Haiku - using 17 syllables in English




Screech! The blade cannot

cut the tap root, so never mind

dearest dandelion.


Here are 17 syllables arranged 5-7-5. A simple enough poem, but far too wordy, or syllable-ly for good haiku in English. Many of the formal elements of Japanese haiku are suspended in foreign language haiku  in order to take into account the different phonetic structure and vocabulary of other languages.


Seventeen syllables in Japanese is never going to sound this cluttered. Japanese is an open syllabic language C-V C-V, without the consonant clusters and diphthongs that make English much more phonologically dense. "Screech" transliterated into Japanese syllabary becomes su-ku-rii-chi; already 4 syllables in itself, but only one in English!


One thing to bear in mind if writing haiku in English is that the syllable count can be changed completely so long as the feel of haiku is preserved. Three lines is the convention to maintain rather than 5-7-5.  By 'feel' I mean the open, freer sound of a syllabic language as well as succinct imagery or association. Having said this, one mistake I sometimes see in haiku in English is going to the other extreme and writing almost nothing in an effort to maintain brevity or mu . For example, changing the above poem to something like:


weed root

the blade 

can't cut it


You get a basic image but no sense of it's impact on the writer.


A good way to get the feel of haiku is to find translations with the original in transliteration.

David G. Lanoue's Kobayashi Issa Archive has 10,000 such haiku, for example;


1798 Kobayashi Issa






uekomi ni

kinou no mama no 

hotaru kana


in the thick weeds

same as yesterday...



Or: "firefly."  


Uekomi can mean shrubbery or a thick growth of plants."


The translation is given in 11 syllables and that is enough to convey the thought and feel of the original. This is a summer poem. Thick weeds and fireflies are the occupants of summer in the countryside. The humid, long days seem to repeat over and over without variation. Kigo or 'season words' are likewise often discarded in non-Japanese haiku. Whether to use kigo or not is really a matter of preference. Kigo dictionaries/thesaura in Japanese make things easier for the writer of Japanese haiku, and should you be a stickler for the season word, Gabi Greve's World Kigo Database may be of help.


So taking my own advice, how would I improve the opening haiku?  I wanted to get closer to the image of the weed being undamaged, or maintained rather than eradicated by the cutter. The fast regrowth of grass keeps gardeners busy in summer. It' impossible to get rid of them all, management is the only practical solution, so the idea of time needed to be present. I freed up the syllable structure completely but kept 3 lines:


The weed cutter misses the root

You'll be back, dandelion



By dispensing with a strict 5-7-5 structure, I was able to exploit the non-fixed word stress and rhythm of English and make a more satisfying haiku.


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