What is/isn’t Haiku?

Haiku is a traditional Japanese form of poetry that consists of three lines of 5/7/5 syllables… isn’t it? At least that’s what I learned in school. Lately I’ve come across poets who disparage the translated haiku we were raised on. They say the 5/7/5 rule is dead.

As usual, my first reaction at this wanton disregard for the sacrosanct 5/7/5 syllable structure was rejection.

The structure is the point, I whined to my ever patient husband and fellow writer. What’s the point of a haiku with no boundaries?

As usual, my second reaction was to try and understand how anyone could think this travesty was a good idea. Maybe I’m missing something, I thought. And, as usual, I found myself enlightened.

Turns out, we’ve been doing it wrong. According to NaHaiWriMo, the Japanese 5/7/5 counts sounds, not syllables. Rather than have me butcher this, here’s how they explain it:

 Japanese haiku counts sounds, not strictly syllables. For example, the word “haiku” itself counts as two syllables in English (hi-ku), but three sounds in Japanese (ha-i-ku). This isn’t how “haiku” is said in Japanese, but it is how its sounds are counted.

Similarly, consider “Tokyo.” How many syllables? Most Westerners, thinking that Japan’s capital city is pronounced as “toe-key-oh,” will say three syllables, but that’s incorrect. It’s actually pronounced as “toe-kyo.” So two syllables, right? Actually, no. Rather, it counts as “toe-oh-kyo-oh”—four syllables. Or rather, sounds. Click here for more.

As I’m trying to digest this nugget of information, I was hit with another. Haiku are not traditionally written in the cute, trio of lines we grew up with.

Japanese is written in a format called tategaki (縦書き) where the characters are written in columns going from top to bottom, with columns ordered from right to left.

So… a traditional haiku is written in one line more like Allen Ginsberg’s “American Sentences?” I didn’t even know there was such a thing until my friend and fellow poet Bryan Thao Worra mentioned them. My world is, once again, blown apart.

And, just when I’m considering what this means to me and how I feel about it, I discover even more haiku derivatives:

All this, and there’s a month dedicated to haiku? Yes, February is haiku month and the NaHaiWriMo organization is the place to go to find out more.

In the end, I come to the same conclusion I usually do: I’ve got a lot to learn. I’m glad. I believe when you stop learning you start to die. I will probably be immortal.

And to finish, here is my very own unauthentic American haiku discount knock off (hey, was that an “American Sentence?!?”):

About Angela Yuriko Smith

Angela Yuriko Smith is an American poet, publisher and author. Her first collection of poetry, In Favor of Pain, was nominated for an 2017 Elgin Award. Her latest novella, Bitter Suites, is a 2018 Bram Stoker Awards® Finalist. Currently, she publishes Space and Time magazine, a 53 year old publication dedicated to fantasy, horror and science fiction. For more information visit SpaceandTimeMagazine.com or AngelaYSmith.com.
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25 Responses to What is/isn’t Haiku?

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