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Morning morning glories

Bessie Smith pouring
low notes into
a round sliver mic,
morning morning glories.


The Problems With Keiko’s Rules


One of the problems with trying to understand Keiko Imaoka’s article from the perspective of someone who lives in Japan and can speak and read Japanese is that she never clearly differentiates between what a Japanese person counts when they write a haiku and how English speaking people count syllables.


Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the Japanese language understands that syllables are not what is being counted when a haiku is written by a Japanese person. All they are counting is the number of letters from the Japanese alphabet to fit into a 5-7-5 pattern.


To explain it more, the word for river in Japanese is made from two letters of the alphabet “ka” and “wa” to form the one syllable word “kawa.” When it is used in a haiku the word counts as two because that is the number of alphabet letters it is,  even though it is a one syllable word. Trying to say that it is two syllables is like saying that a one syllable word like “sky” is two syllables (sk/y) because it has two phonetic sounds.


Yet, it is not as if she didn’t know the differences between the two for if we scan both the original Japanese haiku and her literal translations of them, counting out the syllables in both the way we do in English, we find that her translations exactly match English syllables with the originals. Why she didn’t bother to first explain what the differences are is something that one can only guess at.


Here are the translations (with the English syllable count of both original and translation at the end of the translations):

yuku haru-ya tori naki uo-no me-ni namida    – Basho

spring passing – birds cry, tears in the eyes of fish   (11 syllables)


neko-no meshi shoubansuru-ya suzume-no-ko    – Issa

sampling the cat’s food –  a baby sparrow       (9 syllables)


ware-to kite asobe-ya oya-no nai suzume  – Issa

come play with me – you motherless sparrow.  (11 syllables)


uguisu-no naku-ya chiisaki kuchi akete    – Buson

uguisu singing – (uguisu : a nightingale-like bird) with the small mouth open     (9 syllables)


Now that we understand the syllable count of the originals, we must consider Imaoka’s statement how “as to the form, some American poets advocate writing in 3-5-3 syllables or 2-3-2 accented beats.”


Since all the examples above in the original language all are over 7 syllables in length, then we immediately have to dismiss this idea of 2-3-2 form in English as being too brief for haiku, for how can something that is shorter in form than the original convey about the same amount of information as well as the brevity and the fragmented quality found in Japanese haiku”? Even Imaoka herself didn’t attempt this in her translations.


It’s a bit absurd too think that by using less syllables than the Japanese that you could be as brief as they are, rather you would end up being briefer than they are, so we can summarily dismiss the 7 syllable form as simply missing the point of it all.


Being a native English speaker, it is easy to see where Imaoka cropped the language to make the translations fit to the count of the originals. To get a better idea of what a truer syllabic ratio between the two we first must rewrite the translations into normal English speech patterns:

spring is passing – the birds cry and tears in the eyes of fish  (14 syllables)


The second haiku has a translation problem. The “shoubansuru” is a verb that means to “partake at the expense of someone else.” I will use the colloquial phrase for it.

mooching off of the cat’s food –  a baby sparrow    (12 syllables)


Another translation problem with this one as well. “Oya” means “parents” not “mother” and the phrasing has to change because of it.

come and play with me –  you sparrow without any parents.   (13 syllables)


The only reason why she used the Japanese word “uguisu” instead of the English “bush warbler” must be because it would throw off the syllable count.

A bush warbler is singing – its small mouth opens   (12 syllables)


Now that we have the translations into natural English speech patterns we find that all of them have more syllables than then even the 3-5-3 form that Imaoka noted above.


First, this reconfirms about the 2-3-2 form being too short in English, for if you need more syllables just to match the information in the original Japanese, as putting these translations into more natural English show, then surely cutting down the amount of syllables to even less than what the originals have severely hinders the ability to express as much as the Japanese could.


Secondly, although only 4 haiku is hardly a true sample of what the parallels between Japanese and English haiku might be, in the context of the article that Imaoka wrote this is what was presented as being the basis of premise of how “the fact that English carries significantly more information per syllable than Japanese indicate that using the 5-7-5 form does not necessarily provide an analogous condition for writing haiku in English.” From what we can gather from putting her translations into a more native form is that the English language needs more syllables to get  the same amount of information that the Japanese has and that rather than carrying more information per syllable the English language actually carries less.


And if English needs more syllables, then how can cutting down to  3-5-3 syllable count provide an analogy to Japanese haiku?


Another issue with a set syllable count in English is that every haiku must be exactly the same count, which isn’t true in the four Japanese examples above, rather they alternate between two different syllable counts.


With all these problems we find in trying to align the length of English language haiku to what it is in Japanese, we come back to what Keiko Imaoka never mentioned, that the way the two different languages counts syllables out is diametrically opposite. Given this, and the fact that the Japanese use of seasonal words (“kigo”) add unwritten tropes which the writer in English doesn’t have access to, let alone not discussing the way using Chinese characters reads differently than the way the phonetic alphabet of English does, it is better to leave off trying to do the impossible task of trying to align the length of one with the other.


Sound has long been a problem in haiku written in English, and it is the bane of the shortened 2-3-2 and 3-5-3 form. With so little space, the writer doesn’t have the space to build up sound to write poetry. Some might argue that all you need is imagery to create poetry, but they are just kidding themselves because poetry is both sound and imagery. You can’t sacrifice one in favor of the other, which unfortunately the haiku writer has to do when confronted with these two forms. Imagery without sound only leads into intellectualism and pedantry, not emotion and real expression. It is an affected style that ignores the innate power of its own language by uncritically trying to copy the Japanese language. And affected language never creates effective poetry.