Feet, Not Syllables


Michael, thanks for your comments.


In your article you wrote that poets should understand what syllables are and should know how to count them, but the truth is that English language poets have never counted syllables, rather they they have counted the feet which measure the metric value of stressed and unstressed syllables. This is something different than just counting syllables.


English is a stressed timed language, which means that syllables aren’t uniform in the length of time and some are longer than others, this is different from syllable timed languages where every syllable has the same amount of time with no variation between them. This is why we in English count feet rather than syllables.


The first line of haiku that you quote in your article is an example of why this is:


tired old work horse

stands thirsty and sweating in

summer’s sizzling heat


You state that the word “tired” has been mistakenly counted as two syllables here and it is true that “tired” spoken alone is a one syllable word. But what happens when you read it with the same timing as the other one syllable words that follow it?


/           x        /         x

tired old work horse


By the time we get to the end of the line we are all of out breath and just crash and cannot easily connect the sentence nor the thought to the next line. We are hung out at our wit’s end here.


Even when we change the stress pattern:


x            /        x          /

tired old work horse


The same crash at the end happens. Now let’s scan it like the person who wrote it did:


x    /     x        /          x

tired old work horse


By reading tired as having a stress at the end of the word we have placed it in rhythm that leads smoothly into the next line and allows our thought to follow as well.


It’s easy to get fooled into believing that by just counting syllables we can get the music measure of poetry because so much of our good poetry has been written by using similarly timed syllables, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any written that didn’t use syllables that had different time values. I had never thought of the difference of counting feet until I read your article, so I am guilty of it as well.


Of course, there is a way to write this line to make tired read as one foot and still keep it in a natural speech rhythm:


tir’d old work horse


By using the elision the stress is taken out and the word fits into a natural rhythm. Poets in the past used this a lot as a way of to fit the past tense -ed verbs into rhythmic patterns because it knocked off a syllable from the word. It would do the same to the verb which added an extra foot to the second line of your raccoon haiku.


Of course, just using an article like we are supposed to do would do the trick as well:


a tired old work horse


This takes out the stress as well. I’d guess the reason why we stress the word without the article is because we unconsciously fit it into a workable speech pattern. But that is the kind of affection in language which happens when you try to mimic the writing in Japanese.


Stress is, of course, is something that Japanese language really doesn’t have, but it does use pitch and by looking at pitch we can get some ideas about how Japanese words work as feet (and syllables) in relationship to how we see them per our words.


To quote from the translated version of “The Poetics of Japanese Verse” by Koji Kawamoto (pg. 189-190):

“In modern standard Japanese, words of two morale or more can be divided into two broad categories, namely, those in which the first mora only is pronounced with a high pitch (A-me, SU-ga-ta, O-o-ka-mi, KA-ge-bo-shi) and those which start with a low-pitched first mora followed by one or more high-pitched mora. Of these, the latter group can be further subdivided into those words which end on a high pitch (sa-RA, o-N-NA, to-MO-DA-CHI, o-SHO-O-GA-TSU) and those which return to a low pitch before ending (ko-KO-ro, ka-RA-KA-sa, i-NO-CHI-BI-ro-i, ka-MI-NA-RI-O-ya-ji). The arrangement of high and low pitched morae within individual words thus comes down to a simple dichotomy:  “whether a high pitch will stop one mora, or continue for two or more –not forgetting of course the restriction that a high pitch cannot emerge more than once within a word (i.e., with low-pitched morae spaced in between)”  (quote is from Shibata Takeshi’s “Nihongo no akusento”).


The important part to consider in the above is how “a high pitch will stop at one mora, or continue for two or more” because it explains how a high pitch will eat up feet. A word noted above like “tomodachi” shows how the high pitch will take a 4 syllable (mora) word and reduce it two two pitch feet, and how in a Chinese character compound “onyomi” word like “oshoōgatsu”  it moves  across two characters and reduces six mora into two pitches. It can even move across two compound words like “inochibiro” and two separate words like “kaminari oyaji” to reduce 6 mora into 2 pitches and 7 mora into 4 pitches.


