Haiku – 5-7-5? An article by Vanessa Proctor

When many people hear the word ‘haiku’, their immediate response is, ‘That’s a Japanese poem written in seventeen syllables – 5-7-5’. While it’s true that traditional Japanese haiku is written in this form, haiku in English, because of the very nature of the English language, doesn’t conform to the 5-7-5 pattern.

The first thing to consider is the difference between the two languages. Japanese morae or phonetic units do not correspond to English syllables. Japanese morae comprise very short sounds, whereas English syllables tend to be much longer, often incorporating long vowels or diphthongs. Studies have shown that approximately twelve syllables in English is equivalent to the duration of seventeen Japanese morae.

That’s not to say that haiku can’t be written successfully in English using the 5-7-5 pattern, but an insistence on following the ‘rules’ every time can make haiku unwieldy. Even masters such as Basho didn’t always stick firmly to the prescribed pattern.

So how long should haiku be?

It has often been described as the length of one breath and it’s true to say that the trend in English language haiku is towards brevity. While a pattern of approximately 3-5-3 approximates the Japanese paradigm, haiku is about much more than syllable-counting

Ultimately it’s about expressing the haiku moment in the most effective way possible so that the poem has resonance and the power to move the reader.