Let Haiku Be Haiku

Once again a writing handbook tells us that haiku need not be haiku. “Some people believe (mistakenly) that a haiku must have seventeen syllables arranged 5 / 7 / 5 in lines 1, 2, and 3. The fact is that traditional Japanese haiku count ‘sounds,’ not syllables. The seventeen sounds of a traditional Japanese haiku take about the same length of time to say as twelve or fifteen English syllables. That’s why most North American haiku poets write haiku in English with fewer than seventeen syllables. Today poets simply write haiku in three short lines,” reports The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms.

Yes, but I prefer the view of Clark Strand, our resident Woodstock haiku master, who practices 5 / 7 / 5. (Years ago, I had the pleasure of participating in a haiku circle that he led.) First, the form makes haiku easier to write. Though it takes practice, once you’ve embedded the syllabic pattern in your mind, you’ll find words naturally falling into the 5 / 7 / 5 rhythm. Clark has practiced for so long that he’s a haiku jukebox. Give him a word. Thirty seconds later he’ll have a haiku. While he thinks, you’ll see him tapping his fingers to count syllables. (In the movie Eight Mile Eminem taps his fingers the same way while drafting rap lyrics on a writing pad.) Haiku poets who don’t do 5 / 7 / 5 don’t share this facility. They’re stuck every time with figuring out both the form and the content. Let’s not forget that forms are meant to aid our imaginations, not to constrict us with rules.

Second, Clark argued that 5 / 7 / 5 works well in English. It allows for a fullness of thought that’s often truncated in shorter pieces. Once he made this point, I noticed how many shorter haikus seem to be jabs at images that aren’t fully satisfying to me, unlike the complete little tales that I enjoy so much in Clark’s haiku. Not that people shouldn’t write short little nature poems. But why not enjoy the specialness of haiku? Here’s one I wrote years ago.

Scarlet tanager:
the flying red kiss that lands
too far from my lips.

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