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Haiku Maven: The Trouble with Counting Syllables

hm_logo Dear Haiku Maven, A haiku poet I admire keeps telling me my haiku is old-fashioned because I write 5-7-5 three line haiku and I always use a season word. That poet is starting to get on my nerves. Is it okay to keep writing my kind of haiku? Or do I need to change even though it isn’t who I am?

Signed, Don’t Make Me Over

Dear Don’t, Your sign-off indicates you are familiar with the pop music world of the late 1960’s. So I will speak to you in your language. You and the haiku poet you admire, “travel to the beat of a different drum.” No one told the organizers of the well-known Yuki Teikei Society’s annual Tokutomi contest that they were being old-fashioned when they launched their long-running 5-7-5 haiku contest, which also mandates a specific season word. But my guess is that you are writing to me because a part of you thinks the haiku-poet-you-admire may have a point. If you are stuck in the 5-7-5 haiku universe because it is a cozy place and one you know well, challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone every so often. Try a one line haiku without a season word. Or limit yourself to a 10 syllable haiku. And you can always ask for feedback from the haiku-poet-you-admire. The outcome may surprise you.


The Haiku Maven posts each Friday to The Haiku Foundation blog. Haiku Maven offers advice about awkward situations involving haiku poets. Please use our Contact page to send a question. Haiku Maven will select a pseudonym for you based on your question. Click this link to see the Haiku Maven archive. Feel free to leave comments.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Dear Cheryl,

    I tend to agree with a lot that you say. There is something personally important and vital to people who write haiku verses in a 575 format.

    It’s inspired me to write more haiku in 575 English-language syllables that I include in my workshops.

    In the website box above last year’s World Monuments Fund contest asked for haiku in 575, judged by a highly reputable judge, Annie Finch, and poet in her right as you’ll see where I’ve included a short bio, as well as a link to the competition.

    For 2013, this very April, I’m the judge this time and will happily accept 575 haiku and all other approaches.

    Just google “world monuments fund 2013 haiku contest” and do enter whatever type of haiku you’d like to enter. All entries are sent to me by the administrator with names removed at the end of National Poetry Month (April).

    I don’t think anyone is against 575 haiku, but I can see why it might seem that way, but you have raised some very good points and it’s very much appreciated.

    kindest regards,


  2. You and I are similar. I have been challenged by +Michael Dylan Welch and Ed Bremson to write haiku that is not exclusively 5-7-5, and I have accepted this challenge.
    However, this is poetry, and 5-7-5 is a valid form, especially in America. Not because I say so, either.
    I remember when the poetry “elite” discouraged rhyming and soon afterwards rap became crazy popular (lots of rap rhymes). There are contests where 5-7-5 is encouraged and accepted and others where the guidelines say that it will bring suspicion upon the entrant.
    Some mutual tolerance is called for here. After all, we are all creating art. You would not have told Picasso to “be more symmetric” or an impressionist to “be less vague”. In that spirit, I would suggest that 5-7-5 be respected and not completely abandoned.
    Yes there are those who force their phrases into the 5-7-5 form (or any combo that adds to 17 syllables), when a better version of the haiku may have fewer syllables. 5-7-5 is not necessarily wrong and minimalist haiku (i.e. Mijikai) is not necessarily right. One can find examples of both that are poorly written.
    There will still be opportunities and rewards for all kinds of haiku. Do not let anyone discourage you from creating the way that makes you happy. Because when you believe you are writing at your best, anything you write is likely to reflect it.

  3. Since 5/7/5 has become the rarity instead of the norm (and certainly not my usual ‘voice’), I occasionally return to it just for the challenge. The HaikuNow yearly Contest has a traditional category which requires the 5/7/5 format.

  4. Dear Merrill, As you know, I’ve appreciated your art for years. And I’ve been writing about the same tree outside my study window for years. I still see new images – the way the light falls, the rain on a branch, birds will return.

    And Peter, I also find that poems need space – and for me now – many hours of silence around them. When teaching though, a small poetry book in my bookbag meant the world to me for a few minutes at lunch or before class. Gave me strength.

    Thank you

  5. All syllables aside,
    a poet I admire once told me
    to “create the space
    in which the poem can happen.”
    How do you do that? I asked.
    “One word at a time.”

  6. Haiku has many manifestations of style. While I have learned a great deal and enjoy reading some of the more modern and experimental haiku, I find that my own haiku, while not adhering to any syllable or line count, tend to be quite traditional in tone and substance.

  7. “Don’t Make Me Over” is certainly a song I remember! I don’t have the knowledge of haiku that so many poets here clearly have. But I taught writing at the elementary and college levels. It seemed to work best when assignments had a structure yet freedom for each student to be creative.

    My mother, Enola Borgh, was an English professor at UW-Milwaukee; and I found haiku when she suggested I learn a form. I was writing poetry in my own style. She said that after I learned a form, then I could make it my own. The years that followed, though, were full of “life challenges” and I have to say that for me haiku was healing, and the chapbooks and friendships an encouragement. Many ways to begin. There’s a vast literature in haiku I have yet to read and study.

    I also encouraged my students to simply read. I was honored that Carmen Sterba included a one-line haiku of mine in the March Per Diem – a first for me – and I only knew to write this poem from reading a lot here and elsewhere the last few years.

    Also, I find it interesting to write the best haiku I can, and then see how many syllables the poem decided to be.

    Simply learning, one poem at a time . . . Ellen

  8. For what it’s worth, the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society’s six-times-a-year journal, Geppo, used to be almost completely 5-7-5 about 25 years ago. But it has slowly had fewer and fewer 5-7-5 poems. For about ten or fifteen years now, it has averaged about 5 to 8 percent 5-7-5 haiku (and many of those are beginner attempts that miss other important targets, and practically never get voted as best poems of each issue). In fact, there have been at least two issues of Geppo where not a single submitted haiku was 5-7-5. But their contest does persist with that requirement. Of course, anyone can write whatever he or she likes. Even a 5-7-5 haiku is okay IF it hits other necessary targets. The problem with 5-7-5 is that many people think that’s the only target in English, and aren’t aware of the linguistic differences that make 5-7-5 inaccurate and much longer compared to the content present in Japanese haiku (where, of course, they don’t count syllables at all). If 5-7-5 is the only haiku target that a poem hits, then it fails to be a haiku. Some people say they like the “discipline” of counting syllables, but it’s the most trivial discipline that haiku has to offer — it’s much harder to write haiku with all the other targets in mind, and with organic form in mind instead (a topic I had a paper about at the 1995 Haiku North America conference, and again at the 1995 Haiku Chicago event). Want to keep writing 5-7-5? Knock yourself out if you want to. But don’t forget to hit the other valuable targets too.

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