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Breaking The English Haiku Beyond Syllables

by | Mar 29, 2023 | Essay

Breaking the english 

Haiku beyond syllables. 

Written by Quinn L.

When I was in third grade, I was taught the Haiku as an introduction to poetry by my teacher, Ms. Miller. She introduced the Haiku to my class as an accessible poetic form, structured enough to teach to kids. I absolutely adored writing Haikus (and still do!), to the point that I started turning all of my homework in in this format, including math and science write ups. 

Haikus were explained to me as ‘short, syllabic nature poems’. The English Haiku is usually written with a three-line format, the first and last lines having five syllables each, and the one in the middle having seven syllables. This structure originates from the Japanese language, where historically, Haikus are counted in terms of -on and -ji, which are wrongly approximated to syllables in English. The biggest misconception when it comes to understandings of Haiku outside of Japan, is that this syllabic structure is what defines a Haiku. However, contemporary Haiku practitioners in Japan dropped the 5-7-5 format decades ago, in favor of more fluid, and flexible poems. 

Michael Welch MD, editor of The Journal of the E.E. Cummings Society argues that the Haiku should be written differently. “Haiku are short, objective poems conveying a keenly perceived moment of heightened subjective awareness” (Welch 95). According to Welch, Haiku defies the usage of ego – assistive devices like metaphor, parallel, and judgment, and instead focuses on “The ‘thing’ simply as it is, in all of its rich ‘suchness” . ‘Suchness’ here can be defined as the Haiku’s ability to focus deeply on every aspect of one object, and ego – assertive devices can therefore be defined as devices that get in the way of an object’s ‘suchness’. In short, Haiku chooses pure representation over interpretation by the poet. Of course, the natural world is not limited to man – made rules or implications, so why then is the Haiku constrained to this ‘5-7-5’ format? To understand this misinterpretation one must understand a few simple things about the Japanese language. 

Haiku was originally introduced to the English language in the nineteenth century, and before then it was known as hokku, and the Japanese had been practicing hokku since the beginning of the seventeenth century. There is a term used by English speakers to describe the way that Japanese uses sounds or ‘syllables’ to structure Haiku, the term is onji. However, this term is alien to Japanese people, even Japanese poets. Dr. Richard Gilbert, professor of Japanese Literature at the Prefectoral University of Kumamoto explores the term onji in his paper ‘Stalking the Wild Onji: The Search for Current Linguistic Terms Used in Japanese Poetry Circles’ after writing a Haiku on the board and asking his students to count the onji, his students responded with confounded silence. “Differences between [English] and [Japanese] and inadequate presentations [of Haiku] have created confusions, misusage of terms, and in some quarters, a reductionistic sensibility regarding formal aspects of Japanese poetry” (Gilbert), and this is likely due to the fact that many Western Haiku Circles have never trained, studied, or written in Japan or Japanese (Gilbert). Thus, traditional Japanese terms have become Westernized, and ultimately detached from their true meanings. The Haiku in English is merely an emulation of its original Japanese form. While ‘traditional’ Haiku is counted in terms of seventeen units, they are not the seventeen syllables that English writers are familiar with. 

The Japanese language is composed of small units of sound that do not mix together. For example, an English speaker would separate the word ‘London’ into two syllables, lon/don, whereas a Japanese speaker would separate the word ‘London’ into four units of sound, called morae as lo/n/do/n. What this means, is that the syllable does not exist in Japanese, because of the way that Japanese is spoken. In Japanese, things are counted using different ‘placeholders’ that denote the way that a thing is being counted. Haiku are counted using the particles –on, and -ji. -On is the counter for ‘sound’, whereas -ji is the counter for Japanese character. -On and -ji have no approximation in the English language, so to use syllables to measure the length of Haiku is misinformed appropriation. Traditional Japanese Haiku are counted either in terms of sounds, or in terms of syllables. 



Furu ike ya (5 -on)

kawazu tobikomu (7 -on)

mizu no oto (5 -on)
The old pond (3)

A frog leaps in (4)

The sound of the water (6) 
A translation of a famous Haiku by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) by R.H. Blyth

midsummer reverie 

sound of splashing waves

in my mint soda 

-Keiko Izawa, from Yokohama, Japan, published in Acorn, a Journal of Contemporary Haiku

Onji is not an acceptable term to describe the way that the Japanese Haiku is counted because in Japanese it is impossible to count both the number of characters, and the number of sounds while maintaining a count of seventeen.  

Now that onji is established as an innapropriate framework, several conclusions can be drawn about the English Haiku. The –ji and -on counters do not exist in English, therefore a number to justify the length of the English Haiku is impossible to define in terms of the traditional Japanese style. Instead, what can be kept from the original Japanese Haiku in English are the five sensations (or truths) of Haiku (Welch). According to Welch, meaning, and not structure is more important to Haiku. “Even in Japan many modern Haiku writers have abandoned this structure [of counting]”, there is no logical reason therefore, for the Haiku to be taught as a poem with defined form, yet the basic lack of understanding between the characteristics of the Japanese and English languages prevent English writers from understanding this shift in Haiku. 

