April 7, 2003
I learned that haiku consisted of 5 – 7 – 5 syllables and yet some of the haiku I find online do not hold to this signature rule and still are still called haiku. The other problem I have is that I actually often prefer the shorter haiku to those with an accurate count.
Confused in Chicago
The culprit is the differences between the two languages using one common term – haiku. For the Japanese writer of haiku, the rule of using five or seven sound units in a phrase works perfectly and has for over four hundred years. The problem is that there are several differences in our language that prevent us, English and other European languages, from following their rule for our haiku.
The first conflict is the fact that a Japanese sound unit, what is being counted on their fingers as the haiku is read, is much shorter when written or spoken than most of our syllables. In Japanese, each vowel is counted as a unit. Sometimes the vowel will stand alone and other times it is combined with one or two consonants. Basho’s name is a good example and contains another of the hidden problems with counting sounds.
The first unit is “ba,” a vowel and a consonant along with “sho” that is a vowel with two consonants. We have blithely ignored a part of his name (meaning banana tree) because only recently have we had the typographical mark, a macron, which is still not available on most Internet browsers or computer fonts. This looks like the line over the vowel that we use to indicate a long sound as in “bay” instead of “ba”. In Japanese it indicates that that the vowel is not changed, as we do, but doubled.
So to be accurate, when we type his name we should, and some do, write Bashoo (spoken as Ba-show-oh). Some systems of changing spoken Japanese to roman letters use an “h” to indicate the double vowel as in the word for Noh theater. Before I get too far off the subject, my point is that Basho’s name actually has three sound units and two English syllables when we all are saying the very same word! Just from this one example you can see that sound-unit blocks are smaller than English-syllables blocks so if you use the same number in building a tower, the English one will be about one-third taller.
Over the centuries of their poetry, the Japanese have devised a myriad of phrases using either five or seven units until it seems like second nature to them to use these conventional expressions. We have a similar phenomena, but our phrases have never been dominated by a system that constrained them to a set number of sounds. A Japanese finds these traditional phrases comforting and beautiful with a host of associations while we too-soon find them boring and call them clichés.
Added to this, in Japanese, any punctuation is not indicated by marks, but is given a word. It is as if we wrote out “dash” or “comma” and counted these one or two syllables as part of the 5 – 7 –5.
Also the Japanese have no plural for their nouns so they can save sound units by using the same word as we do with “fish,” “deer,” and “sheep.” This is also why we speak of haiku and never haikus.
When the Japanese began teaching Westerners their poetry they naturally passed along their most basic rule, without understanding the vast differences in our two languages. A 5 – 7- 5 English haiku is almost impossible to translate into a 5 – 7- 5 Japanese haiku because our poem will have about one-third too much material or information. You can write haiku in 5 – 7- 5 syllables, it is excellent practice, but you must allow others, with a greater understanding of translated Japanese haiku, the right to write closer to the bone. When you say you like the shorter English haiku you are appreciating a nearer equivalent to the sense of a Japanese haiku and I think you are on a good path.
Blessed Be! \o/ haikujane