An in depth study of the use of syllables versus the Japanese onji (sound syllalbe) and what it means to the length of English haiku and its structure.
A well known Japanese translator, Hiroaki Sato, came to a conclusion years ago that haiku in English must “come to be about twelve syllables” in order to equate to anything similar to the Japanese concept. "Approximately, twelve English syllables best duplicates the length of Japanese haiku in the traditional form of seventeen onji (sound syllable)", Maeda Cana, a haiku scholar also contended.
In Japanese, only 9 to 11 words are needed to make the entire haiku at 5,7,5 while in English we’re often facing a haiku with as many as 17 words! This, for obvious reasons would and does distract the clarity of the image making it more convoluted as well as causing the reading of it to be a greater burden to do in “one comfortable breath” the true universally accepted test of a great haiku (out loud).
“The simplistic notion of seventeen syllable haiku has obscured other more important features such as kireji", Higginson notes (of which English have no real equivalent short of light punctuation at the end of one or two lines but not in the midst of the line itself). This kireji divides the stanza into two rhythmical parts consisting of the two line situation presented juxtaposed to the one line revelation or, possibly, a one line situation that is juxtaposed by two.
It is interesting to note that English is very mono-syllabic and Japanese is multi-sound or what is called “sound-syllable” (onji). Example: Manyoshu is the name of the old collection of Japanese poetry. The word as English says it is Man-yo-shu (three syllables) while in actual Japanese pronunciation it is six onji! That is a huge difference which is why the haiku in Japanese are so pristine and concise while the ones in English are convoluted and lengthy associated with clumsiness. Another good example is the word geisha. In English it is only two syllables while in Japanese 3 onji. With English invariably being less in syllable than as compared to onji, the English poems require more words to “equate” to the Japanese onji which in turn cause the English haiku to be much longer in word count.
The real key to writing great haiku in English is the attempt at matching the rhythm of the Japanese haiku and not necessarily the “sound-syllable” they have which does not relate well to English syllables. This is an interesting subject. With great effort and time many experts were able to identify the Japanese rhythm and create a likeness of it in English. A three line haiku with two accents (beats) in the first line; three in the second and two in the third would match the Japanese style perfectly. Read Japanese haiku. Get the feel of this rhythm and then you’ll begin to see how wonderfully it works in this well studied rhythm of 2,3,2. Keep in mind now. We are NOT talking about 2,3,2 syllables but rather 2,3,2 “beats”. This is a very important distinction here, not to be misunderstood.
The strongest short structure in English poetry is the couplet with two five beat lines; this two, three, two “beat” structure in English gives the sense of rhythmical incompleteness similar to that found in Japanese haiku. When this isn’t done properly in English, run-on sentences becomes the nerve gas that kills the English haiku…. and it rambles on into absurdity with too large of an image to be called a haiku.
This really begins to equate to the “essence” of Japanese haiku which is what we really need to blend with in order to keep the tradition of the Japanese haiku while writing in English.
Note the following poem by Basho though:
karasu no tomarikeri
aki no kure
In this poem he doesn’t pay any attention to the five, seven, five at all (even in Japanese) and this one adds up to 18 onji. It’s important to note that the Japanese rhythm lands naturally at 5,7,5 while in the English language, it does not. Our language is based more on 2’s, 4’s and 8’s….. but then, after great study, we can see from the preceding paragraph that English can still match the unique rhythm of Japanese haiku by using less number of words for a more distilled image and also paying attention to the 2,3,2 beat rhythm, which has implications of being very important for writing really high quality haiku in English.
spring air - (condition/situation)
woven moon (sudden perception)
and plum scent
This is a great example of the set-up aspect of haiku and also its brevity in English. It however employs 2,2,2 as its “beat” which works out fairly well… but not quite like the rhythm found in the Japanese haiku in their native language which is more, as mentioned earlier, a 2,3,2 “beat”.
woven moon beams
and plum scent
This provides the closest feel to what the Japanese haijin are achieving in the haiku. Subtle, but interesting. And, effective.
This is a very important study as if we continue to use something so rudimentary and archaic as 5,7,5 as the “rule” of haiku we may disturb the feel and intent of haiku as well as make it difficult to write in other languages. Regarding haiku and their purpose, the count isn’t as important (not even close) as to how it works in the tradition of haiku in Japanese. It seems, if we really want to write a perfect haiku, we must learn the Japanese language and write it in that language. That would be best of all. However, that might not be practical for everyone who wants to enjoy writing a haiku experience. So, we must work hard at understanding haiku in Japanese and do our very, very best to emulate it in our own language.
The haijin witnesses a moment in time. He then looks it over…. hones in on it and attempts to relate that scene to a haiku moment: situation/observation juxtaposed against a revelation – something about the scene that is striking, a revelation. These revelations are sometimes stronger…. more juxtaposed than others, but there is always that feel to it; which by the way, eliminates the possibility of writing a run-on sentence – a very important issue (not to do).
Once the “essence” of haiku is understood, we can get passed the 5,7,5 thought (in English) and delve into the real aspects of haiku that makes them great…. that gives them structure with quality juxtaposition and contrasting elements. In doing that, we can begin to write them in any language from French, Chinese, German, Tagolog, Farci, Russian and on and on. Can you imagine the syllable problems in doing this? What a mess. However, once a haijin understands the true values within the haiku – what the Japanese haiku is really about and why people bother to write it, it can be written excellently in any language and with similar brevity, a most important aspect.
I’ve recently read many German haiku, several French ones and a dozen Spanish ones. The linking factor is not the 5,7,5 “count” but rather the way the moment was translated by the haijin so the reader could, indeed, enjoy the moment the haijin witnessed. And, to ponder the resonance the haijin meant to leave behind by the way he set the haiku up. Haiku are wonderful in any language.
It is important for us, for non Japanese speaking haijin, to delve into the real study of haiku and how it works: from trapping the reader’s mind, to brevity, a single breath reading and to the “set-up” and how it grabs the reader in the end. In this poetry style’s case, the style isn’t necessarily in the "syllable" count but rather in all the other factors that come into play to write a really fine haiku. In the end, the essence is its formal structure and the rest are the techniques to bring it out properly in any language.
This is again brief, but I hope to delve into this issue deeper and deeper so all of us can gain insight to the essence of haiku and not just stick to the stalwart linear perception taught us in grade school English classes.