The five moods, or sensations, that define Haiku are sabi which is a feeling of sweet, and solitary melancholy. Wabi which represents the unpretentious suchness of the ordinary. Aware that represents sadness, yugen or the mystery of the unknown. And karami which represents the lightness or joyful acceptance of the ethereal or the ordinary (Welch). These moods, combined with an objective awareness are what truly define Haiku. 

E.E. Cummings is often credited for writing Haiku – esque poems. They are short, subjective, yet they equate nature to human nature in a selfless way that does not rely on ego – centric devices to convey ‘suchness’. This being said, no poem is truly objective, but the only part of Haiku to come from stipulation by the writer, instead of observation, is the writer’s choice in the inclusion of detail in their Haiku. Cummings was able to reveal himself through his ability to capture detail in this way. He often toyed with language, and claimed that his poems were sometimes ‘unreadable’ because they were ‘visual’ instead of auditory. In his use of physical layout, and in his deconstruction of words, Cummings helped to define the true English Haiku. 

One such poem published in Cumming’s book “95 Poems” is a perfect example of a linguistic experiment that resulted in the creation of a contemporary Haiku in English. 








asl(rose)eep (95 poems, 1958) 

In this Haiku, the image of the lone rose is sharpened in the reader’s mind, who, being so absorbed, can only see the immediate object of total attention. Of course, the rose here may also be seen through the eyes of the bee. Here Cummings creates a broad implication without the use of ego – centric device. If the reader interprets this poem as two halves instead of a whole, grouping the words inside of the parenthesis together and grouping the words outside of the parenthesis together, more is revealed. “bee/ in/ the/ only/ rose” (Untitled 1958) is a simple image of a bee in a rose setting, which invokes a sense of karami or the inundation of the self into the ethereal or the ordinary. “Unmo/ vi/ ng/ are/ you/ asleep” (Untitled) reveals the observable quality of stagnation, which follows the idea that Haiku should be exact. However, the greatest interest of this poem’s message is the unanswered question, “are/ you/ asleep?” (Untitled). This creates a sense wonder at how a bee could sleep in such a beautiful only rose, and by extension it asks the reader the same question in the context of their own existence (Welch). 

In his book “73 Poems”, Cummings published another poem that would change the way that the form of English Haiku was interpreted – 











is upon a gra


one (73 Poems 1963).

This poem is again, subjective, and descriptive. To begin, it brings out the different overtones created by splitting the word ‘gravestone’ into the words ‘vest’, ‘one’, and ‘gravest one’. This separation is purely objective, using only the snowflake to give these words connotation. The increasing indentation along the word ‘alighting’ gives the poem a sense of presence, and a sense of exact time using visual placement. This poem’s true strength relies in the purity of its image, which exactly mirrors the definition of the ‘true’ Haiku. The reader only sees the snowflake – one snowflake – at the exact moment that it touches a gravestone. Here there is an objective correlation that equates snow to winter, and winter to death, creating an external symbol for internalized emotion associated with death. Untitled. has a somber, and cold tone, and the only irony that exists is between the unmoving gravestone and the drifting snowflake (Welch). 

The final example of a Haiku written by E.E. Cummings is perhaps the most famous, [l(a] is the shortest Haiku that Cummings wrote, yet it still represents a clear depiction of presence while remaining objective. 








iness (95 Poems 1958). 

By using the framework provided, the reader can assume that the separation of the word ‘lonliness’ occurs so that it may also be read as ‘oneness’. If this poem were not a haiku, the feeling of lonliness would be characterized by a falling leaf, but because this is a haiku, lonliness is instead used to contextualize the way that a leaf falls. This of course reveals the human tendency to associate lonliness with oneness, and the desire to be a part of something. [l(a] also invokes a sense of desperation because it occurs as the leaf is separated from its whole. 

Haikus can be so much more meaningful when they are unbound from their syllabic structure, not only does counting syllables limit what a Haiku is capable of capturing, the method of determining a haiku using units of sound has long been abandoned in Japan, where practitioners create more fluid, flexible Haiku. I like to think of Haikus as a way that language can approximate an image or impression of a single moment of being. There is so much exploration left to do when it comes to the Haiku form in English, Haiku often equates human nature to the natural world, it does not need to be bound to a specific form. I have been writing Haikus since Ms. Miller first introduced them to me in third grade, they look quite different now than they did back then, but no matter how they change, I will always think of Haikus as a form of poem that helped me become a writer.


GILBERT, RICHARD. “Stalking the Wild Onji: The Search for Current Linguistic Terms Used in Japanese Poetry Circles.” Stalking the Wild Onji: AHA Books, www.ahapoetry.com/wildonji.htm. 

Welch, Michael. “The Haiku Sensibilities of E. E. Cummings.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society #4, Cummings Soceity, 1995, pp. 95–120.

Welch, Michael. “Three Hokku by E. E. Cummings.” Frogpond XVI:1, Haiku Society of America, 1993, pp. 51–56.

Cummings, Edward Estlin, and George James Firmage. 73 Poems. Liveright, 2003.

Cummings, Edward Estlin, and George James Firmage. 95 Poems. Liveright, 2002.