A Journal for Linking Poets  


Calling All Haiku Kate Marianchild

Natural Rhythm
Jim Wilson


Calling All Haiku!
Sixth annual ukiaHaiku festival
invites submissions

by Kate Marianchild

         Once upon a time there was a lovely little town known as Ukiah. The town’s name came from the Pomo word “Yokayo,” meaning “deep valley.” The small town dozed and twitched for one hundred years in its valley beside the Russian River, sprouting pears and walnuts, grapes and babies. Artists and poets trickled into the community, attracted by the green-gold hills, the big sky, and the friendly people.
         In time a town government came into being, complete with city council. The good officers of the city council performed the usual tasks, including sponsoring community fairs, fireworks, and concerts. The citizens were mostly happy and didn’t expect much more of their elected officials.
         Then one day a new idea popped up – an idea that had never before been proposed to any town government anywhere in North America…or even the western hemisphere, for that matter. The city mothers and fathers murmured among themselves, scratched their collective head, and finally, being a daring bunch, agreed to the idea. They decided to sponsor a…guess what? Astrology Fair? (Nope)... UFO Expo? (Noooo)... Give up?...A Haiku Festival! Why? Because “Ukiah” backward spells “Haiku,” silly!
         “Haiku?” you might ask. “What’s that?”
         Ahhh, haiku…I’m glad you asked. Haiku is a wondrous creation of the Japanese – a form of poetry that, when you try to write it, infuses everything in your life, including you, with an inner glow. Dew will glisten more brilliantly, bees will hum more meaningfully, and routine chores will be more fun. Sound like new love? Well, it is, kind of. When you look at the world with “haiku eyes” you fall in love with it all over again, just like when you were a child. It doesn’t matter how your poems turn out – the magic is in the way you see things.
         So, again, what is, or are, haiku? (The word can be singular or plural). Haiku are simple, 3-line poems. They don’t use rhyme, alliteration, or punctuation, and they don’t philosophize or “psychologize.” They offer a poetic glimpse of a scene or a situation – a snapshot created with words.


hovering above
silver but always changing
snow piles in the sky
       by Vincent K. Brock of Ukiah


sitting all alone
on a sidewalk full of sun
a small grey pebble
       by Brianna Mack of Ukiah

Haiku can use a “traditional” 5-7-5 pattern of syllables, such as the haiku above, in which the first line has 5 syllables, the second 7, and the third 5; or they can be written in the “contemporary” form, with fewer syllables. Here are some contemporary haiku:


late fall fig tree
naked except for
one big leaf

      by Kayla Wildman of Potter Valley

just past mauve –
paddling hard
for a dark shore

       by Jim Kacian of Virginia

         Either way works, and both forms will be accepted in most categories of the ukiaHaiku festival’s poetry contest this year, except in those categories that specify “contemporary” or “traditional.” (For more information on traditional vs. contemporary haiku, go to and click on “Submission Guidelines” at the bottom of the home page).
         The ukiaHaiku festival was born in the year 2003, and like all infants, it has grown. Now in its sixth year, the festival is thriving. Local poets go to classrooms and instruct students in writing haiku. More than one thousand poems pour in each year from children and adults living in Ukiah and distant places like South Dakota and Romania. Poetry submissions are judged by the Ukiah Poet Laureate Committee and well-known haiku poet Jane Reichhold, who judges the Adult Contemporary Haiku category. An awards ceremony is held at which the winning poets read their poems, and a book of the winning poems is published. Best of all? People who never wrote poems before are turning their observations of the world into poetry.
         You are invited, encouraged, and cajoled to submit entries to the ukiaHaiku festival. All categories are free of charge except “Adult Contemporary Haiku,” which costs $5 for up to three poems. Modest prizes are offered, along with publication in the book and the opportunity to read your winning haiku at the festival. The submission deadline for the 2008 ukiaHaiku festival contest is March 15, 2008.
         Submission forms can be downloaded from or picked up at libraries around the county, as well as the Mendocino County Bookmobile and Grace Hudson Museum. Submissions can also be emailed to (For the Adult Contemporary category a check for $5 will have to be mailed – see website). This year’s awards ceremony, complete with music and award-winning poetry, will be held on Sunday, April 27 from 2-4 p.m. at the Ukiah Conference Center.

Jim Wilson

            There is an idea about Japanese poetry in English that has been persistent for at least a century and is fairly widespread.  It is the idea that lines of five and seven syllables, though standard in Japanese, are in some sense “unnatural” for the English language. Conclusions are drawn from this view, usually along the lines that English language poets should not attempt to mimic the 5-7-5-7-7 structure of Tanka, or the 5-7-5 structure of Haiku, because to do so would be, again, “unnatural” for the English language.
            The earliest expression of this view that I have found is by William Porter in his translation of the Hyaku-nin-isshiu, which he titled A Hundred Verses from Old Japan. It dates from 1909. In the Introduction, Porter writes, “The verses in this Collection are all what are called Tanka, . . . A tanka verse has five lines and thirty-one syllables, arranged thus: 5-7-5-7-7; as this is an unusual meter in our ears, I have adopted for the translation a five-lined verse of 8-6-8-6-6 meter, with the second, fourth, and fifth lines rhyming, in the hope of retaining at least some resemblance to the original form, while making the sound more familiar to English readers.”1
            A contemporary example of this view is found in The Haiku Apprentice by Abigail Friedman.  She writes, “When I left Japan, my desire to write haiku followed me. The problem I faced back in America, however, was that I had no idea which of the haiku rules I had learned in Japan applied to English-language haiku.  Should I be writing seventeen-syllable, ‘five-seven-five’ haiku, as is common in Japan?  I knew that this rhythm was natural in Japanese, but that it was much less natural in English.”2

I have also read a review at of a translation of the Kokinshu, the one by Laurel Rasplica Rodd, where the reviewer criticizes the translators for sticking with a 5-7-5-7-7 format because such syllabification isn’t natural to English.  One C. H. Haywood, a student of Japanese literature studying in Japan, writes, “The 5-7-5-7-7 waka format is a poor choice for the English poet; . . . and the English language is not meant, as the Japanese language is, to be able to fit into 5-7-5 diction.” 
            So this view has a long history, going back to at least 1909, and seems to have become a kind of understood wisdom among English speakers interested in Japanese poetic forms.  Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that lines of 5 and 7 syllables are common in English and that the use of a 5 and/or 7 syllable line(s) is not an obstacle to poetic expression or understanding in English.
            Consider the following well known children’s song:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
            How I wonder what you are.

Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

All four lines are seven syllables (I read “diamond” as “dy-mond”).
Consider this second well known children’s song:

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily,
Merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

Lines 1, 2 and 5 are each five syllables.

Consider the following commonly heard sentences:

Johnny, come in now.
It’s vacation time.
Thank God it’s Friday.
What grade did you get?
Stop bothering me.

All of these are five syllables. 

Now consider the next group of sentences:

What have you got to offer?
I’ve got to go to the store.
My car is a gas guzzler.
How about some more coffee?
Did you see it on the news?

All of these are seven syllables.
            What I am pointing to in all of these examples, the children’s songs and the everyday utterances, is that verbal expression of five and seven syllables in English is widespread, common, and a rich resource for poetic expression.  In other words, five and seven syllables verbal expression is not unnatural in English, and it is not stressful. It is part of the complex fabric of the English language; as much so as 10 syllables per line found in so much of our poetry.

            Moving to a more formal poetic context, consider Robert Frost’s Neither Out Far Nor In Deep:

            The people along the sand
            All turn and look one way.
            They turn their back on the land.
            They look at the sea all day.

            As long as it takes to pass
            A ship keeps raising its hull;
            The wetter ground like glass
            Reflects a standing gull.

            The land may vary more;
            But wherever the truth may be –
            The water comes ashore,
            And the people look at the sea.

            They cannot look out far.
            They cannot look in deep.
            But when was that ever a bar
            To any watch they keep?3

            Lines 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6 are in seven syllables. Timothy Steele refers to this poem as written in “loose iambic,” in this case iambic trimeter.4 One of the reasons I chose this poem is that Frost alternates line lengths; some are 6 syllables, some 7, and some 8. This kind of vacillation in line length is one of the characteristics of Japanese poetry, including Tanka and Haiku. We tend to think that English language poetry consists of structures of equal line lengths, such as the well-known sonnet. Yet here is an example of skillfully shifting syllabic count as the poem unfolds. 
            Loose iambic turns out to be a rich source of five and seven syllable poetic lines. Frost’s poem shows how natural seven syllable lines can be. A poem by Hardy, called The Wound, is written in loose iambic dimeter. Steele quotes it as follows:

            I climbed to the crest,
            And, fog-festooned,
            The sun lay west
            Like a crimson wound:
            Like that wound of mine
            Of which none knew,
            For I’d given no sign
            That it pierced me through.5

            Lines 1, 4, 5 and 8 are in five syllables. As in the previous Frost example, Hardy alternates syllable line length in a manner reminiscent of Japanese poetics, where syllable counts shift from line to line.
            I think in this context it’s also worth pointing out that translators of Japanese poetry have, to a significant degree, mimicked the syllabification of traditional Japanese poetry. Examples include Steven Carter and Edwin Cranston. Here’s an example from Carter’s  Traditional Japanese Poetry:

            In a swift current
            a boulder may block the rush
            of falling water
            and split streams that in the end
            will join together again.6

And here’s an example from Cranston’s A Waka Anthology:

            On the northern hills
            Now there trails a band of cloud,
            A blue cloud drifting,
            Drawing away from the star,
            Drawing away from the moon.7

