Site Contents
The Lessons
Basho's Spirit
Show Don't Tell


The Reference Section

Seasons and the season-word
Zen and Haiku
Thing, Moment, Spirit
The Two-Image Haiku
The Nature of English Haiku
Interviews with Haiku Masters


PART 1 - Form

Line-length and syllables

In Japanese haiku have seventeen onji, or syllables, in groups of five, seven and five. The onji are less varied than our syllables ("Hello" is two, but takes less time to say than "thrust", "whinge" or "mourn"), though there is experimental evidence to show that the seven-syllable lines are said a little quicker and are exactly equivalent in time-value to the five syllable lines. All three lines are therefore, in one sense, of equal length, though the middle one is of greater density.

The line-lengths of five and seven onji are deeply rooted rhythmic units in Japanese, and have the highly memorable qualities of an English rhymed couplet. Slogans, advertising headlines, proverbs, witty sayings and all forms of traditional poetry are composed in these rhythmic units.

Translators have adopted different policies when searching for an English equivalent: some tried using rhyme (this did not catch on and is now a dead-end); some used a fuller four-line form which looked more like a native English quatrain, notably Noboyuki Yuasa who translated the Penguin Classics version of Basho's The Narrow Road to the Deep North (this did not catch on either). There are two styles which have survived: a small group of translators and writers reproduce the Japanese syllabic pattern exactly in English; and a much larger group keep the translations as minimal as possible, on the grounds that the striking features of haiku are shortness and spareness.

Two syllables, sometimes one, in a Japanese haiku are often spent on a kireji, or "cutting word," rendered in English by a punctuation mark. Fifteen or sixteen syllables remain. Some Japanese words may be shorter than ours, but on the whole they will be slightly less dense and the information in seventeen syllables can be translated in eight to twelve syllables, so there is a case for keeping English language haiku a little shorter than Japanese ones. But see Rhythm, below.

Basho came to the site of a famous battle. He knew the story of how Yoshitsune was heavily outnumbered but fought bravely and committed suicide after killing his own wife and children. That had happened five hundred years before. Basho wrote this haiku:

natsu-gusa ya / tsuwamono-domo-ga / yume no ato
summer grasses (:!) / strong ones' / dreams afterwards
All that remains of
those brave warriors' dreamings -
these summer grasses

(Basho, translated 5-7-5 syllables)

The most minimalist of all translators is the American poet Lucien Stryk. His version of the same haiku, in twelve syllables, is:

Summer grasses,
all that remains
of soldiers' dreams

Original haiku in English have also followed one of these two policies. "Strict form" haiku are written in 5-7-5 syllables, and the master of this approach is James Kirkup:

The pond's dark waters -
only stepping stones covered
with the first snowfall

"Free form" haiku are usually shorter than seventeen syllables, and while some writers retain a longer middle line:

Midnight lightning:
neighbour never seen before -
there, at her window
(Cicely Hill)
The branch he cuts
to make a donkey goad
still in bloom
(Cicely Hill)

some do not:

Just echoing boards
this empty house
where we laughed and cried
(James Norton)
Few cars today:
between each
what was before
(James Norton)


American speakers of English give fuller value to each syllable than British speakers do. Their tone is more even. British speakers emphasise some syllables, swallow others to nothing, and their sentences come out with lifts and dips like the flight of a sparrow. In consequence, American poets can make successful use of syllabics as the basis of a rhythm, and many have done so, but British poets have not. British speakers use a stress-patterned prosody.

The commentator who has been most influential in setting the form of the haiku in English has been William J. Higginson, an American and author of The Haiku Handbook. He has it both ways, defining the haiku by its number of stresses, or accented beats (seven, he says, with three in the middle line, following the opinion of the pioneeer translator R.H. Blyth), and syllables ("ten to twelve"). He compares the English-language haiku to a pentameter and a half, and says that this 'results in a sense of rhythmical incompleteness in English similar to the formal incompleteness of the traditional Japanese haiku (the Japanese haiku grew out of the first verse, or hokku, of a long poetic form). Higginson's given reason for settling on this form is that it "very nearly duplicates the traditional form of the Japanese haiku." A study by David Cobb of the poems published in contemporary American haiku magazines shows that they do indeed average eleven syllables, following Higginson's recommendation. British ones average fourteen and a half, but David Cobb does not think that there is much real difference in terms of "weight of content-words." He says, "I suspect a lot of the difference is accounted for by a greater willingness to dispose of articles and structural words."