In the previous post I mentioned that “kawa” was one syllable and you corrected me by saying that it was two and you are right, ka-WA makes it two pitches. But if you put it together with something like se-MI you will still get the word ka-WA-SE-MI (kingfisher), which is a good example of how the high pitch dominates the low pitch in terms of feet and changes something that you would think naturally would be 4 pitches into being 2.


There are dictionaries in Japanese that are only for showing how to accent words properly and using the NHK Japanese Pronunciation Accent Dictionary (NHK日本語発音アクセント辞典) I went and checked where all the high pitch and low pitched was for all the words in the haiku that were in Keiko Imaoka’s article.


yuKU HARU YA/  toRI naKI uO NO ME ni NAmida

Has 11 transitions between high and low pitch.


NEko no meSHI shoUBAN suRU YA / suZUME NO ko

Has 10 transitions.


WAre to KIte aSOBE YA /oYA NO NAi suZUME

Has 11 transitions.


uGUisu no naKU YA / CHIISAki kuCHI aKETE

Has 9 transitions.


So once you start to consider these haiku on the terms of how our language is scanned the Japanese lines actually shrinks in feet, which something that is impossible in English, and thus shows the difficulty of trying to consider what the length of haiku should be in English. You can just look at it uncritically and say that Japanese haiku scans less this 17 syllables,  so English should also be cut down to 11 syllables, but to argue that this is acceptable because 17 syllables in English carries more information than the Japanese misses the fact that the Japanese carries much more information per pitch foot than the English does. Which is how it is able to shrink 17 down to 11 or less in the above.


Keiko Imaoka made mention of how “The mnemonic quality of 5-7-5 Japanese phrases is much closer to that of metered rhymes in English” and the theory of how this works is explained clearly in Kawamoto’s book. In 1922 Doi Kichi developed the idea of the “bimoraic foot,” which is “a unit of time which is always –at least in theory– of the same duration, regardless of the number of (vocalized) morae” (pg. 200). This foot “entails one important condition, namely, that a single mora alone may count for a whole beat under certain circumstances.” This is accomplished when this single mora is made to “either lengthen (the additional mora) or place a stop (pause) after it so that it balances with the preceding two.” (pg. 202)


Doi also argued that bimoraic foot showed a stress pattern and that by “clapping or tapping to the beat” one can understand “where such stresses occur, it soon becomes clear that they fall consistently on the first mora of each two-mora unit.” When it comes to the single mora that counts more than one, the reader “accents” it and “then inserts a pause (or lengthens the vowel) to ensure that an appropriate stress falls on the first mora of the next bimoraic group.” (pg. 204) This idea of that Japanese prosody has stress, and has a stress pattern that is accented and unaccented is something that we can readily understand. It is what feet are in English.


Kawamoto (p.g. 283-284) used two of Basho’s haiku to show how this works in them:

fu-ru | i- ke | ya — | — — |

ka-wa | zu — | to- bi- | ko- mu ||  mi- zu | no — | o- to| — — ||


It is pretty easy to pick up the beats in this if you accent the beginning of each mora. The vowel in “ya” in the first line gets lengthened to complete the bimoraic rhythm and the two pauses that follow it give the reader the breath space to accent on the “ka” that follows it. The vowel of “zu” and the vowel for “no” are lengthened to complete the rhythm.


Kawamoto also gives this Basho haiku as an example of when the first 12 mora are connected:

sa-mi- | da-re |o — || a-tsu- | me-te | ha- ya- | shi — ||

Mo-ga- | mi — | ga-wa ||


And then says that the meter above had been extinct for centuries and it was probably never intended to be read this way and gave this as a better example:

sa-mi- | da-re |o — | —  — ||

a-tsu- | me-te | ha- ya- | shi — || Mo-ga- | mi — | ga-wa | — — ||


Both examples have the single mora with the vowel elongated and the the second version has the five mora lines elongated to fit in with the meter and the two five mora sections have the silent bimoraic feet at the end to fill out the measure.


