Haiku: Five Syllables Too Few

I’ve been reading the latest Laurie R. King novel, Dreaming Spies, featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. Much of the novel is set in Japan in 1924 and features the haiku of Basho, as well as beginning-of-the-chapter haiku written by King.

This got me to thinking about haiku, a verse form I both admire and appreciate — but one I’m not naturally suited to. I love the syllabic nature of haiku: those constraining 5-7-5 lines. And there are children’s books featuring haiku. Two I particularly like are If Not for the Cat, by Jack Prelutsky, and Won Ton, by Lee Wardlaw.

For a while, I tried my hand at writing haiku for children’s books. Here are two I wrote several years ago:

        eager for takeoff,
        parachute seeds wait for wind —
        yellow my green lawn

        Praying Mantis
        long green predator,
        spiney-legged insect eater
        waits to crunch next meal

By tradition, haiku suggest the essence of something seen, heard, or felt. My haiku do more than suggest. They tell. Explain. Summarize. And for that reason, they aren’t totally successful.

A few years after I wrote the garden-setting haiku above, I tried my hand at the form again, in writing that book of cow poems (see My Kingdom for a Cow). Here’s what I came up with:


        Antlers comes at dusk
        to touch noses and nibble —
        departs with one leap

        Soft flakes floating past,
        clothing the world in beauty
        the color of milk

I think these two are better than the first two, but still, they lean toward telling. And so, because I was never totally satisfied with any of my haiku, I abandoned trying to write them. But I love thinking in syllable counts and wished I could do something that involved syllable counts.

Lucky for me, I did more exploring, and that’s when I learned about two other syllable-count forms. The tanka, a five-line poem with a 5/7/5/7/7 syllable count, is of Japanese origin. The cinquain is of European origin, although the form I became most interested in was the particular form used by American Adelaide Crapsey — five lines totaling 22 syllables in the pattern of 2/4/6/8/2. The syllables above and beyond 17 (14 extra in the tanka, 5 extra in the cinquain) make all the difference for me and my writing style.

I also learned about a late-20th century syllable count poem, the fibonacci, or, as its affectionately called, the fib. All three of these forms gave me much greater writing satisfaction. But that’s a subject for another blog or two. For now, suffice it to say that haiku and I have met, walked a small distance together, and parted ways.

Perhaps to meet again.

One thought on “Haiku: Five Syllables Too Few

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