The Urban Myth of 5-7-5

In March of 2011, a concerned contributor to the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival’s Haiku Invitational sent the following message, which festival organizers forwarded to me for response:

 

Dear Madam/Sir:

 

I have viewed the winning entries published on bus ads for the annual haiku contests each year for several years now. Each year I feel compelled to contribute that my understanding is that a haiku is a three-line poem structured so that the first and third lines are comprised of five syllables each and the second line is comprised of seven syllables. The majority of the published winning haikus do not follow that structure. Thus my understanding is that the majority of winning haikus in the annual contests are not actually haikus. I hope that this contribution reaches someone who may be able to clear up this issue going forward.

 

Sincerely, [name withheld]

 

[click to enlarge the 2011 Haiku Invitational bus placard]

 

On 9 March 2011, I responded as follows:

 

Dear [name withheld],

 

Thank you for your comments on the VCBF Haiku Invitational. It is a common and widespread belief that haiku is 5-7-5 syllables in English, but this is actually a misunderstanding, despite how widespread that belief is, and despite how so many of us were mistaught that in school. In fact, it might even be considered an urban myth. May I ask if you’ve read the information about haiku at the following pages?

 

http://www.vcbf.ca/community_event/haiku-invitational/about-haiku

http://www.vcbf.ca/community_event/haiku-invitational/teaching-haiku

 

The first of these two links, particularly, addresses the question of form. In addition, I urge you to read the following links, which address necessities for haiku that are frequently overlooked amid the excess focus on form (and the wrong form for English at that!):

 

Becoming a Haiku Poet

Further Reading (several vital links to read here)

 

The central issue is that the popular (mis)perception of haiku is radically different from the practice of people who write literary haiku (who have a strong connection to Japanese haiku organizations and use many techniques used in Japanese haiku writing). If you open up leading haiku anthologies like Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (Norton, 1999, third edition) or authoritative books about haiku, like William J. Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook (Kodansha, 2010, 25th anniversary edition), or any of the many literary journals for haiku, such as Modern Haiku, Frogpond, and dozens of others, you will find that near all of the poems are not 5-7-5. In Japanese, they actually do not count syllables, but sounds, which is why even the word “haiku” itself counts as two syllables in English, but three sounds in Japanese. (Also, the word “haiku” is both singular and plural, so it’s considered incorrect to say “haikus” in English.)

        I hope all the links I’ve provided, and additional links on the Further Reading page, are helpful—and hopefully convincing. The challenge is that the misunderstanding of haiku as simply a 5-7-5-syllable poem in English is so deeply entrenched, and some people are so deeply attached to it, that it’s hard to let go of. I wrote very bad haiku (all 5-7-5) for a dozen years until I discovered the literary haiku community in 1988. At that time, my own haiku radically improved because I switched my focus from form to content. It made a huge difference, and I also switched from a superficial discipline of counting syllables to the much greater disciplines of using season words (kigo), an equivalent to a cutting word or two-part juxtapositional structure (kireji), primarily objective sensory imagery (shasei), and many other essential techniques.

        Do you write haiku yourself? Would you be interested in learning more about the Vancouver Haiku Group? Or the Haiku Canada organization that has a British Columbia chapter? If so, please let me know.

        Thank you, too, for your support of VCBF. Feedback is always good to hear!

 

Sincerely,

 

Michael Dylan Welch

 

P.S. I was a judge for four of the five years of the Haiku Invitational, and I am confident not only that the selections we made are haiku, but also excellent ones, for various reasons. You can read comments on the winning haiku on the VCBF page, including my comments on the current winners at http://www.vcbf.ca/haiku/2010-judges-comments. I hope this is helpful.

 

The person I wrote to did not respond. I wonder if that was because she continued to disagree and remained unpersuaded (the urban myth of “5-7-5” is indeed very hard for some people to let go of), or if I opened the door to a deeper understanding of haiku at least a little, and that was enough for her. I may never know.

