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’.
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
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.’
the breeze lifts a brolga
an unseen guitar
in a minor key
scent of jasmine
the caged bird answers
the wild bird’s call
I mostly look
at my house
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