National Haiku Writing Month (#NaHaiWriMo) and the 5-7-5 Controversy

February 12, 2018

National Haiku Writing Month (#NaHaiWriMo) and the 5-7-5 Controversy


February is National Haiku Writing Month, a juxtaposition of the shortest month of the year and the shortest form of poetry. The hashtag is #NaHaiWriMo, to make the whole thing even shorter. The idea is to write and post a haiku every day in February.

Haiku is a favorite  pastime of mine (see the archives) and I applaud the effort to get more folks to create and appreciate it. I’m going to join the one-haiku-per-day movement for the rest of February, relying in part on a cache of unpublished little unrhymed verses I’ve written and saved, all in the 5-7-5 syllabic structure.

no205-7-5But according to the NaHaiWriMo site, 5-7-5 (syllables, that is) is an urban myth, a somewhat contemptible English interpretation of the traditional Japanese structure for haiku. The late Japanese-American poet Keiko Imaoka explains in the essay, Forms in English, that the more appropriate number of syllables in English (if one was counting, which one should not), would actually be about 11. About. To drive this point home, the NaHaiWriMo site has adopted the “anything but 5-7-5” image shown on the left.  It’s a mantra to remind us haiku writers, in their words:

not to get a case of mumpsimus, or being stuck in your ways despite evidence to the contrary. With English-language haiku, you have no need to persist in any adherence to the incorrect idea or belief in 5-7-5 syllables.”

haikuIn addition to being edifying and enlightening, I find this all rather stuffy and amusing. Why should it bother anyone if I choose a 5-7-5 structure for my little “Texas gal with the bigger-than-she-expected life” haiku pieces? Like a woman who wears an inappropriate dress to a party but feels like a million bucks in it, I think I’ll just write haiku my way, even if it means I have a case of “mumpsimus”. It may be a stretch, but I think it is possible that an English-language haiku could be a decent poem, even if it adheres to that back-water 5-7-5 syllabic form Americans adopted in the 50s when haiku became popular.

Or maybe I’ll just throw caution to the wind and mix up my syllabic count. A haiku a day for the rest of the month – anything could happen!

the rule-makers rant:
“5-7-5 – it just can’t
be a true haiku”

And yes, I know, the piece above does not fit the thematic form of any kind of haiku. So be it!

Copyright 2018, Glover Gardens


22 thoughts on “National Haiku Writing Month (#NaHaiWriMo) and the 5-7-5 Controversy”

  • Kudos to you for holding to tradition, even if we’re wrong! 🙂 I’ve been writing and following the 5-7-5 format for years. My research showed that was the appropriate measure for haiku. Oops! 🙂
    Thanks for visiting my corner of the world. blessings, Brad

    • Holding to tradition? The issue is that 5-7-5 applies to sounds in Japanese, and 5-7-5 “syllables” should never have been the “tradition” in English in the first place. Counting 5-7-5 syllables in English produces a significantly longer poem than in Japanese, so 5-7-5 is actually a violation of the Japanese form, rather than a preservation of it, because they don’t count syllables in Japanese haiku, but something else! Nevertheless, one is free to do whatever one likes. 🙂

  • To clarify, the “No 5-7-5” logo for NaHaiWriMo (as the essay behind it explains) is polemical, but not strictly against 5-7-5 syllables (I have some of my own). What it’s against is the superficial understanding that 5-7-5 is the ONLY target for haiku, which is what far too many people believe (thanks to haiku being so widely mistaught in schools and elsewhere). Feel free to write 5-7-5 haiku if you wish, but bear in mind that the poem you produce is typically quite a bit longer in comparison to the content of haiku in Japanese. But that’s not the main problem, which is that for most people, 5-7-5 has obscured more important targets, such as using objective sensory imagery (based on the five senses), presenting the poem in two juxtaposed parts (equivalent to the kireji or cutting word used in Japanese), and having a seasonal reference (kigo, or season word). The real discipline of haiku isn’t in counting syllables at all. Of course, you might just want to have fun, in which case you can have 57 syllables in your haiku if you like. For more information about haiku as a literary art, please see And good luck with your poetry!

