The system/form that I use in writing haiku/senryu is adapted from William J. Higginson in The Haiku Handbook
Most writers of haiku/senryu in English use a purely syllabic system of 5-7-5 syllables per line, respectively. While this does reflect the number of onji in the original Japanese form, to equate onji in Japanese to syllables in English is somewhat like calling an apple an orange. The actual vocalic duration is quite a bit different so the actual physical breath used when speaking the poem would also be quite a bit different. Higginson concludes, along with a number of noted translators of traditional Japanese haiku, that around twelve syllables in English comes closest to duplicating the length of seventeen onji in Japanese. To more accurately mimic the vocal feel/duration and “sense of rhythmical incompleteness” of traditional Japanese haiku, an accentual structure (as suggested by R. H. Blythe) with two stressed syllables in the first line, three stressed syllables in the second line and two stressed syllables in the third line, for a total syllable-count of about twelve, is utilized. This creates a prosody more similar to natural English cadences and can even be adapted to an accentual-syllabic structure. If done in an iambic structure, the scansion of the lines would be:
(where – is an unstressed syllable and / is a stressed syllable)
While going with a fully accentual-syllabic structure like this is perhaps taking things too far (and adding 2-3 syllables too many), it does illustrate the way in which this form can be related to traditional English verse, since “the most commonly encountered short structure in traditional English poetry is the ‘heroic couplet’ with two five-beat lines” or two lines of iambic pentameter.
This method yields either:
- one pentameter (or “heroic”) line, broken after the second stress followed by a truncated, two-beat line or
- a truncated, two-beat line followed by one pentameter (or “heroic”) line, broken after the third stress
In either case there is a strong grammatical break after the second or fifth stressed syllable to mimic the Japanese kireji or “cutting word”.
All that being said, I do not always strictly follow the “rules” as to subject, mood, or season–all very important elements in truly traditional haiku.
This method appeals to my analytical mind and actually gives one a little more freedom than strict adherence to a purely syllabic system would–a little more syllabic elbow-room, if you will. Also looking at haiku in an accentual or even accentual-syllabic sense helps to give this form a place and context within the English poetic tradition.