Hideo Okada of Waseda University has pointed out that Japanese readers give the same amount of time to the middle seven-syllable line as to the shorter five-syllable lines when reading aloud. He states that each line contains two content words in two "rhythmic segments" and argues from this that, taking the basic unit of English prosody as the foot, the equivalent of a Japanese haiku is six feet (three lines of two segments each), not seven. He translates haiku with six stresses. He, like Higginson, justifies his policy because it most closely duplicates the form of the Japanese haiku.

Now that haiku have taken root in the West and are being written in English the issue is no longer, "How closely can we duplicate the Japanese practice?" The task now is to develop an appropriate form in our language for the shortest poem, in the spirit of haiku. It seems to me that American English, being syllabic, may diverge from British English in solving the form-question for haiku. The American answer may be defined in syllables. The British answer is: six stresses.

It is a happy coincidence that my view is the same as Hideo Okada's, because the reasoning is different. Mine is based upon the notion, at first sight paradoxical, of a 'natural' English haiku length, known to the ear. This is an entirely practical and instinctive judgement, not in the least theoretical. It just seems to me that seven-stress haiku are wearisomely overloaded. They gain enormously in the quality of "lightness" (karumi), which Basho valued so highly in his last years, if cut to six.

Compare the slightly different middle lines of these two translations. It seems to me that the Blyth has an ungainly and distracting movement because of the extra stress:

Fields and mountains -
the snow has taken them all,
nothing remains
(Joso, trans. Blyth)

Fields and mountains
all taken by snow;
nothing remains
(Joso, trans. Horioka, amended George Marsh)

The Blyth long middle line forces two pauses into the poem, instead of one break at the end of line two.
Seven-stress poems of the kind that Higginson recommends are too lumpy and indigestible in English, and Higginson in practice translates using fewer stresses. Even Blyth very rarely uses the seven stresses he theoretically demands. He has a wonderful feel for haiku and overwhelmingly translates them with six (or five) stresses:

The silence;
The voice of the cicadas
Penetrates the rocks.
(Basho, trans. Blyth)

The ideal English haiku will not set up a rhythm that is anything like a ballad fourteener or quatrain of any kind. Its length is a matter of avoiding these echoes from our commonest poetic forms. Here the three lines are crucial: four does remind one of rhyming quatrains. It must also avoid setting up a rhythm that carries the expectation of more: it is complete in one breathunit. It is a new thing. In that sense we have the advantage of the Japanese, because we do not see the haiku as a truncated renga; it is a shaped breath in silence.
If one has a sense of the length of a haiku line as two stresses, and I think one does, then the occasional three-stress line is very effective as a rhythmic variation:

unable to sleep
the clank and rumble of trains
long into the night
(Brian Tasker)

and the occasional one-stress line has a lot of extra room and karumi, because it expands to fill the space of the line:

On bare branches
two grey doves
fluffed up
(Francine Plunkett)

One must not forget the power of the "rest" or silence in the poem, usually at the caesura (the pause in the middle, usually, in a haiku, at the end of line one or line two), but also often at the end, giving the poem a sort of after-life because the expected sixth beat is silent. This is Lucien Stryk translating Basho:

Atop the mushroom –
who knows from where –
a leaf!

