Haiku Shakes Off Syllable Myth

Haiku Shakes Off Syllable Myth

141108-mackay-qld_e3k9177-a1-comp haikuBursting Silly Bubbles in the World of Haiku

Guest blog by Sharon Dean

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a three-lined poem in possession of seventeen syllables will inevitably be defined as haiku.

This “truth”, however, is a widespread misconception. Read on if you’d like to know why.

Over recent weeks, haiku has been a hot topic here at the Sydney School of Arts and Humanities, with newcomers to the genre surprised to learn that haiku needs syllables … well, like fish need bicycles.

Australian Haiku Society President Vanessa Proctor says the most common myth about English-language haiku is that it is has to be written in three lines of five, seven and five syllables. ‘This misconception seems deeply ingrained in western culture – probably because the 5-7-5 idea of haiku is still taught erroneously in schools.’

Proctor is backed up by American haiku author and translator, Professor David G Lanoue, who says haiku is often defined as a seventeen-syllable poem in school curricula solely to ‘give students practice in recognising syllables and manipulating language. This leads to students cramming too much information into short poems while striving to achieve a strict syllable count’.

141108-mackay-qld_e3k9187-a1-compThe syllable conundrum

But where did this misplaced focus on syllables originate?

Well, haiku evolved in Japan over hundreds of years from pre-existing classical poetic forms, such as tanka and renga – both built on a rhythmic pattern of 5/7/5/7/7-sound units. Known as kami-no- ku, this linguistic rhythm is pleasing to the Japanese ear.

But the “sound units” mentioned above aren’t syllables, as is commonly believed. They are “morae or phonetic units called moji or on (pronounced “own ) in Japanese.

As William J Higginson, the author of The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share and Teach Haiku, explains, ‘On are all quite short, and take about the same length of time to say, like the syllables in the English word “po-ta-to”. But in English, syllables vary greatly in length – with some being quite long: like “wound”, “plough”, “cough”, and “wrenched”. In Japanese, it takes two or three on to write what in English we would consider one syllable.’

Take the word “Nippon”, for example, the official native name for Japan. Though counted as two syllables in English, “Nippon” has a count of four on in Japanese (nip-p-on-n). It’s not surprising, then, that linguists advise English-language haiku writers who wish to duplicate the length of Japanese haiku written in the traditional 5/7/5-on form to compose haiku in ten to fourteen syllables, rather than the misconceived seventeen.

Higginson compares a near-5/7/5 beginner’s haiku in English with a shorter contemporary version

A cold winter wind
the rolling hills of night
frost in starlight.

‘A Japanese haiku poet would say that this poem does not need words like “cold” or “frosty” temperature,’ he writes. ‘A “winter wind” is already cold. In addition to mentioning things connected with cold three times, this poem tells us twice that it is night (“night” and “starlight”). Watch what happens when we keep only the words that appeal most to the senses, omit repetitions, and rewrite the poem.’       

A frosty wind –
the hills roll away
into starlight.

The revised haiku reminds me of an idea put forward by the late British poet and editor Martin Lucas, who spoke of haiku as “poetic spell”: ‘words that are not dead and scribbled on a page [but] spoken like a charm.’ Lucas said that what he wanted from haiku was ‘something primitive; something rare; something essential; not some tired iteration of patterns so familiar most of us can produce them in our sleep’.

Buddhist themes in haiku

As Lanoue observes, haiku is a genre that requires much more than mere outer form. ‘Because the originators of haiku were Buddhists,  he says, ‘many Buddhist themes linger in the tradition, including respect for life, openness to the here and now, and a deep appreciation of how precious and fleeting life is.’ 



       lowering sky
                          the breeze lifts a brolga
 into flight

         Kent Robinson


            winter sunshine
              an unseen guitar
         in a minor key

 John Bird


            scent of jasmine
                        the caged bird answers
               the wild bird’s call

ML Grace


      google earth
      I mostly look
    at my house

        Lynette Arden



Brolga (Grus rubicunda) photos taken in Mackay by the talented (and aptly named) Peter Crane https://pacart.smugmug.com/


All examples taken from Issue 3 2015 of Windfall: Australian Haiku, edited by Beverley George and used with permission.

