Tag Archives: 5-7-5 syllables

What Marlene Mountain Got Wrong About 5-7-5

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This article by Marlene Mountain has had a big influence on my thinking about how the Japanese haiku form of 5-7-5 morae relates to the possibilities of how much we can import this form into our own language. I have long thought that she has made a very cognizant and clear cut case how a 5-7-5 syllable pattern doesn’t really work in English. Now, however, I’ve changed my mind about this.

Mountain’s argument is compelling because she gives concrete examples of how our speech pattern will always slide into fitting an extra syllable in to reach an even number of them, thus making the three line 17 syllable form an impractical one in English.

This example she gave, I think, is simply brilliant:

five five five five five
seven seven seven sev
five five five five five

When I read this I find myself completely out of breath at the end of the second line, I lose breath so fast that it feels that I have blown out air like a tire that’s run over nail. So, I am left to conclude that a 5-7-5 pattern does have a breathing pothole in it that I only can deal with by falling into an unnatural speech pattern to get through the the whole three lines.

One of the things that free verse has taught us, and something that perhaps metrical verse never could, is that indentation and line spacing does make us read lines differently than when they are normally squared to the left of the page on top of one another. And, of course, the lines of this example are squared and on top of each other, so what happens if I indent the second line?

five five five five five
 seven seven seven sev
five five five five five

For what ever reason spacial relationships has on the way we read the printed page, the second line seems very manageable now, I can glide through the ‘sev’ at the end of line two and slide into the third line with no hesitation, probably because the indentation makes me take a natural pause at the end of the first line. How about changing which line to indent?

five five five five five
seven seven seven sev
 five five five five five
 five five five five five
seven seven seven sev
five five five five five

Even when I indent the other two lines, I am able to navigate them pretty smoothly, so I now believe that 5-7-5 pattern is acceptable if one line is indented.

Another thing about Mountain’s example is that it has no punctuation, and punctuation marks are the street signs that tell us how and when to stop, so what happens when we put in some punctuation into the mix?

five five five five five:
seven seven seven sev
five five five five five

The colon lets me line up the five of the first line with the sev of the second line, which lets me naturally break onto the last line.

five five five five five
seven seven seven sev:
five five five five five.

When it is on the second line, it makes me naturally stop without blowing up, so I can move onto the third line in a smooth manner.

I’m not going to give anymore examples using other punctuation marks because I do think that this shows that with indentation and proper punctuation 5-7-5 becomes a very viable poetic pattern. Mountain’s example only proves it is impossible to write in a three line 5-7-5 syllable form if that you ignore any protocols of poetic variation or normal standard punctuation. If you don’t choose to follow her minimalistic example, I seems that you can do something smoothly in English by adopting it.

So, all the stuff I have written on this blog about 17 syllables not fitting the English language: it’s bunk.

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