Haiku: not always 5-7-5

İstanbul için Hay-Kay’lar – Haikus for Istanbul

by Orhan Veli Kanık

Arzular ve Hatıralar – Desires and Memories

Arzular başka şey,

Desires are a different thing,

Hatıralar başka.

Memories are different.

Güneşi görmeyen şehirde,

In a city where the sun doesn’t shine,

Söyle, nasıl yaşanır?

Tell me, how can one live?

Böcekler – Bugs


Don’t think,

Arzu et sade!

Simply desire!

Bak, böcekler de öyle yapıyor.

Look, that’s what the bugs do.

Davet – Invitation


I’m waiting.

Öyle bir havada gel ki

Come in that kind of weather

Vaz geçmek mümkün olmasın.

When you won’t be able to give up.

English translation by E. Geddes

Excerpted from “Forms in English Haiku” by Keiko Imaoka:

Japanese haiku have been traditionally composed in 5-7-5 syllables. When poets started writing English [language] haiku in the 1950s, they adopted this 5-7-5 form, thinking it created a similar condition for English-language haiku. This style is what is generally considered “traditional” English haiku.

Over the years, however, most haiku poets in North America have become aware that 17 English syllables convey a great deal more information than 17 Japanese syllables, and have come to write haiku in fewer syllables, most often in three segments that follow a short-long-short pattern without a rigid structure. This style is called by some “free-form” haiku …

The 5-7-5-syllable rhythm in Japanese haiku is not the matter of arbitrary choice that it may appear to be to a non-Japanese haiku writer. Various combinations of 5 and 7 syllables have dominated the Japanese literary scene for most of its history, tanka (5-7-5-7-7) being the most prominent example. To most Japanese, words phrased in these configurations have a remarkably mnemonic—at times haunting—quality …

Because of these rhythmic structures, Japanese haiku and tanka can be memorized with little or no effort, which is one of the major reasons for the popularity and longevity of these literary forms. On the other hand, there is no such inherent mnemonic quality to 5-7-5 English haiku, which are indeed relatively difficult to commit to memory. Moreover, there is no discernible rhythmic structure to such an arrangement, due to the disparate length of English syllables. (The mnemonic quality of 5-7-5 Japanese phrases is much closer to that of metered rhymes in English.) These factors combined with the fact that English carries significantly more information per syllable than Japanese, indicate that using the 5-7-5 form does not necessarily provide an analogous condition for writing haiku in English …

Today, many bilingual poets and translators in the mainstream North American haiku scene agree that something in the vicinity of 11 English syllables is a suitable approximation of 17 Japanese syllables. This length conveys about the same amount of information as well as the brevity and the fragmentary quality found in Japanese haiku. As to the form, some American poets advocate writing in 3-5-3 syllables or 2-3-2 accented beats. While rigid structuring can be accomplished in 5-7-5 haiku with relative ease due to a greater degree of freedom provided by the extra syllables (in English), such structuring in shorter haiku will have the effect of imposing much more stringent rules on English haiku than on Japanese haiku, thereby severely limiting its potential.

Two major linguistic factors make the Japanese language more flexible—and thus easier to fit into a rigid form such as 5-7-5. Both of these factors derive from the fact that the grammatical units in Japanese are largely independent, and are relatively free to move about within a sentence.

1. Relative Freedom of Word Order

The English language owes much of its grammatical simplicity to the fact that the word order plays a major role in determining the relationships between words and phrases (subject, object, and so on). In such a language, words and phrases cannot be moved about freely without changing the meaning of a sentence. For example, within a sentence such as “Mother gave it to the kitten,” the words cannot be rearranged without altering the meaning.

In the Japanese language, however, because of the presence of grammatical particles (joshi) that are suffixed to nouns and mark their syntactic relationships, word units become independent and can be moved about more freely within a sentence or a clause without affecting its meaning. As a result, the preceding sentence can be rearranged in many ways in both spoken and written Japanese without altering its core message …

2. Relative Ease in Segmentation

This relative independence of grammatical components also results in the ease in dividing a phrase into 5-7-5. In the above example, “Mother gave it to the kitten,” the phrase can be segmented anywhere there is a space. Therefore, if they were to occur within haiku or tanka (though very unlikely, since they are so unpoetic!), there are three equally plausible locations where each sentence can be divided, whereas, in English, “Mother gave it to the kitten” offers fewer options. Likewise, in the case of “Mother gave it to the kitten yesterday,” each of the 24 possible Japanese sentences can be divided wherever there is a space (four locations).

[There are therefore] more places where a Japanese phrase can be divided without disrupting its meaning …

Thus we are in a bind, a Catch-22. If one wishes to have the brevity and the fragmentary quality of Japanese haiku in English haiku, 17 syllables is too long. On the other hand, if one desires a rigid structure, 11 syllables is too short. One must choose between the two. The choice depends on which of the two factors a poet considers more important to haiku. 

Images by Aydın Büyüktas

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