Haiku and Syllabic Verse

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From the sublime to the ridiculous:  that is the history of haiku in English.  Haiku has gone from veneration in the early part of the 20th century to ridicule in the 21st.  A humor column in one newspaper regularly asked readers to write haiku lampooning current affairs.  And primary school teachers “teach” their students to write it, even though they (the teachers!) lack the slightest knowledge of the history of the form and are completely oblivious to the problems it presents in English.  The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics says:


Many attempts have been made to write haiku in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and perhaps other European languages, but usually with exotic motives and almost always with trivial results.


Japanese and Chinese poems are examples of what is called “syllabic verse,” which means that lines of poetry are defined by the number of syllables that make them up.   Haiku are poems with three lines, the first and third having five syllables, the second having seven [5-7-5].  Although they have the same structure as the first stanza of the “tanka,” a five-line form of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, they are thought to have originated in the “renga.”  The writing of renga began as a social pastime.  The stanzas of the tanka were linked by the participants into long chains following complex rules which even included the number of “moon” stanzas and “flower” stanzas that should be included.  One of the great masters of the Haiku form was Basho (1644-1694), and many of his haiku are actually the “hokku” or beginning stanzas of renga.  Since Basho’s time, haiku have been the most popular poetic form in Japan.  They almost always present a moment etched in time—often an emotional response to something observed—and are very often identified with a season.  They frequently suggest an implied comparison with other things that lie beyond the poem.


As this brief history suggests, haiku retain something of the quality of “beginnings” and leave us staring into space, listening to silence.  The 5-7-5 form creates a weak sense of starting, passing on, and returning, and it doesn’t provide a strong sense of closure.  Consequently, I suspect that to really appreciate them one must share the Japanese aesthetic sense that has produced Ikebana flower arranging, Zen rock gardens, and koans.  (Having a taste for the exotic isn’t at all the same thing as sharing the Japanese sensibility!)


The most important part of reading or hearing a poem (in any language) is the awareness of line succeeding line, and this requires that the lines be identifiable as such.  (This was true in the poetry of every language up until the 20th century.)  When a language doesn’t have a tonic accent, the length of a poetic line is often identified by counting syllables, and this number can be “heard” when the line is spoken.  (A “tonic accent” is the accent built into a word which must be present if it is correctly pronounced, e.g. “TON-ic” and “AC-cent”)  Syllable counting is fundamental to Chinese, Japanese, and French poetry, but that isn’t the case in English, German, or Spanish.  In these languages the strong accent shapes the rhythms of speech and makes it hard to count the syllables at all.  Instead, we identify poetic lines by counting rhythmic units of stressed and unstressed syllables (and sometimes just by counting the number of stresses).  In fact, it could probably be stated as a general linguistic law:  no language with a tonic accent has ever evolved syllabic verse.  Consider the following “haiku”:


The English ear is

Focused on stress and cannot

Count the syllables.


This is obviously just a 17-syllable sentence: “The English ear is focused on stress and cannot count the syllables.”  In order to know that the two lines, “The English ear is” and “Count the syllables,” really do have the same number of syllables, we must do the counting on our fingers.  This means that Haiku cannot be faithfully translated into English by counting syllables:  for it to be poetry we need to hear the equivalence (which the Japanese can do), so we must look for something else that we can count.  (The alternative to doing so is to write prose libre (free “verse”) but that just throws away the form of the Japanese originals—together with the craftsmanship that created it.)  It makes sense to choose the iamb, the most common “foot” of traditional English verse for our unit.  Iambs are made up of a weakly accented syllable followed by a more strongly accented one: [dihDAH].  To make the lines approximately the same length as the Japanese lines, we will use a 2-3-2 pattern of feet: four syllables, six syllables, four syllables.


The ENG-lish EAR


Count SYL- la-BLES.


We can now hear this measured out, just as the Japanese can hear their haiku measured out.

The ENG-lish EAR . . .

Count SYL-la-BLES


Let’s try it with some Basho translations, beginning with the most famous haiku of all:


An ancient pond

A frog-jumping-into

The water sound


The second line is actually an iamb followed by two trochees, [JUM-ping] and [IN-to], instead of two iambs.  But we can give ourselves some latitude in this middle-line since it isn’t directly compared with any other.  We do hear three feet (marked by the three stresses), and that is what our pattern calls for.  In fact, this could be seen as accentual verse, verse in which the accents are counted rather than feet, and that—carefully handled—might be another way of translating Haiku in English, but I won’t explore it here because it doesn’t count syllables—only stresses.


In order to see that this does work, we can compare the awful syllable-counting example’s first and last lines with those of this poem.


The English ear is . . .

Count the syllables


A silent pond . . .

The water sound


When you read these pairs, you hear that the iambic version’s lines do have something in common, and that sense is lacking when you read the lines that merely have the same number of syllables.


Let’s look at one more translation, this one a poem on the site of an ancient battle:


The summer grasses—

Silent inheritors

Of strong men’s dreams.


The final syllable in the first line is weak, and because of that it doesn’t affect the way the first and last line work together.  I have added the word “silent.”  The first foot of the middle line is a trochee [DAH dih] rather than an iamb, but I have said something about this sort of thing in the preceding paragraphs.


I make no claim for the quality of these verses as translations, but I feel strongly about the principle.  The form is an important part of the meaning since it paces the lines and creates the sense of moving away and coming back, thereby controlling the effect.  Mere counting of syllables just won’t do in English because we cannot hear the form, and if we cannot hear it, why should we insist upon representing it?  The alternative—and it makes a lot of sense—is to not encourage students to write haiku in English in the first place.

This leads us to one final issue, which I hinted at in the first paragraph.  College students have great difficulty dealing with traditional English verse, and most of the blame can be placed on their previous schooling.  When children are very small they love nursery rhymes, and they probably repeat some of the same jump-rope songs that their grandparents sang.  And they also love the children’s stories told in verse.  Teachers could use this natural affinity for rhythm and rhyme to build the foundations of an interest in poetry that would open the doors to the past, providing a thread to connect the generations.  (Accentual—syllabic poetry was the fundamental form for English poetry for more than 600 years!)  Instead, they teach students to write haiku and Crapsey cinquains, which simply don’t function well in English.  Where is the sense in that?