Myths, misunderstanding, and lesser known facts about English Haikai

Japanese poetry has been adopted by the English poetic world for generations, but there’s still a lot of misunderstandings about its various terms and forms. I’ve studied these poetics forms for many years, and it irks me that so many misunderstandings persist. I can only imagine how someone with a more immersed background in the Japanese poetic tradition must feel.

This post is my attempt to discuss some myths, misunderstanding, and lesser known facts about the Japanese poetic forms of haiku, senryu, renku, tanka, and haibun and their English counterparts. Collectively, they can be referred to as Haikai (more on that in #1 below). I may add more, but for now I’ll start with eight.


1. Haikai is both a collective term for various forms of Japanese poetry and a form itself. The term haikai originally referred to a Japanese poetic form known as haikai no renga, which developed as a response to the Japanese collaborative verse form of renga. The earliest creators of haikai no renga felt that renga had become too serious and rigid. The creation of haikai no renga, in a sense, was a renaissance in Japanese poetry. Haikai no renga eventually transformed into what we now know as renku (because what is art if it’s not constantly evolving), while the earlier term of haikai became a catchall for various Japanese poetic forms like haiku, senryu, renku, tanka, and haibun.

2. English language haiku is not supposed to be 3 lines of 5-7-5 syllables. This is arguably the most pervasive myth that just can’t seem to be debunked as pervasively. In Japanese, haiku are traditionally written in three vertical lines, consisting of 17 Japanese on, in a 5-7-5 pattern. A Japanese on is a sound, not a syllable, however. English writers of haiku, and even many teachers, preach that a haiku must be three lines with 17 syllables in the same 5-7-5 pattern. This is patently untrue, and is kind of a big deal. Seventeen on is the approximate equivalent of 12 English syllables. Writing a haiku with 17 syllables, therefore, is cheating. The beauty of haiku is saying much in few words. Shoot for twelve or fewer syllables if you want to stay true to the spirit of haiku.

3. Haiku is not just a short poem about nature. Haiku is really about the human condition. Writers of haiku use nature to create an image that says something about human behaviour or life as we know it. This is why the aforementioned issue of length (see #2) matters, because it’s pretty easy to paint a pretty picture in just a few words, but not so easy to connect that scene to the human condition without adding to the length. By the way, haiku also doesn’t use metaphors or similes (in the vein of “___ is ___” or “___ is like ___” respectively), adding to the challenge.

4. Punctuation, line breaks, and spacing are a very important part of haikai. In English poetry, we place a lot of emphasis on line breaks and white space, but we don’t always put as much emphasis on punctuation. Often, we simply don’t include any punctuation at all. In Japanese poetry, the concept of kiregi, or a “cutting word”, is very important. The Haiku Society of America describes the kiregi as “spoken punctuation”, and creates a pause meant to emphasize a certain part of the poem. Kiregi is often represented by punctuation, but sometimes through a well-placed line break or white space.

5. Senryu is not pronounced SEN-REE-OO. I didn’t even know this until very recently, but the R isn’t really an R in Japanese. It actually sounds like SEN-DOO. People might look at you funny if you pronounce it this way, but you’re an artist, so what do you care?

6. With haikai, make rhythm a priority. Have you every wondered why Japanese haiku are in a 5-7-5 format? As it turns out, the alternation of short to long and back again is important in all forms. Senryu also follows the 5-7-5 format in Japanese forms. Even in longer collaborative forms like renku, subsequent stanzas usually alternate between three lines and two lines to maintain the short-then-long rhythmic style. This is not about meter the way that sonnet stanzas alternate lengths in a rigid format. Haikai is about ebb and flow more than staccato rhythm. Remember, the Japanese on is not a syllable, but a sound. Syllabic meter doesn’t fit well with haikai.

7. Tanka does not have to be 31 syllables. Tanka is one of the most ancient forms of Japanese poetry (originally called waka). It is made up of five lines, the first three being in the format of a haiku and the last two being of approximately the same length as the third (e.g. 5-7-5-7-7). Tanka is the equivalent of two stanzas of renku. Contrary to popular belief, tanka does not need to be 31 syllables. This is for the same reason that haiku does not need to be 17 syllables. In Japanese, the form is 5-7-5-7-7 on, but as previously mentioned, one on does not necessarily equal one syllable. So, tanka should be no more than 31 syllables, not 31 syllables exactly.

8. Tanka in its truest form makes use of a pivot line. Tanka is essentially a standalone poem that is the equivalent of the first two stanzas of the longer renku. With renku, the form is typically collaborative, with another writer taking over to write the second stanza, picking up where the first writer left off. In keeping with this sentiment, tanka uses a pivot line to create a turn between the third and fourth lines. The third line usually serves as the pivot line, creating a connection point between the first two lines and the last two lines, which otherwise don’t often connect. The pivot line, therefore, creates a connection between two otherwise unrelated ideas.

That’s it for now! I hope to add on to this article in time. Over the next several weeks, I also plan to publish critical analyses of some of my favourite haikai. I know a lot of you are visual learners, so I’m hoping these infographic-style analyses will help you better understand the beautiful and varied forms of haikai.

The Other Side of the Window

Published by the Silverleaf Writers Guild in their Spring 2018 newsletter

Martha Spence, affectionately known as The Moccasin Lady by us Timmins folk, passed away on February 9, 2018 at the age of 72. Upon hearing of her passing, I decided to dig up this poem and polish it for publication. I wrote the original version nearly a decade ago as part of National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo). The poem is not about Martha, but it was inspired by her.

RIP Martha. You were a valuable and integral part of Timmins’ cultural landscape.

The Other Side of the Window

Beside a snow-crusted window
on a blustery night
the click-clack of my keyboard
is drowned by a barking dog

 Out the window I expect to see
its owner
attempting to appease its ails
but I’m saddened to see
an old dog
tied to a post
at the bar across the street

In and out,
drunken patrons pass it by

Each time, its eyes widen
rump rises
tail wags in anticipation
spraying snow left then right

Each time, it sits back down
eyes narrow
ears droop
and it waits
continuing to call out for someone

I imagine it in a warmer climate
next to a muddied drinking hole
the focus of an ad campaign
with a celebrity voiceover
like a starving, neglected child

In my mind, I cross the street
untie the leash
and let it run free
or follow me home

I would weep if not for the angry knot forming in my stomach

Then the door opens
and the dog ceases its refrain

I expect
a stumbling drunk
to fiddle incoherently with the leash
until its unappreciated hero
leads him home

Instead I see a lady
as old and drooping as her dog
reach out with a wrinkled hand
and gingerly cup its snout in one hand
as the other arthritically releases the rope

I recognize this woman instantly

She is the Bead Lady
so named by townsfolk for her trinkets and bobbles
handcrafted and perfect
that she steadfastly sells all over town

This is what she had been doing
I now know
selling her treasures to drunken husbands
with obvious money to burn
and likely apologies to be made
as her own companion waits patiently for her return

And here I sit
in the comfortable warmth of my side of the window

My anger subsides
then I weep