Yesterday my astute husband pointed out that the Issa haiku I posted a link to were not written in the standard 5-7-5 count. I told him that it was probably because they were translations, but then today found a good webpage explaining that the 5-7-5 syllable count is “sort of an ‘urban myth’ for haiku in English.”
Michael Dylan Welch’s essay, “Why ‘No 5-7-5’?” has some good information on the Japanese language and why the sort of syllable counting we’re familiar with doesn’t really work in it. It also has this cool bit about concrete images and “kireji”:
…kireji…literally means “cutting word.” In Japanese, traditional haiku include words that function like a spoken sort of punctuation. More importantly, they cut the poem into two parts, creating a sort of juxtaposition, not only grammatically but also imagistically. The point is to carefully pair two images together in such a way that a shift or disjunction occurs between them. The art of haiku lies in creating the right amount of distance between the two parts, so the leap is neither too far (and thus obscure) or too close (and thus too obvious). By focusing on concrete images rather than judgment or analysis, the two juxtaposed parts of a haiku allow the reader to feel what the poet felt, without the poet telling the reader what to feel.
This “leap” might explain some of why this other poem by Issa is so fun:
New Year’s Day—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.
“I feel about average!” on such an auspicious cherry-blossom-filled day! Hard to believe this guy died in 1828–he writes like one of today’s humorists….
Welch runs the NaHaiWriMo site and is the vice-president of the Haiku Society of America. The site is dedicated to “National Haiku Writing Month,” which is in February, and actually has a symbol on their site indicating their dislike of the 5-7-5 rule:
yes they do.
Ok. After I posted this my husband (a journalist and public-relations-guy) read it and told me that ha! he’d actually written an article on this topic for the Hartford Courant
back in 2003: The Keeper Tends His Haiku Garden…Thorns Everywhere,
William Weir, (May 1, 2003.) It’s about Stanford M. Forrester, the former head of the Haiku Society of America. Here’s more on 5-7-5:
“Five-seven-five works in Japanese, but not in English,” [Forrester] said. “People get stuck on this. What happens is that they end up breaking the most important rule, which is conciseness and a clear communication of a moment.”
The formula is often taught in school. A good writing exercise, sure, but it produces mechanical-sounding poetry. Real haiku guidelines are much less strict, he says. As a rule of thumb, a haiku should have three lines and no more than 17 syllables.
Thank you, husband!