The Martin Lucas paper Haiku as Poetic Spell was first delivered at the four-day 4th Haiku Pacific Rim Conference Wind Over Water, convened by Beverley George, held at Terrigal in September 2009, and attended by poets from six countries. Originally published in the Wind Over Water Conference Papers, it is now available at: http://haiku-presence.50webs.com/essays/lucasessay2.html


  1. Vanessa Proctor
    7 November, 2016 at 10:18 am

    A great article, Sharon. Thanks for getting the message out there!

    Reply »
    1. Sharon Dean
      10 November, 2016 at 6:56 am

      We'll get there eventually. Thanks for your help, Vanessa.

      Reply »
  2. richard rowland
    9 November, 2016 at 8:03 pm

    is this janet bostock inspired... if so..so, so interested.. our group wait for the book also..... so many so's

    Reply »
    1. Sharon Dean
      10 November, 2016 at 7:02 am

      Hi, Richard. Janice Bostok's haiku-related work has always been an inspiration ... and she had some funny things to say on this topic, in her own inimitable way. (Our website is undergoing maintenance at the moment and I'm unable to include a link to one of her funny articles, but I'll return later in the day and insert it.) There are now two versions of my book about Jan - neither one published as yet. Sorry about the wait!

      Reply »
    2. Sharon Dean
      15 November, 2016 at 4:14 pm
  3. 9 November, 2016 at 11:36 pm

    Nicely done. I put this link on my page. Thank you!

    Reply »
    1. Sharon Dean
      10 November, 2016 at 7:02 am

      That's wonderful. Thanks for helping to spread the word, Michael! :-)

      Reply »
  4. beatrice yell
    10 November, 2016 at 9:38 am

    A timely message! Wish it could reach the school teachers. Non-poets parrot the 5-7-5 rule as if it's set in concrete.

    Reply »
    1. Sharon Dean
      10 November, 2016 at 9:46 am

      Yep, does my head in, Beatrice - hence this post. If you know a few English teachers, please send them a link!

      Reply »
  5. Pamela Smith
    10 November, 2016 at 7:22 pm

    Hi Sharon. You have always had such a beautiful yet simple way of expressing yourself. This article was perfect. And I Loved the two examples you gave that ended with the finished haiku.." a frosty wind" . BTW. I am in London and "Frosty" is a theme I am living with at the moment!

    Reply »
    1. Sharon Dean
      10 November, 2016 at 8:46 pm

      Hello, Pam! Glad you enjoyed the article. Would love to see some frosty London haiku! :-)

      Reply »
      1. 10 November, 2016 at 11:52 pm

        While Pamela produces one, here's one from when I worked in London's West End for a few years: ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ Oxford Street / the sweet chestnut vendor’s / blackened fingers / ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Alan Summers Publications credits: Snapshot Press Calendar 2011 Award credit: Runner up, Snapshot Press Haiku Calendar 2010 Blog credit: Christmas Week with Haiku by Alan Summers ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Alan More Winter and Christmas haiku and a gorgeous artwork from friend Dave Alderslade: http://area17.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/merry-christmas-everyone-christmas-and.html

        Reply »
        1. Sharon Dean
          11 November, 2016 at 8:48 am

          What an evocative haiku. Thank you!