Kawamoto argues that “the individual seven and five mora verses of Japanese prosody each form a discrete metrical unit compared of four bimoriac feet, or in musical parlance, a four-beat quadruple-time bar” (pg. 223). This is why he adds the  silent bimoras at the end of each 5 section to fill out the measure. I’m not sure what the reason for this is, but we, and maybe it is because our own poetry has a lot of line breaks, don’t have the need to fill out the form so roundly.


Which means, then when you look at this model which is the accepted view on what the metrics of Japanese poetry are, then it is easy to see that what is discussed here is that the lines of a haiku will always scan out as being 6-8-6 feet. So, then 20 feet is what haiku counts out to in the way we scan our own poetry (discounting the two bimoras which are used to fill out the two 5 lines.)


It’s unfortunate that Imaoka never went into how 5-7-5 in Japanese related to English metrics, rather instead she inferred that if English haiku was written in something that approximated the length of the “mnemonic quality of 5-7-5 Japanese phrases” it meant that we were “concerning ourselves too much with the outward form of haiku” and thus “can lose sight of its essence.” Its a little hard to understand how, given how our language and our poetry relies on sound as a means to create added meaning, giving up on the mnemonic qualities would make English language haiku the poetic equal of Japanese haiku.


One gets the sense the Imaoka was the one who was more interested in form over language. If we look at this example she gave us we find this to be true:


across the arroyo

deep scars

of a joy ride


could be rewritten to approximate the 3-5-3 form as


across the

arroyo, deep scars

of a joy ride


without affecting the meaning. As it is, doing so sacrifices too much in the natural flow of words and interferes with the image.


She argues that the second version has an unnatural flow to it  and that this blurs the image, when in fact the opposite is true. The first line in the first version is unnatural, and because it isn’t in a natural speech pattern we run out of breath at the end of the line and our mind just flattens out. This unnatural breath pauses damages the images in the haiku because we spend time and energy just to find the proper linguistic syntax to fit it into, and by doing so are made unable to focus on the imagery. However, by rearranging the lines and inserting a comma, the second version is now into a natural speech rhythm and we are able to see the images a lot brighter and clearer because of it.


Imaoka’s statement that the “the type of unnatural line breaks seen in the latter is a problem associated with the 3-5-3 (or other short) form, whereas the 5-7-5 form is long enough to accommodate natural line breaks dictated by the English grammar,  due to a greater degree of freedom provided by the extra syllables,” is only an argument about form because it missed the point about how the English language works and how unnatural the whole first line of “across the arroyo” is in the first place. Besides adding the proper punctuation in, if we use proper grammar and and rearranging the imagery to “there are deep scars across…..” etc. the writer is able to use language to reinforce and add unstated emotional content into this haiku.


Which returns us to my point about poetry being more than just imagery. Poetry is a mix of sound and images to produce the emotional energy that the poet feels towards what they are writing about. The reason why English language haiku is such a dead dry language is because people have conned themselves into believing that all you have to do is to create poetry is to write out imagery and this was OK because that is what the Japanese did in their haiku in for centuries. Of course, these ideas about Japanese haiku were completely wrong and are now cached in the dust bin of history. This imagery only theory about haiku lingers on, but people are only fooling themselves because in the end all haiku written in English will be judged on the what the standards of English language poetry are and those standards will always insist that both sight and sound are essential for good writing.


I am not advocating a strict mandate that states that all English language haiku must be 20 feet in length, but I do advocate that haiku has enough space so one can write in a natural voice within a haiku. I find that Imaoka’s ideas about the length of haiku to be based on uncritical thinking and are ideas which deaden of the use of language in haiku. Instead of continuing to come up with schemes that try to emulate Japanese haiku, it is high well past the time that writers in English start to write within the poetic traditions of their own language.


I know that this sticks in the craw if a lot of people in haiku because they have been deceiving themselves for such a  long about how they are “so different” from “mainstream poetry.” The truth is that haiku writers aren’t different and that they have only made themselves worse poets by thinking that they are. It’s time to realize this.


8 thoughts on “Feet, Not Syllables”

  1. James, some more corrections to offer you:

    1. You say “English language poets have never counted syllables, rather they have counted the feet which measure the metric value of stressed and unstressed syllables.” This is astonishingly incorrect. Iambic pentameter is nothing short of being an identification of meter AND syllables. “Pentameter” means there are five stresses in the line, and “iambic” means that the stresses fall in a two-syllable grouping with the stress on the second of two syllables. So of COURSE English-language poets (Shakespeare and thousands more) are counting syllables if they are writing iambic. Any other standard meter is a combination of particular stress patterns matched with a syllabic count. This is true of every single metered poem ever written. It’s hard to take the rest of your essay seriously when it begins with such bang of an error.

    2. You say “English is a stressed timed language, which means that syllables aren’t uniform in the length of time and some are longer than others.” But I never said it wasn’t. But then you say “This is why we in English count feet rather than syllables.” But again, your premise is false, that English-language poets have never counted syllables, so no, it isn’t at all true that we count feet RATHER than syllables. We count both—that’s the very definition of an established meter such as iambic pentameter.

    3. You then begin talking about feet and stresses, but that’s never been something at issue. In counting syllables for a 5-7-5 haiku, no one has ever counted feet and stresses when they had meant to count syllables, or vice versa. So everything that follows in your argument is going off on a tangent that isn’t even relevant to the question of what a SYLLABLE is, let alone whether it’s relevant to count them for haiku in English. My point (and Keiko Imaoka’s point in her essay) is that many people don’t understand what a syllable is, and that even some native English speakers miscount haiku when trying to write 5-7-5-syllable haiku. You demonstrated this yourself in your previous posting by miscounting numerous syllables, and have admitted your miscounting. In any case, the question of feet or stressed syllables is irrelevant to the points we were making—just as irrelevant as what colour the font is when you read these essays online.

    4. As for “tired old work horse,” you begin by saying it has two stressed syllables and two unstressed syllables. I consider that a misreading. It has four stressed syllables. And it’s that heavy string of four stresses that make it a deliberately difficult sentence to say. If nothing else, I’ll give the poem credit for creating a TIRING rhythm in that first line that matches what it’s talking about (“The sound must seem an echo to the sense,” as Pope said). But that tiring rhythm is based on FOUR stressed, single-syllable words. If it really had just two stressed syllables, and two unstressed syllables, such as the phrase “pretty pony,” it wouldn’t be nearly so tiring to say. So not only have you misunderstood syllables (in your previous posting about Keiko Imaoka’s essay), here you misunderstand stresses too.

    5. Presenting the word “tired” as “tir’d” does NOTHING to make it one foot instead of something else. It is one syllable either way. The use of elision doesn’t take the stress out of the word either.

    6. When you say “Poets in the past used this [treatments such as ‘tir’d’] a lot as a way of to fit the past tense -ed verbs into rhythmic patterns because it knocked off a syllable from the word,” you misunderstand WHEN they did it. They did it with words that would otherwise be one extra syllable if they did not do it. For example, the word “acted” is two syllables. The word “stacked” is ONE syllable, and should not be misunderstood as having two (a point I make in my essay). When poets of old used elision, they did it with words such as “acted,” to reduce the number of perceived syllables, but generally did not do it with words that were already one syllable, such as “stacked.” Bear in mind, too, that some words were pronounced differently in the past, and might have been treated with elision then when they wouldn’t need it now.

    7. You say adding an article in front of “tired” “takes out the stress.” Incorrect. In the phrase “a tired old work horse,” the word “tired” is still stressed, but is simply preceded by an unstressed word.

    8. You go on to talk about stress in English, but again, that was not even the subject of my essay on syllables. I am also completely aware that most (if not all) of Japanese is unstressed, but that was never a bone of contention. Furthermore, the effect of pitch on feet is irrelevant to haiku in Japanese, where they are counting mora, a process that pays NO ATTENTION to pitch or stress. Word may very well have their number of feet affected by pitch or stress (in either Japanese or English), but that is irrelevant to the MORA that are counted in Japanese haiku.

    9. You say “A word . . . like ‘tomodachi’ shows how the high pitch will take a 4 syllable (mora) word and reduce it to two pitch feet.” False logic here. The pitch has nothing to do with the count of mora. It’s four mora (and also happens to be four syllables) REGARDLESS of how different parts of the word might be pitched (or stressed, if that were relevant).

    10. You say “I mentioned that ‘kawa’ was one syllable and you corrected me by saying that it was two and you are right, ka-WA makes it two pitches.” Be careful here. Do you mean DIFFERENT pitches? You seem to imply that, and I’m not sure that’s correct. The word has two mora, and two syllables. But it isn’t necessarily two PITCHES, if you mean different pitches. I don’t know Japanese enough to be certain, but my understanding is that the word would be said with the same pitch (and the same stress) for BOTH of its two mora/syllables. The fact that a word has two syllables doesn’t necessarily mean two (meaning different) pitches.

    11. You then proceed to review Keiko Imaoka’s example poems for pitches. But again, that’s irrelevant to the argument she was making (and that I make), that people need to understand how to count SYLLABLES correctly if they wish to write 5-7-5 haiku in English. You then say that the poems “shrink” in the number of feet. But again, that is irrelevant to the counting of syllables. You might also start counting the number of letters in each haiku, but that is equally irrelevant.

    12. You say, “Japanese carries much more information per pitch foot than the English does.” I would disagree. In fact, the opposite is true, just as it was when we were talking about syllables before (where I had to correct your misunderstanding of Imaoka’s essay). Just look at the word “hototogisu” (five syllables) as an immediate example. The equivalent word in English is “cuckoo,” with three syllables left over. I’m not sure how many “pitch feet” you’d apply to “hototogisu,” but if “hoto” is one “pitch foot,” it’s the same as the single “pitch foot” of “cuckoo.” So Japanese hard carries MORE information. In fact, it carries less, because while “cuckoo” is a complete word, “hoto” (in the context of “hototogisu”) is not—it’s essentially MEANINGLESS by itself (unless an entirely different word might be meant. Furthermore, because Japanese is an unstressed language, I think it’s a mistake to equate pitch with stress, which you seem to be doing.

    13. The bimoraic theory that Kawamoto discusses does not change how MORA are counted in Japanese haiku, not does it have any effect on how syllables are counted in English, which was the whole point.

    14. You say “the lines of a [Japanese] haiku will always scan out as being 6-8-6 feet.” Several issues here. First, you’re ignoring haiku by Basho and Buson and countless others that had one or two extra or fewer syllables, so “always” is incorrect, just on the face of it. Second, you’re contradicting yourself. If haiku employs a bimoraic foot, then it would be 3-4-3 feet, not 6-8-6. So no, haiku (in Japanese) does not count out to twenty “feet.” Third, if you then want to make the case that English-language haiku should have the same number of “feet,” it would be ten, if anything, not twenty. It’s a plausible idea to approach haiku in English in terms of feet, but that’s already been suggested decades ago by those who proposed a 2-3-2 BEAT rhythm. This is old news. It was offered because it was clear that 5-7-5 syllables in English was clearly not the same thing as 5-7-5 “on” (or mora) counted in Japanese haiku. But a length in English of ten beats is still way too long compared to Japanese. Just as 5-7-5 syllables in English is a violation of the Japanese form rather than a preservation of it, so too would a ten BEAT form in English be a violation of Japanese form. Remember, too, that English has many different beat patterns, whereas Japanese does not. I go back to the fact that Japanese is NOT a stressed language, and that it’s dangerous to confuse pitch with stress.

    15. You say that changing Keiko Imaoka’s “across the arroyo / deep scars / of a joy ride” to “across the / arroyo, deep scars / of a joy ride” doesn’t change the meaning. I would disagree. Putting an article at the end of the line creates an awkwardness that makes the poem stumble, thus readers will wonder about the form and start MISSING the meaning. As you yourself say, “doing so sacrifices too much in the natural flow of words and interferes with the image,” so if it interferes with the image, it also interferes with meaning. Her original shows that she was very careful about the form as she had it, and didn’t artificially go for the “short / long / short” construction that you created. She wanted the form to be natural rather than artificial, and that was because she wanted the meaning of the language to be unhindered (without jewels on the finger that we would see instead of the moon, if haiku is like a finger pointing to the moon). Thus it’s utterly incorrect when you say “One gets the sense the Imaoka was the one who was more interested in form over language.” The OPPOSITE is true.

    15. Then you start saying even more incredulous things. You say “She argues that the second version [ending the first line with ‘the’] has an unnatural flow to it and that this blurs the image, when in fact the opposite is true.” You then say “The first line in the first version is unnatural, and because it isn’t in a natural speech pattern we run out of breath.” It IS a natural speech pattern, and that’s why she breaks the line after “arroyo.” And if we “run out of breath” after “arroyo,” that’s BECAUSE it’s a natural speech pattern, whereas to stop at “the” CREATES an unnatural speech pattern because we still have breath left over to say all of “across the arroyo.” You then say “This unnatural breath pauses damages the images in the haiku,” but it’s the second version that is unnatural, not what Imaoka wrote. I would consider “across the / arroyo, deep scars / of a joy ride” to be a poor version because of a very BAD line break. How anyone could consider it better strikes me as staggeringly naïve. I would be certain that the great majority of editors, and probably 100 percent of them, would consider “across the arroyo / deep scars / of a joy ride” to be superior. To me this is a no-brainer.

    17. You say “English language haiku is such a dead dry language is because people have conned themselves into believing that all you have to do is to create poetry is to write out imagery.” I should have mentioned this earlier when the error first appeared, but if you want to gain credibility for your discussion of language, please hyphenate compound modifiers, as in “English-language haiku.” But I digress, with a roll of my eyes. More important, haiku in English is hardly dead and dry, and what on earth do you base that on? ALL of the leading haiku poets writing in English present more than just images. They use allusions, they pay attention to sound and rhythm, they use wordplay (serious and humourous). They use all manner of creativity and inventiveness, just as much as the Japanese do, while also paying attention to season words and juxtapositional structure, and the control of objectivity and subjectivity. It’s hardly just image, and to claim as much for English-language haiku is to severely misunderstand it, and to underestimate it. I agree with you that it would be wrong to think of haiku purely in terms of imagery, but you seem to dismiss haiku in English as if that’s all it does. Hardly so.

    18. You conclude by saying “Instead of continuing to come up with schemes that try to emulate Japanese haiku, it is high well past the time that writers in English start to write within the poetic traditions of their own language.” But we are ALREADY DOING THAT, and that, in fact, was the POINT of Imaoka’s essay. She was making the case for why 5-7-5 was inapplicable in English, to underscore the reasons WHY leading haiku poets have ignored that form, and have ignored it for decades. Leading poets who write haiku in English ARE writing haiku within the poetic traditions of English, and have LONG AGO left behind the old news of trying to emulate the form of Japanese haiku. A simple example is that we write in three lines rather than the one line used in Japanese. Something looks more like poetry in three lines rather than one. Although I’m fine with one-line haiku, I understand why the three-line form has taken root in English. That’s because we are writing haiku within the poetic traditions of our own language.