            Not all translators of Japanese poetry mimic Japanese syllabification.  But those who have chosen to do so demonstrate how easily the English language can conform to traditional syllabic rules. There is no sense in these translations of awkwardness or stress. The opposite is the case; the translations are lyrical and flow easily in English.
            Finally, I’d like to point out that many English-language poets have, in fact, used the traditional syllabic format effectively.  Richard Wright is an example of a poet who chose to write haiku in the traditional 5-7-5 format. His haiku demonstrate that English is amenable to this formal structure. In Tanka, there are numerous poets who have, and who currently, work within the traditional syllabic structure of 31 syllables in 5-7-5-7-7. Father Neal Henry Lawrence, one of the first to write Tanka in English, wrote exclusively in that format. And the poet Laureate, Richard Wilbur, writes Tanka in this way as well.
            Given the above, and I’m convinced one could find many more common expressions, children’s songs, and poems in “loose iambic”, I conclude that lines of five and seven syllables are natural in English, appear frequently in ordinary speech, and have been used often in actual poetry. The difficulty is not with using lines of five and seven syllables, but learning to turn a poet’s ear to the rhythmic presence of five and seven syllable usages in English. Once one recognizes the presence of such rhythms in English, one begins to hear them everywhere; in ordinary speech, in children’s rhymes, and even in a surprisingly large number of formal poems.
            I think that people have tended to overestimate the strictness with which poets have adhered to iambics in English; that is to say, I think that because of the dominance of iambic rhythm in English poetry, and because iambics consist of two syllables, there has been a conclusion drawn that even syllable lines are “natural” and that lines in five and seven syllables are stressful and awkward. But as Steele, and others, point out, iambic is more like a pulse than a strict count. To draw an analogy, a piece of music in 3-4 time does not always have three notes in each measure of the music; some measures will have one note, some two, some three, some six, and some eight or more. But the underlying pulse remains the same and steadily sustains the music. One can feel the count even if the music isn’t methodically announcing it. Similarly, iambic is a kind of pulse underlying much English language poetry; but such a pulse does not establish the specific number of syllables that will appear in a line of poetry. Hence, even very strongly iambic poems, as in the Frost and Hardy examples, can, and often do, deviate from an even number of syllables.
            This makes sense if one refers back to the ordinary usage examples I gave above. Poetry never strays too far from ordinary usage if it wants to be comprehensible. And since ordinary English language usage contains expressions in five and seven syllables, it is natural that poets would take advantage of that and use them in their formal poetry.
            On another level, there is confusion, I think, about the naturalness of the standard poetic line in English. If the sonnet is considered to be the pre-eminent English language poetic form, then the standard line of poetry is 10 syllables. But how many ordinary language interactions are in 10 syllables? How often does your own speech come out in 10 syllable lines? The point I am making is that poetic lines engage in a kind of dance with ordinary speech. Poetry approaches ordinary speech, but then recasts ordinary speech into particular forms. No one claims that the 10 syllable line in English is stressful or unnatural because it has been around so long. But a 10 syllable poetic line is no more natural, or inherent in English, than a 5 or 7 syllable line. It is relevant to note that the 10 syllable line was not an English language invention; its source is Italian, where the sonnet originally came from. So the 10 syllable poetic line is as much an import into English as the 5 and 7 syllable line; it’s just that the 10 syllable line comes from Italy and the 5 and 7 syllable lines come from Japan.
            What does this mean for an English language poet of tanka or haiku? I think it implies that mimicking the syllabic structure of Japanese poetry is probably easier than has been assumed. I think it implies that the chief obstacle to adopting the traditional syllabic structure is probably psychological; the feeling that it is unnatural engenders a shyness about using the traditional syllabic count, which becomes a self-fulfilling habit. And having established that habit in one’s own writing, one passes it along to others. Thus it comes as a surprise to many that five and seven syllable lines are common both in ordinary English and in English formal poetry.
            In closing, I’d like to say that for me it was a wonderful discovery that the English language could smoothly and eloquently speak in formal structures that mimicked the traditional structure of Japanese poetry.  It was kind of liberating; I no longer had to shy away from this traditional approach. So go ahead; try a haiku of 17 syllables (5-7-5) and a tanka of 31 syllables (5-7-5-7-7).  You’ll be in good international company, joining with poets from Japan and from the English-speaking world as well.

1 A Hundred Verses from Old Japan, a translation of the hyku-nin-isshiu, William Porter, originally published 1909 by Clarendon Press, London; 1979 by Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., Vermont, page iii.

2 The Haiku Apprentice, Abigail Friedman, Stone Bridge Press, 2006, Berkeley, California, page 216.

3 The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Latham, Henry Holt & Co., 1969, New York, page 301.


4 All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing, Timothy Steele, Ohio University Press, Athens, 1999, page 82.

5 Ibid, page 80.

6 Traditional Japanese Poetry, Steven D. Carter, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1991, page 230.


7 A Waka Anthology: Volume 1: The Gem-Glistening Cup, Edwin A. Cranston, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1993, page 188.

Copyright © Designated Authors 2008.



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