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Having 17 syllables is in the definition of Haiku, but does it have to have exactly 17 syllables, is this usually followed strictly, or it is only more as a guideline?

I am asking about Haiku written in English language not in Japanese.

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Wikipedia answers your question rather thoroughly: Haiku (in general), Haiku (in English). The short answer is "no, there are many exceptions and alternate forms." Do these articles answer your question? –  Standback Nov 4 '12 at 15:55
    
The second page is, the first I've seen and is too much tight to Japanese language, I didn't come across the second and is helpful, thanks. –  Eduard Florinescu Nov 4 '12 at 18:16

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Haiku don't have to have 17 syllables. That "rule" is based on something that makes sense in Japanese, not so much in English.

The "syllables" (onji) in Japanese are in a 5 - 7- 5 pattern, but Japanese is primarily polysyllabic...so creating Haiku in English based on the same pattern is likely to result in a poem that is often too long.

Haiku is less a syllabic form than a kind of poetry. Traditional Haiku have three lines, the first and third lines are separated by a kind of interjection. Consider Buson's haiku:

a single poppy
blowing in a field of wheat -
your face in the crowd

The first two lines are connected by the middle line. I remember reading somewhere that Haiku are almost formed like jokes: there's a setup (first line) and a punch-line (third line).

Good Haiku go beyond the form. The syllabic structure that many learn in elementary school is often the result of teaching about syllables rather than what Haiku really are.

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In order for it to be a Haiku, it must have 17 syllables. Because a Haiku is strictly 3 un-rhymed lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, people usually are very strict about this. If it is over or under 17 syllables, I'm sorry, but they probably wouldn't classify it as a Haiku. Hope that helps!

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This is contradicted by the Wikipedia article about haiku. However, many people are taught the 5-7-5 syllable pattern for haiku, and it's become a commonly-held misconception. So, although I'd disagree with this answer in a technical sense, I think it reflects a widespread belief nonetheless. –  J.R. Nov 8 '12 at 10:48

Let me start by saying that this question has already been answered and the answer is no.

I've been writing and publishing haiku for about a decade now, so I wanted to weigh in.

Western haiku writers, starting more or less in the early 1900s used the 5-7-5 syllable form in imitation of the Japanese. But because of the way the Japanese language works (it tends to use very standard-length sounds as opposed to English, for example, where a single syllable can be various lengths) those writing in the haiku form started to break away from strict adherence to the 5-7-5 rule.

If you look at any haiku publication today (The Heron's Nest, for example), you'll see haiku in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some haiku consist of only a single word.

The main thing that makes a haiku a haiku is the spirit of the poem. But that's a whole other topic. And books have been written by far better writers than myself on the topic so I won't try to recapitulate that here.

At the end of the day, if you want to write in 5-7-5 you can, of course. Some still do. But the syllables contained in the poem are not as important as the spirit of the poem. You can read a history of people trying to define it here, but the best way, IMHO, is to read good haiku and learn from them.

(Adding some more info...You're right, DougM...)

What I mean by the spirit of the poem (I know, it's pretty vague, right?) is the feeling you get when you read a good haiku. A haiku is traditionally made up of two parts. You have two images, not necessarily related, and then the spark that jumps between them when you read the poem. That's what I'm trying to get at as the spirit of haiku.

Buson wrote a famous haiku that goes something like "sudden chill/ in the bedroom/ stepping on my dead wife's comb". This can perhaps give you an idea of the sort of mild jolt between the two halves. (Like I said, books have been written on these subjects, so please forgive the necessarily sketchy nature of my reply.)

Another example is a haiku by Nick Virgilio: "lily:/ out of the water.../ out of itself"

Some commentators on haiku have said that they are unfinished poems, that the reader finishes the poem in his or her mind.

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Would that single word haiku have been "Supercalifra- / -gilisticexpiali- / -dociosity"? –  Joe Z. Mar 21 at 15:05
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You'd have a great answer here if you attempted to state what "the spirit of the poem" is. An imprecise answer is better than the sort of "it's Japanese so I can't explain it" non-answer that happens so often when discussing Japanese culture. –  DougM Mar 21 at 16:03

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