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.


6 thoughts on “Haiku/Senryu

    • I’m afraid I may have made it sound abit too much like I think English haiku needs to be written in accentual-syllabics when I’m really talking more about accentuals, English being what it is. I’ve trying been to play more with accentual rhythms–I think of it as the birth-place of English verse (Anglo-Saxon prosody and all that).
      Thanks for stopping by–gotta get back to “Touch of the Past”–I have a lot of catching up to do.

  1. You are making me want to closely revisit the haiku -it’s a poetic form I have always loved. I love bony, spare verse.

    • Ha– I really like that: “bony, sparse verse”! Being a bit bony myself…
      I especially love Higginson’s take on the form. Highly recommend his book if you can find it. I have been delving more into accentual/strong-stress verse lately–I have an idea I’ve been working on for a number of years involving this method of haiku, pebbles and pools of the mind, a poet relay kind of thing..it will be making an appearance on IP soon…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: