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How to Check Syllables for Haiku Poems in English


When students are first introduced to the Japanese poetry form called haiku, they are usually taught a strict three-line structure: the first line has five syllables, the second line has seven and the third line again has five. However, English haiku do not necessarily need to adhere precisely to this structure. Japanese syllables are short and uniform while English syllables are less regular. Forcing the 17-syllable structure in an English haiku can jeopardize the essence of the poem (reference 2). True haiku crystallize a moment into a single breath, whether in exactly 17 syllables or in fewer.

Count the syllables in each line of the haiku. The first and third lines should have no more than five syllables, the second no more than seven.

Read the poem aloud. Listen for syllables that contain diphthongs, such as "cloud," "row" or "mouth." These syllables are longer than the average Japanese syllable and can make a haiku line feel too long or crowded. Consider choosing words with shorter, simpler sounds to replace the long syllables or shortening the poem overall by trimming unnecessary words.

Reread the haiku. The syllables should flow naturally. If any line sounds chewy, complex or wordy, revise it until it seems simple and clean. Remember that this sense of brevity is more important than the syllable count. (Reference 1)

Tips
  • According to the Haiku Society of America, to most closely match the feeling of the 17-syllable Japanese haiku, an English haiku should have about 12 syllables. (Reference 1)
  • The content of a haiku is also more important than the syllable count. Haiku should capture a single moment using specific images and sensations and they often include words that indicate a season. They seldom include figurative language (Reference 2).
  • If you're writing a haiku as an assignment and your teacher wants you to use the traditional 17-syllable form, don't stray from it. Simply count the syllables in each line and make sure there are five in the first, seven in the second and five in the third.
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