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Published:November 22nd, 2011 10:45 EST
Real Haiku For People Who Can Count

Real Haiku For People Who Can Count

By Will Nixon

Once again a writing handbook tells us that haiku need not be haiku. Some people believe (mistakenly) that a haiku must have seventeen syllables arranged 5 / 7 / 5 in lines 1, 2, and 3. The fact is that traditional Japanese haiku count "sounds,` not syllables. The seventeen sounds of a traditional Japanese haiku take about the same length of time to say as twelve or fifteen English syllables. That`s why most North American haiku poets write haiku in English with fewer than seventeen syllables. Today poets simply write haiku in three short lines, " reports The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms.

Yes, but I prefer the view of Clark Strand, our resident Woodstock haiku master, who practices 5 / 7 / 5. (Years ago, I had the pleasure of participating in a haiku circle that he led.) First, the form makes haiku easier to write. Though it takes practice, once you`ve embedded the syllabic pattern in your mind, you`ll find words naturally falling into the 5 / 7 / 5 rhythm. Clark has practiced for so long that he`s a haiku jukebox. Give him a word. Thirty seconds later he`ll have a haiku. While he thinks, you`ll see him tapping his fingers to count syllables. (In the movie Eight Mile Eminem taps his fingers the same way while drafting rap lyrics on a writing pad.) Haiku poets who don`t do 5 / 7 / 5 don`t share this facility. They`re stuck every time with figuring out both the form and the content. Let`s not forget that forms are meant to aid our imaginations, not to constrict us with rules.

Second, Clark argued that 5 / 7 / 5 works well in English. It allows for a fullness of thought that`s often truncated in shorter pieces. Once he made this point, I noticed how many shorter haikus seem to be jabs at images that aren`t fully satisfying to me, unlike the complete little tales that I enjoy so much in Clark`s haiku. Not that people shouldn`t write short little nature poems. But why not enjoy the specialness of haiku? Here`s one I wrote years ago.

Scarlet tanager:
the flying red kiss that lands
too far from my lips.