 

Meanwhile, another concerned reader of the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival haiku sent the following message on 22 April 2011:

 

Hi, I love cherry blossoms, and your festival is a well-needed nature appreciation and life pause like the “hana-mi” of Japan. Here’s the thing. Your “haiku contest” is actually just a “poetry contest” since the instructions didn’t mention it is traditionally 5, 7, and 5 syllables. The “haiku” many people wrote were simply poems, not haiku. If you add that one detail to the instructions, your contest will make Vancouver more cultured, not more ignorant. Challenge us to do it right!

 

[name withheld]

 

Here’s my response, sent 24 April 2011:

 

Dear [name withheld],

 

Thank you for your message about haiku and the VCBF Haiku Invitational. You ask a serious question, so my response here is a little lengthy because I want to give it a serious response. Many people have been taught in schools that haiku is a 5-7-5-syllable form of poetry. In Japan, they don’t actually count syllables at all, but sounds, and it’s a sort of urban myth that haiku should be 5-7-5 syllables in English, despite how widespread that belief is. The word “haiku” itself, for example, counts as two syllables in English, but three sounds in Japanese (counted as ha-i-ku, even if that’s not how they say it). Consequently, despite how haiku has been widely mistaught in schools for decades, roughly 10 to 14 syllables in English is equivalent in length to a haiku in Japanese.

        Far more important, though, are other techniques for haiku that have unfortunately been obscured by most of the misteaching of haiku in schools or the abuse of the genre in the popular media. These more important techniques include the kigo (season word), kireji (cutting word, or dividing the poem into two juxtaposed yet reverberating parts), primarily objective sensory imagery (based on one’s five senses, not one’s interpretation of them, or upon intellect or pure imagination), and other techniques. These essentials are seldom taught in schools, yet are vital to haiku.

        For more information on haiku as a literary art, I recommend William J. Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook and Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (third edition). Both books address this matter of form. About 90 percent of the poems in the latter book are not 5-7-5, and in all of the leading haiku journals the percentage of poems that are not 5-7-5 is even higher. It’s not a matter of haiku in English “traditionally” being 5-7-5 and perhaps being “changed.” The problem is that haiku should never have been taught as 5-7-5 syllables in English in the first place. To assume that haiku should be 5-7-5 in English is like assuming 100 yen is equal to 100 dollars. One needs to think about the value of what one is counting, not just apply the same number to something that’s actually different in another language. The most significant problem, too, is that the perpetuation in schools and textbooks of the 5-7-5 myth for haiku in English has been to the serious detriment of content and other techniques. In that sense, perhaps the VCBF Haiku Invitational is corrective, even while it seeks participation and celebration.

        If you go to http://www.vcbf.ca/community_event/haiku-invitational/about-haiku and to http://www.vcbf.ca/community_event/haiku-invitational/teaching-haiku, you’ll see that we address the “popular misperception” of haiku as having 5-7-5 syllables. You might also want to read “Becoming a Haiku Poet,” which talks about the core techniques necessary for literary haiku. I also recommend the links provided at Further Reading, especially the short essays by Keiko Imaoka and John Dunphy. Please give those a read and let me know if you have any further questions.

        I assure you that the top selections chosen in the 2010 and earlier Haiku Invitational contests are not only haiku, but very good haiku. My challenge to you is indeed to do haiku right! Yet 5-7-5, believe it or not, is not how one does haiku right.

 

Best wishes,

 

Michael Dylan Welch

Haiku Invitational Judge

 

P.S. I should mention that I’m vice president of the Haiku Society of America, cofounder of the American Haiku Archives at the California State Library in Sacramento, and cofounder and director of the Haiku North America conference, and have been publishing and teaching haiku for close to 25 years. I’ll be giving a haiku workshop in Vancouver’s Historic Joy Kogawa House on Sunday, May 15, by the way—might that be of interest to you?