The Shortness of Haiku

A haiku is the smallest language construct that can generate enough complexity to create tension and resonance between its parts and take on symbolic power. Filling seventeen syllables with rhythmic ornament or verbal elaboration is a mistake. The haiku should be as short as it can be, with no fat.
Connaire Kensit argues that the right syllable counts in the English language to approximate to the Japanese original would be 3-4-3, making ten in total. In practice, given that English requires a fixed word-order, this is too inflexible a form for most subjects, so he recommends a pattern of 4-5-4, making a total of thirteen syllables.
My recommendation, for the reasons given above, would be for three two-stressed lines, as short and plain as possible, making six stresses in all.
Higginson recommended seven stresses.
Kirkup recommends strict-form haiku of seventeen syllables, 5-7-5.
Yuasa translates using four lines, for three reasons: "The language of haiku … is based on colloquialism, and in my opinion, the closest approximation of natural conversational rhythm can be achieved in English by a four-line stanza … In my opinion a three-line stanza does not carry adequate dignity and weight to compare with hokku … I had before me the task of translating a great number of poems and I found it impossible to use three-line form consistently."
Miyamori, in 1932, translated using "two lines of iambic verse" or "two lines of trochaic verse." His version of the one you have seen (starting "My way …" in my translation) starts trochaic and then goes iambic:

None goes along this way
But I, this autumn eve.
(Basho, translated Miyamori)

But note that it has six stresses and twelve syllables, very like the short three-liners in common use now.
Take your pick.!
Sound effects - Onomatopoeia
More Japanese words than English ones are onomatopoeic, and numbers of Japanese haiku have sound effects in them broad enough to be appreciated even by people like me who know nothing of the language. The sound of crickets whispering or murmuring, in a modern haiku by Koji, is given as "bosoboso."
Alliteration and assonance are used to enact effects. Basho has a line (in a poem about drinking freezing water from a spring) about the feeling of tingling in the teeth, setting the teeth on edge, which seems to me as good in English as it is in Japanese: "haya ha ni hibiku."

natsu-gusa ya / tsuwamono-domo-ga / yume no ato
summer grasses (:!) / strong ones’ / dreams’ site
All that remains of
Those brave warriors’ dreamings –
These summer grasses.

is praised by Donald Keene for its astonishing pattern of ahs, oohs and ohs with only one e. Certainly, the middle line, even to an English ear with no knowledge of Japanese, sounds thrillingly military, like a snare drum leading the marching!
A poem that enacts the precarious balance of the subject in the poem is Anita Virgil's:

Walking the snow-crust
not sinking

Clever use of pace can give a sound-picture of movement, as in these two haiku by Martin Lucas:

the new year's blossom;
a hedgesparrow hops on a
moss-covered grave
from leafless trees
crow follows crow
into a cold wind

Lines 1, 2 and 3
It seems to me that the last line of a haiku dominates emotionally, and the first two intellectually, in that they identify the subject. Take Michael Gunton's haiku

wintry sun
over the deserted funfair
a gull, soaring

in which the "soaring" dominates the emotional tone, lifting one at the end. If one reverses the lines:

a gull, soaring
over the deserted funfair -
wintry sun

the soaring gull recedes and the mixed bleak effect of "deserted" and "wintry sun" dominates. One more example from Michael Gunton:

under a bare tree
a few mauve crocuses
quiver in the wind

The last line zooms in on the aliveness and delicacy of the crocuses.

Move it, and the effect is quite different:

quivering in the wind
a few mauve crocuses
under a bare tree

A ballad stanza has new information in lines one and three, and the punchy ending on the rhyme word in line four, which leaves the writer free to do anything that prepares the rhyme in line two. Line two can be slack. The rhythm and the rhyme are so strong that they sweep the reader through line two. There is no equivalent spaciousness in the haiku. If any of the three lines goes slack, then the haiku cannot easily recover its energy. A slack last line is fatal. The haiku is essentially one quick statement, so there is no room for digressions or distractions. Too much information - just one word too many - is a distraction, and can easily dissipate the effect.
Haiku can have the main subject at the beginning, in the middle or at the end. It is commonest, however, to set the scene with the first line or two (the Where and the When), and then give the subject (the What). The first two lines can be apparently plain (though they must be tight, not slack with spare adjectives and over-elaboration), and as there is syntactical suspense - we are waiting for the subject - the tension is maintained. But then the subject, if the rest of the haiku is plain, has something surprising about it:

At sunset
in the stubble field
a heron's blue
(James Norton)

In many haiku, like the one above, the verb is implicit, but I have sometimes found that the answer to the problem of energy failing in a description is the right verb at the end of line two or beginning of line three:

between the ribs
of the broken boat
rises the moonlit tide
(George Marsh)

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