          Reply »
  6. 10 November, 2016 at 8:59 pm

    Great article! So many people stick to the syllables idea. Recently I started writing a few haiku in a '5-7-5' pattern just to show it's not enough in its ow right. BTW, Janice judged two competitions run by FAWQ that I won, she really got me, and helped me. We became good friends in later years and finally met at the Katikati Haiku Pathway official opening. I addressed over 200 first year students earlier and later it was refreshing to hear some of them on the bus say thank goodness haiku isn't just about syllables. It is such a disservice to demote haiku as it's incredible what can be done. So love your article! Below is my first haiku judged by Janice that started my own path. :-) warm regards, Alan

    Reply »
    1. Sharon Dean
      10 November, 2016 at 9:12 pm

      Hi, Alan. Wow, so lovely to hear from you. Jan spoke of you so warmly when I was gathering info for her biography; she held a couple of things you said very close to her heart. Your haiku hasn't appeared in the comments. Can you send it again? I'd love to read it.

      Reply »
      1. 10 November, 2016 at 11:18 pm

        . Thanks Sharon! The haiku was in the weblink (in my name). Here's the haiku: . 1st Prize Fellowship of Australian Writers, Queensland 1995 Haiku Competition . dusk at the golf club part of a marker pole a tawny frogmouth . Alan Summers . . The golf club was just opposite our Queenslander rental in Churchill, Ipswich, Qld. It took a long time to work on this poem which started as a short verse of six lines which I was never happy with, too much information, but said less. :-) . Even Brits get a lot from this haiku, without knowing what a frogmouth is. :-) . I cannot tell you what an impact it was to win, to be judged by Janice, and get those comments. I will never forget my surprise and shock. :-) I won the following year too, also judged by Janice, which was awesome as well. . We were both invited to the Paper Wasp haiku group but alas I was leaving for Britain so I never met Janice then, or the others, except for Ross Clark of course as he was a regular at FAWQ and Metro Arts via Queensland Poets Association. I attended the launch for his launch for his first haiku collection, and it was his haiku workshop that was my very first. :-) . re: . "she held a couple of things you said very close to her heart." . I would love to know what they were. Would it be possible to email me? . email: admin@callofthepage.org . I was so delighted that you did a biography of Janice, she was so deserving. . When I address first years (BA degree) again, with your permission, I would love to quote your article, with credits to you. . warm regards, . Alan .

        Reply »
        1. Sharon Dean
          11 November, 2016 at 8:39 am

          Hi Alan, Thanks for dropping back in to share the haiku. I can picture the Tawny Frogmouth sitting there in the gentle evening night, assuming no one can see her. Lovely to hear Jan encouraged you with your writing; I'm not surprised! And yes, please mention the article to your first-year students. Rapt it can be of use. Will be in touch by email. :-)

          Reply »
  7. 11 November, 2016 at 12:58 am

    A great article. As a Dutch haiku poet I ran often into the syllables problem and that brought me to write my haiku in the "Chinese Poetry Way" in which the syllables-count isn't used. I think that in Western languages haiku is written with less (or sometimes more) words counting 10 to 17 syllables. So I think what you describe above 10 to 14 syllables sounds great. As I learned from Jane Reichhold the syllables-count (17) is good to use if you are starting haiku writing, but as you are not a starter anymore and more experienced in haiku writing, than you can let go the syllables count. Awesome article, I am glad that there is finally someone who speaks out about syllables in haiku (and tanka).

    Reply »
    1. Sharon Dean
      11 November, 2016 at 8:47 am

      Hello, Kristjaan. I think many English-language haiku writers have been speaking out about the syllable misconception - which is why it seems crazy that there's still a need to do it - but thank you for your kind comment. Sounds like taking the "Chinese Poetry" approach to haiku has been a good strategy for you. I'll keep a lookout for your work!

      Reply »
  8. 25 August, 2017 at 9:17 pm

    Thank you for this information. We've included a link on the WordWrites Guild website as part of this month's writing prompt.

    Reply »
    1. Sharon Dean
      25 August, 2017 at 9:54 pm

      Wow. That's wonderful news. We'd love to read some of the writing generated in response to the prompt. Keep us posted?

      Reply »

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