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Japanese (I’m one of them), nor any understanding of the nuances of Japanese haiku (or Japanese cultural references, or historical references, or poetic allusions).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].”


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

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).


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:

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

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

And this was one of the winners:

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.

Gendered language and pronoun usage-why “he or she” shouldn’t be used

Around the 1960s and 70s, feminists undertook a project of feminist language reform, uncovering and correcting gendered language. Among the problems they tackled was the generic use of “he”.

Insisting that women might sometimes be the referents of generic pronouns, feminists met with the resistance of a stubborn vanguard of patriarchal language puritans, who had in their defense a long-established linguistic tradition of privileging the male perspective. But feminists won the day, eventually convincing writers not to exclude half the population from their intended readership. The only question now was how to write sentences, since everyone had learned to phrase sentences with the generic “he”.

There were four broad solutions to this problem.

  1. Alternate between “he” and “she”. This recognizes that it is exclusionary to use the masculine pronoun and, in an egalitarian move, seeks to apportion that exclusion in equal measure to men and women, distributed more or less arbitrarily throughout their work. This strategy can be called gendered pronoun alternation.
  2. Replace “he” with the compound phrase “he or she”. This replaces the exclusionary masculine pronoun with a clunky, gender-ambiguous reference composed of two gendered pronouns. This strategy can be called gendered pronoun compounding.
  3. Use the singular “they”. This recognizes that the non-gendered “they” is inclusive. It also speeds up comprehension time, relative to the generic “he”. However, it has the downside of being grating to people who are uncomfortable using “they” in the singular. This strategy can be called gendered pronoun neutrality.
  4. Reword sentences so they don’t use a generic “he”. This leads to stronger sentences in general, but requires skill to consistently execute, and careful attention paid to phrasing. This strategy can be called gendered pronoun nullification.

Ever since feminists convinced the world that women deserve equal treatment with respect to pronoun reference, there has been disagreement about how to handle that equal treatment.

Each strategy has its downsides. Compounding -“he or she”-  is cumbersome and awkward. Alternating is distracting and arbitrary. Neutrality -the singular “they”- can be grating to people who aren’t yet used to it. And the null strategy -avoiding generic pronoun use- requires attention paid to phrasing, making it harder for the speaker or writer.

Even today, all these different strategies are used by different speakers. The phrase “he or she” spiked in popularity throughout the 70s, peaking around 1980, just as we would expect from the feminist language reform movement. Gender pronoun compounding has been more-or-less consistent since then. It shouldn’t be.

he or she usage.jpg

Not only is the phrase “he or she” clunky and awkward, it’s exclusionary, in precisely the same way that usage of the masculine “he” is. So is gender pronoun alternation. These strategies both exclude gender non-binary individuals. They both presume gender binarity.

Ironically, the compounding and alternating strategies, though a response to egalitarian concerns, are arguably less progressive than the antiquated “he” usage, since, while the older usage at least has the (admittedly flimsy) pretense of using “he” as a neutral pronoun, the “he or she” strategies posture as inclusive, and thereby succeed in being that much more exclusionary to gender non-binary people.

We might fix either strategy by including “they” among the terms that are compounded or alternating. But once you open the door for “he or she or they” you recognize the validity of the singular “they”, so you might as well just use that. Ditto for alternating.

The only sensible strategies are gender neutrality and gender nullification. No more of this arbitrarily alternating between “he” and “she”, and no more of the clunky and exclusionary “he or she” compounds. Even without considering the exclusionary effects of these strategies, they were the worst of the four, anyways. Gender neutrality and gender nullification lead to cleaner, more elegant sentences.

It might be helpful to demonstrate how to execute gender pronoun nullification. Virginia Tufte, in Syntax as Style (which you should consider buying), provides this example of generic pronoun use (before fixing it):

When a small child encounters an angry dog, she instinctively knows that bared fangs signal great danger even without any previous learning. – Cooper and Reiman, “About Face 2.0: The Essentials of Interaction Design”

Tufte fixes the sentence this way:

A small child encountering an angry dog instinctively knows, even without any previous learning, that bared fangs signal great danger.

Tufte’s version handles the gendered pronoun issue better by phrasing to avoid generic pronoun usage. This makes it genuinely inclusive. Even without considering the gender issue, Tufte’s version is a better sentence -smoother to read and more economical, two words shorter than the original.

But writing this way requires deliberate attention paid to phrasing. It’s worth it, I think, since you end up with better sentences. But it makes the writer’s job slightly more difficult. For those writers who aren’t up to the task, the gender neutral “they” is also an option.

I would like to see the usage of “he or she” dropping. Besides being clunky and inelegant, it’s also exclusionary. It fails at achieving the only thing that it was meant to achieve. So if you see or hear someone using it, please kindly explain what’s wrong with it, or direct them to this article.