On Poetry and Culture Shock

The Sweet Seventeen Effect (How Not to Write, part 7)

What is a haiku? Some would say, “a haiku is a poem with seventeen syllables, 5-7-5”. Wrong! Bad! Okay, not bad. Just incomplete. My rules to write haiku are lax, and I will explain why with an example.

Sonnets. Petrarch invented (perfected?) the sonnet form in Italian. With a certain rhyme scheme, the famous “two quartets, two tercets” (4+4+3+3 = 14 lines) that Spanish readers will be familiar with. Later, when the sonnet was imported to England, after quite a lot of experimentation, the best English sonnetists figured out that a “three quartets, one couplet” (4+4+4+2 = 14 lines) structure fitted better into their language and thought. There is the Italian sonnet, and there’s the English sonnet. Not better, not worse.

That means that in Japanese a haiku is 5-7-5 and anything else is not a haiku, but in the Western world we have to make as good use as we can of languages that need more syllables to say anything (and Spanish words have on average twice as many syllables as English ones). So: first of all, a haiku in a Western language does not need to have 5-7-5 syllables. It can have more, it can have less. Say, between 14 and 21.

Now, the important bit: as a natural consequence of the Thereus Effect, a haiku in any language is NOT a haiku if it does not have some sort of natural division in syntax or meaning. At least one, maybe two, so that it can have between two and three lines.

Ezra Pound:
The apparition of those faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Two sentences. The image and the metaphor. One clear division.

Alan Spence:
First warmth of spring.
I feel as if
I have been asleep.

Two sentences. The cause and the feeling. One clear division. (I think lines 2 and 3 should be fused, but anyway).

An uncredited translation of a haiku by Issa:
Where there are humans
You’ll find flies
and Buddhas.

One sentence, but each line is one phrase, so there is no run-on effect. And each line in is violent thematic opposition with the other two.

Spanish writers of haiku, including excellent poets like Mario Benedetti, make a massacre of the form because they try so hard to fit into the 5-7-5 pattern that they sacrifice any other concern to it. A seventeen-syllable-long sentence broken into three chunks is as much as haiku as fourteen lines out of the phone book are a sonnet.

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