    Basically, James, much of your post barks up the wrong tree. And we already do write haiku as more than just image, in our own English-language prosody, and have been doing so for decades.


    1. Michael,

      Your statement that “Iambic pentameter is nothing short of being an identification of meter AND syllable” runs into the problem that poets often used more than ten syllables when writing it.

      This is the link to the Wikipedia entry on iambic pentameter:


      It talks about how Shakespeare’s famous “To be or not to be” line has 13 syllables because it has “the feminine ending” of “an unstressed syllable” that occurs on the last word of the line (question) which is a two syllable word. Which means that although “question” is a two syllable word it sounds as only a single syllable because we don’t voice it all the way through when we read it, thus making it fit the foot even though there is an extra syllable.

      Needless to say, this means that Shakespeare wasn’t filing out a syllable count, rather he was filling out the unstressed and stressed rhythmic pattern of the foot and would use as many syllables as needed to get the job done. He was counting the feet and not the syllables.

      Using as many syllables as needed for the job is plainly evident in the example the wiki entry gives from Alexander Pope where “he actually implies 14 syllables in the place of 10.”

      This is what our time stressed language gives us, the ability to actually compress longer bits of language in rhythm and time to match shorter pieces around it. And this is why many people argue that this idea that we are writing iambic pentameter is a fallacy, because our poets have always broken the syllable count and changed the stress pattern around.

      I’ll also note that Pope took the stress out of two words (over and the) by using an elision.

      I know that you are fond believing that not many people understand what syllables are and how they work and now you have to put Shakespeare and Pope on your list as well.

      Thank god that they didn’t.


  2. James, the link to iambic pentameter you just posted talks about it being a marriage of meter AND syllables. That’s the whole point. Yes, occasional lines of Shakespeare have an extra syllable, or might be shorter. But that’s the point, at least in their work — they are exceptions to a standard count. And a count of what? Syllables! And “question” is ALWAYS going to be two syllables, and always counted as such, just as the word “over” is ALWAYS two syllables, unless you change the spelling and force the reader to pronounce it as “o’er,” as Pope did. The word “question” doesn’t “sound” like one syllable at all. Rather, the line is just adding an EXTRA syllable (unaccented in this case, but still an extra syllable), and Shakespeare knew this. Of course Shakespeare counted syllables — and beats. That’s the whole point of iambic pentameter. And he occasionally varied the count for emphasis and meaning, and perhaps to avoid monotony. Pope does the same thing in the lines you quote, which are ABOUT prosody, so he’s demonstrating his points (the slow and fast lines) by varying the meter and syllable count. But he was consciously varying the SYLLABLES as well as the beats. And where it says Pope implies two extra syllables, he actually consciously REMOVES them by saying “o’er” and “th’unbending”. But he does that precisely BECAUSE he is counting syllables in addition to feet. Shakespeare and Pope completely understood syllables — but it seems to me that you are continuing to misunderstand what they did with them.


    1. Michael,

      I glad that you admit that extra syllables are used in metered verse. I will just reiterate that you can’t say that poets were counting syllables when they weren’t. And I’ll add its a lot easier to write this kind of poetry when you understand that they were thinking in terms of feet. (Oh, where is Paul Conneally now!)

      Yes, the word “question“ is always two syllables in the dictionary. But, in reality, because our language is time stressed, that can change. Just change the phrasing around in Shakespeare’s famous line and it is easy to see that the way we pronounce the word is different:

      That is the question, to be or not to be

      To be or not to be, that is the question

      With the word in middle of the line we pronounce the second syllable, with the word at the end of the line the second syllable falls silent and we don’t pronounce it. This is what I meant when I said it became a single syllable. This is something we do a lot in our daily speech.

      I don’t expect you to understand this, mainly because, although you like to thump your own chest and say that other writers don’t understand syllables, what you’ve written about the tired old horse haiku in your article I find a bit odd.

