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What Is Haiku — Three Lines and 17 Syllables, or Something Else? | A Poem by Donal Mahoney

Many years ago, when I first started working on poems, I would
occasionally write a haiku. I did that as a break from writing the
“harder” stuff. At least that’s what I thought at the time.

Haiku was relatively easy, I thought, once one had mastered the
traditional form of 17 syllables in three lines with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third.

I can’t remember how many haiku I had published in “little
magazines.” There were no computers or online sites back then. Few
writers then (or now) would attempt a sonnet. I never did. But most
aspiring poets would take a stab at haiku. It didn’t seem that

Then, because of different day jobs that required a great deal of my attention, I quit creative writing for more than 30 years, returning to it after retirement when my wife gave me a computer as a gift. She also showed me where three ancient cardboard boxes of old poems and drafts of poems were stored in the basement, survivors of a number of relocations.

I had written those early poems on Eaton’s Corrasable Bond, a
special typing paper back in the Sixties. It was handy stuff when you had to work on a typewriter and needed to erase mistakes.

I didn’t find any haiku in my cardboard boxes, even though I knew
that I had written quite a few, some of which I had never sent out for publication, fearing, and probably rightly so, they weren’t ready.

I had saved some old contributor’s copies of little magazines with
poems of mine from the past but I found no haiku in them. I didn’t
think too much about it because I had a lot of old drafts and old
poems to rework. But I never forgot the 5/7/5 syllabic form and once in awhile something would pop into my mind that I would try to make fit that form.

After I returned to writing in 2008, my poems eventually began to
appear on Internet sites. That was encouraging. So I decided to send out a few haiku that I had managed to “finish” or so I thought.

I sent my first three efforts to a haiku site that sent them flying
back the same day with the explanation that the 5/7/5 form was no
longer desirable and so my faux haiku had been rejected.

The editor, however, didn’t say what had replaced the traditional
form and where I might find the form that was now being used. She
probably expected me to Google “haiku” and find that out for
myself. But I didn’t do that because I was working on other stuff.
Longer poems, short stories and essays had gotten my attention. I was on a roll, I thought, but every once in awhile I’d give haiku
another try.

I enjoyed the challenge of saying as much as possible as simply as
possible in 17 syllables. It was like dropping a pebble in a pond and watching the ripples radiate and then quietly disappear.

Recently, however, I came across an explanation as to why the 5/7/5
form is no longer considered doctrinally sound by many
English-language editors of haiku. Other writers may already know
about this but it was news to me.

For those who don’t know why the traditional form was rejected,
here’s a simplified version of what I discovered.

The Alaska Haiku Society says that “modern scholars have
concluded” that the traditional haiku form “is not really appropriate for English-language haiku.” It says “this is because a so-called ‘syllable’ in Japanese is quite different from a syllable in English (for example, a two-syllable word in English might be four ‘syllables’ in Japanese.)”

One writer on the site added that most of the six haiku she had
published in 1973 would probably not be published today in light of
the rejection of the traditional form. She says that although her
haiku were “haiku-shaped,” they would today be considered

Another writer of haiku in English admits on the same site that she
too in the beginning wrote haiku that had the same “problems.”

This and much more information can be found at

The posting from the Alaska Haiku Society ends with this statement:

“While the 17-syllable issue has been debated for decades, few
English-language haiku editors publish 5/7/5 haiku unless the poem is so strong that the 17 syllables are not obvious—the poem sings on its own without any sense that it has been ‘padded’ to meet a set syllable count.”

What I didn’t find on the site, however, is the current acceptable
form although I admit that it could be there. I may go back and search the site again in case I missed it.

I realize that dedicated writers of haiku must know what the new form is, provided some new form has become the standard. Unless, of course, haiku is now a short form of free verse left up to the writer to define and for the reader to say “Yes, that’s haiku. It reads like haiku, sounds like haiku, and is shaped like haiku so it must be haiku.”

I admit I still like the challenge of trying to write three lines with 17 syllables but then I tend to be traditional in many other aspects of life as well.

I’m also confused by the subject matter of much contemporary haiku
since it is not always devoted to different aspects of nature.
Traditional haiku, as I remember it, dealt solely with nature and I
thought that was one of its requirements.


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