What is Haiku?

The translation of traditional Japanese haiku, into English, has been a point of debate ever since haiku first gained popularity in the west. Exact translations, that mind the strict form and meter of the haiku, are nearly impossible to achieve because of the phonetic differences between the languages. The haiku form translates into a 3 line, 17 syllable, 5-7 5 structure in English. However, the Japanese equivalent to syllables, morae, are much shorter and carry less information than that of English syllables. For this reason, a 5-7-5 format is difficult to achieve. Although there is no consensus, most haiku enthusiasts agree that 12 syllables and a 3-5-3 syllable meter achieves the same quality as the Japanese form. These haiku are often referred to as “free form.”

The flexibility of Japanese allows a flow and ease throughout the rigidity of the haiku form. However, English is not as supple and can feel frustratingly confined within the same form. Also, unlike English, Japanese phrases can be disrupted at virtually any place without having adverse effects on meaning. English grammar relies heavily on word order to maintain meaning. Furthermore, English haiku poets are often caught between deciding whether they are willing to use more than 17 syllables in order to achieve a rigid structure to the poem, or stick to the syllable count and renounce the fragmented quality of Japanese haiku. Despite these differences, haiku has managed to flourish in North America as an expressive and enlightened form of poetry.

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