      The first thing with that haiku is the authorial intent. Since we know the person who wrote it was counting 17 syllables, and since tired is the only word that can be naturally broken into two syllables in the first line, then it is obvious that the writer was adding a stress into this word. I know that the dictionary says that tired is only one syllable, but the truth is that this word, since it carries a strong emotion with it, gets pronounced as a two syllable word a lot. (i.e. I am getting tirED of this discussion). I know that you consider this a faux pax by the writer, but I can’t imagine anyone else in the world who does.

      As for your reading of the lines as being a “heavy string of four stressed syllables that make it a deliberately difficult sentence to say,” I can only conclude that you think that poetry should have absolutely no syntax.

      tired old work horse
      stands thirsty and sweating in
      summer’s sizzling heat

      Poor Pope started spinning in his grave when you quoted him. Sure, anyone can get behind a podium and give a live reading of the first line as four stressed beats and then smooth it over by using dramatic pauses to catch one’s breath after it, but the trick of it in Pope’s poetry is the ability to phrase lines smoothly together without having these huge breathing problems in them. If you read the opening line as four stressed syllables you are able to work yourself onto “stands” in the next line, but you are dead out of breath by then and sucking air and there is absolutely no syntactical integrity with the images presented after.

      If you are going to read this as four strong syllables, the only way you can get Pope’s “the sound echoing the sense,” is by changing the verb (stands). If you go with “clops,” then you get both the sound echoing the action and still have enough breath to complete the sentence. If go with “stops,” then you get the sense of feeling the exhaustion that the horse is feeling, and again still have the breath to complete the thought.

      Of course, this idea that these lines are four heavy stresses is yours. The intent of the writer is clear, by stressing “tired” they were using adding sound into this word to present the emotional state they saw in the horse. Not as eloquent as Pope, but it is sound being use to show sense as well.

      I’m also glad that you admitted that Pope was using an elision to take out syllables. That exactly what I when I wrote about “tir’d”, but since I was talking about it in the context of being a matter about syntax, which seemingly is unimportant to you, then I’m not surprised that you didn’t get what I meant by the example of it.

      I’m not going to argue in the comments section anymore. If you want to continue the discussion then you’ll have to post something on the haikai talk list.

      I’ll leave with this, which was interesting to write:

      It was, as Pound said, the metronome knock
      that pushed the poet’s quill in sublime thought
      and genius wrote bold and filled the blank page,
      Adriatic fame the Atlantic claimed;
      Greek muses the English assimilated
      and golden laurels came to its island.
      How, from antiquity, did this transmit?
      Why, by foot the ancient voices were heard,
      and so sweet their meters upon the tongue fell,
      ‘tho imperfect due to our breath difference,
      that poesy sung in the mists of time
      rang into people of far distant lands;
      our poets now forsake these antique rhythms
      but nothing can hush their eternal sounds
      and on Parnassus’ slope the lyre does bend
      notes to melodies spoken by Englishmen.


      1. Setting aside the arguments and for the record the way that I and most of those around me here pronounce ‘tired’ is ‘tie – erd’ – just saying

        Paul Conneally 🙂


  3. Yes, Paul, you can pronounce “tired” as “tie-urd,” but linguists will tell you that it still counts as ONE syllable. Look it up in any dictionary. See also http://www.howmanysyllables.com/words/tired. You won’t see a raised dot in the word to indicate two syllables. It counts as just one. The point here is that BECAUSE of this very basic misunderstanding of what a syllable even is in English, counting syllables in haiku is just not relevant or necessary. English is not a syllabic language like Japanese.


    1. Michael, English isn’t a syllabic language like classical Greek, which is a Mora based language like Japanese, but that never stopped anyone from counting them the way the Greeks did. The only question I have is if the odd number of 17 really fits naturally into an English speech pattern. And, for now, I do think that it does if you indent one of the lines. Paul, unfortunately, you can never set aside an argument with some people.


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