Sunday, April 12, 2015

Carpe Diem Ask Jane #10, 5-7-5

Dear Haijin, visitors and travelers,

It has been a while ago that we had an episode of our "Ask Jane" feature, but I had the idea that it was worth asking Jane about the 5-7-5 discussion we have had in our last GW-post. So I have asked Jane about the 5-7-5 syllables count in haiku. And here is her answer.


Dear Jane,

As you maybe have seen we have a discussion at Carpe Diem Haiku Kai about the syllables count in haiku (and tanka). Would you please tell us something more about this "rule" for haiku (and tanka). How came this syllables count into haiku and tanka, is it that strict to follow it?

As you know I am not a big fan of the counting of syllables, because I think that the 5-7-5 and the 5-7-5-7-7 onji, as used in the classical Japanese poems can't be used in Western haiku and tanka.

I am looking forward to your answer.




Dear Kristjaan.

I think the 5 - 7 - 5 rule becomes a problem when one adopts this as a rule. When the haiku, or tanka comes to mind, we are used to checking to see if the line is too long and if it is, finding shorter, or less, words. This is a good use of the rule in my opinion. However when one begins to add words to make a line have five or seven syllables, the poem often becomes what has been called "padded" - words or even ideas are added just to make the line have a certain number of syllables. This practice causes the poems to feel artificial or to contain too much information.

We need to keep in mind that our syllables, in Dutch or English, are longer than the Japanese sound units by about 1/3. When we use 17 syllables in our poems it is almost impossible to get all that information into 17 sound units of Japanese. If we wish for our haiku to be more like the Japanese, we need to use fewer syllables in our language. When we add syllables, to make a poem have 17 syllables, it is even worse and harder to translate into another language.

I think it is best if one tries this for one's self on your own haiku that seem less than perfect to you. Try taking words out of your poem, to say what you are thinking more simply, to be more direct with common words on one subject. Remember that if you are following the 5 - 7 - 5 rule YOU have made this rule and it is a good thing to give yourself permission to break it. Try writing haiku with as few words as possible and still keep your original thought. You will know when it feels right.

I hope this helps.


Jane Reichhold

As I stated in the last GW-post "feel free to use the 5-7-5 rule, but try some times to break it".

Do you have a question for Jane? Than please feel free to email your question to our Ask Jane email-address:

Have a great week!


  1. We are not writing in Japanese. We are writing in English, or some other Western language. The 5-7-5 "rule" was adopted to help non-Japanese poets write haiku. As far as I'm concerned, it's not broken, so it doesn't need to be fixed. If someone wants to write haiku without any regard to syllable count, that's fine. But please don't imply that those of us who choose to write 5-7-5 haiku are somehow second-class poets. Thank you.

    1. Those who are using the 5-7-5 are surely not second class poets Mark. If that is what you think Jane or I are implying than I feel that as offending Jane and me. And I am sure that you don't want to offend Jane, me or any other haiku poet who doesn't use the 5-7-5 rule. It's an individual and personal choice to use the syllables rule or not. I think haiku must be fun and everyone is free to compose his/her haiku in the way he/she choses.
      That' s my goal at least here at cdhk ... promoting the joy and pleasure haiku can give.

    2. I do not mean to offend you, but I just don't understand why you spend so much time "bashing" the 5-7-5 form, especially when the header of this blog says clearly: "Mostly a haiku counts 5-7-5 syllables..." Maybe it's time to remove those words from the header.

    3. Thanks for your response Mark, i don't bash the 5-7-5 form I just try to promote that haiku is a great way to give words to the deepest feelings a human can have as connected with nature. I will give it a thought to remove 5-7-5 from the header.

  2. This is very insightful for me. Until recently, when I began writing haiku again, it never occurred to me that I could break the rule! And I completely get the "padded" poem problem; I know I've done that to keep the syllable count. Many thanks for another great lesson.

  3. I love the versatility of English and the possibility of writing haiku with even less than 17 syllables. In English there are many longish words for example that have just one syllable for example: though, thought etc. Writing even in 17 syllables is very difficult for example in Italian, a language where one pronounces almost every single vowel thereby creating a new syllable of each vowel - though for example becomes malgrado (three syllables) thought is pen-sie-ro (three syllables because of the 'ie' diphthong after the s) plus some words cannot be written without their accompanying article and this is certainly true of French - I get the impression at times when writing haiku in Italian that I'm probably closer to the Japanese haiku with its onji than in English. So basically, when we're saying "writing a western haiku" what we're discussing here is Dutch or English I think and I'm happy that I can have all 17 syllables for an Italian haiku!

    I like 5-7-5 but I also like the freedom of maybe a 4-6-5 and and sometimes you get that a-ha feeling with even less syllables - but you can get the surprise and a-ha very nicely with more.

    the first spring moon shines
    April illumination
    dancing on the sea

    this is a haiku I could never write in Italia using 5-7-5

    splende la prima luna di primavera
    illuminazione d'aprile
    danzando sul mare

    As you can see the first line alone has 12 syllables - the second 9 - and the last has 6 ...

    I think I can understand that if one has to pad a haiku to fit the 5-7-5, then it might become ar-ti-fi-cio-so (5 syllables because the cio with the diphthong 'io' followed by a c makes a single sound ;-) ). Personally I think if one feels comfortable writing in 5-7-5 and can do so beautifully - who really cares. There are some competitions which want only 5-7-5 and others which refuse to accept poems that are 5-7-5 - I think it's silly that anyone will disqualify a beautiful haiku because of syllable count - to me that isn't the spirit of what haiku is all about. What is in the spirit is writing fluidly ... no?