter. It also provides a nice ironic contrast to the creepy feeling I am trying to develop.

The rhyme scheme is pretty straightforward: ABCB. Except for the last stanza, which switches to ABCA. I did this because ABCB feels like it is rolling forward, whereas the closed form of ABCA stops the momentum. I wanted that feeling of stopped momentum to close the poem off, and to complement the lingering thought of death. I was also hoping that the sudden switch in rhyme scheme would signal some change in the father’s mindset, like the child’s words had really gotten to him. (Whether any of those things worked is really the reader’s call, of course).

The poem is ambiguous about whether there is any truth to the child’s strange murmurings. I think that was the right choice, leaving the reader some space to interpret, and hopefully contributing to the sense of unease.

One thing that I like about this poem is the implied metaphysics, if we assume the child is remembering properly. A lot of world-building is carried out by this simple exchange: this is a world with reincarnation, which implies a soul, or something like it; souls evidently have the potential retain memories across the threshold of death; the line “when you were mommy” implies both that souls are non-gendered and that souls travel together, in family groups, reincarnating together and, as it seems for this family, repeatedly dying together; and, some souls -the child in this poem- have foresight of future deaths. None of this is said directly, but we need to understand these premises to make sense of the child’s words.

I hope you liked the poem and that you found my comments on it interesting.

Thanks for reading.