How to Write Haiku Without Being a Pedant

HaikuI remember when I was in the ninth grade, we went through a section on the haiku. They really are very interesting, but there is nothing like good old fashioned American systematization to destroy, well, everything creative. So we were taught what is always taught: a haiku is a three line poem where the lines have five, seven, and five syllables. And that’s about it, other than that they usually have something to do with mood or weather or whatever the hell the Japanese are on about.

The result is some pretty horrible drivel. Here’s something absolutely terrible I was able to come up with in about 20 seconds:

I am a bad boy
I stole candy from the store
But I got away

See: it has the proper number of syllables in the proper order. I can tell you one thing: that is an A+ haiku by the standards of my ninth grade English class. But it does have a few problems.

Let’s leave aside that it’s deadly dull: I am, I stole, I got. There shouldn’t be any reference to the writer, because that’s implicit in the form. A haiku is supposed to be a report of what is happening from the writer’s perspective. This “haiku” misses all of these points. But it does get the syllables right, so that’s something. Or maybe not.

I was recently editing a article about mobile games when I came upon a statement about one of the game’s “about us” page that was given in the form of a couple of haiku. It mentioned that a haiku was a poem with blah, 7 syllables, blah. So I sent off a message to Madeleine Kane, my personal expert on all matters involving limericks and haiku. I had a vague memory that haiku is not so regimented as all that. And she sent me to an article by Naomi Beth Wakan, Dispelling the Myth of 5, 7, 5.

The article is primarily for teachers who want to provide segments like the one I took on haiku, but who don’t want it to be as useless. It’s worth checking out. But according to Wakan, syllables in Japanese are shorter than they are in English. So the 17 syllable business is normally abandoned by serious English language haiku writers. Instead, they “usually do a rough 2 beats, 3 beats, 2 beats.” That’s actually kind of exciting! For one thing, that provides almost no time to get the information out. I like a challenge.

The truth is that the standard, 17 syllable, format is too easy. Here’s something typical of what I can do in about a minute:

water drops pound roof
overflowing rain gutters
splashing mud puddles

But how do you make that work in a couple of beats per line? It isn’t exactly hard. The main thing is that it makes you get to the point of what you are trying to render. But doing it well is really hard, as five minutes of work shows in this remarkably uninspired translation:

rain drips from
rooftop gutters
muddy ground

Let me try again! Here is a Mary Barnard translation of a poem by Sappho, which I love:

Pain penetrates
Me drop
by drop

It’s almost a haiku already. It just takes some minor changes:

now pain
pierces and builds
drop by drop

The problem with going rogue and writing haiku that is true to the tradition is that there are millions of people who will tell you that you don’t know what you are doing because your haiku doesn’t have 17 syllables. But if anyone bugs you, I give you permission to respond with the following “haiku”:

is this the kind of
haiku that you want from me
that totally sucks?

5 replies on “How to Write Haiku Without Being a Pedant”

  1. Fun, interesting column.
    And thanks for the lovely mention.
    I agree with you completely. :)

  2. By the way, whenever I deviate from 5/7/5 and post my haiku or senryu on Facebook, I invariably get criticized by those who believe the 5/7/5 myth.

    I don’t bother arguing anymore. I just refer them to Wakan’s article.

  3. Dono says:

    “… there is nothing like good old fashioned American systematization to destroy, well, everything creative.”

    Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Frost comparing free verse to playing tennis with the net down is another. Personally, I enjoy the challenge of coloring within the lines, following the rules (not all of which are arbitrary or pedantic),and fitting my words and thoughts into a defined poetic structure, whether it be haiku, limerick, sonnet, or sestina. But like Madelaine, I seldom bother arguing anymore.

    There be different
    Strokes for different people.
    “Watchoo talkin’ bout?”

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