    • Thank you for the clarification! I appreciate your insights and understand the intent behind the logo…but in my humble opinion, it doesn’t reflect the value that the NaHaiWriMo site provides. Nevertheless, it is great to engage on this topic, and the resources you shared are excellent.

      Finally, I love that you used the word “polemical” in your comment; I also heard the word “heuristic” in conversation today. It’s a great day when I get to hear seldom-used words.

      • I agree that the “No 5-7-5” logo sends a bit of mixed message. Some people (who assume haiku IS 5-7-5) think it’s anti-haiku! But that’s not the intent at all. I might change the logo sometime in the future, but perhaps not yet. At the very least, I hope the daily prompts and the community on the NaHaiWriMo Facebook page are inspirational, and that the logo will get at least some people to rethink what they’ve learned about haiku. It’s a shame haiku has been so widely mistaught in English.

  • Michael Dylan Welch, perhaps we could look at “American Haiku” as a different thing than the original Japanese which inspired it, but respectable as its own form with its own roots, history and structure. Using a food analogy (because I know a little more about that topic), I’m sure that Chipotle Aioli would startle French chefs from a century ago, but it has merit alongside the classic sauce, while they are distinctly different. Just a thought; you pegged it by suggesting that I like the discipline of 5-7-5 (I do), but I also like the sensory imagery and illumination that really good haiku conveys. Thank you for the conversation and the challenge that NaHaiWriMo provides.

    • This is an old suggestion, to use a term such as “American haiku” to differentiate it from Japanese haiku. People are free to do that, but I don’t think it’s necessary. The key traits of haiku translate into English (and other languages), including seasonal reference, objective sensory imagery, and the two-part juxtapositional structure. And it’s not necessary to diminish English-language haiku with a term such as “American haiku” just because their isn’t an exact equivalent in English for the sound pattern traditionally counted in Japanese. There have been dozens of excellent English-language haiku magazines over the last 50 years that have proved haiku to be a viable and thriving genre of poetry in English, where the vast bulk of the poems published have not been 5-7-5, which is also reflected in the leading anthologies. Meanwhile, the problem remains that writing 5-7-5 syllables in English is still a violation of the Japanese form (which isn’t syllables) rather than a preservation of it. So if one wants to violate the form by counting 5-7-5 syllables, then one is free to violate it in any of the genre’s other disciplines too. Perhaps take a look at (an essay by John Dunphy).

  • I have nothing against haiku as a closed form where 5/7/5 is the only requirement. Many moving or satirical poems have been written in that way. I only wish the 5/7/5 understanding of haiku weren’t so engrained in the minds of so many people because I can seldom share my freeverse-style haiku without also having to explain why it really is haiku. LOL — good thing I’m not shy about talking! ;- )

    In any case, thank you, Kim, for taking part in NaHaiWriMo 2018 and initiating this discussion on haiku poetics. Keep on writing! (Thanks, too, to Michael Dylan Welch for joining in the conversation!)

  • Incidentally, Kim, the question of syllable count in haiku became a national sensation (sort of) in 2016 in Washington, D.C. The annual haiku contest — a cool initiative to bring poetry to the people by placing haiku on signs around the city’s “Golden Triangle” area — resulted in the following article:

    SCANDAL: Those Haiku Displayed All Around Downtown DC…Aren’t Haiku

    And who’s haiku was held up as a good example of a non-haiku? Among several, one of mine:

    riverside wedding —
    the flower girl
    picks a dandelion

    (Ironically, that poem is almost certainly a senryu, but the judges weren’t differentiating between haiku and senryu — another issue entirely!- )

    Anyway, I guess any publicity is good publicity. LOL! To be a part of the haiku community requires a thick skin and a sense of humor. :- D

    • Thank you, Bill, this was a great story and adds beautifully to the discussion about haiku in its many forms. And I have learned that you are right about needing a thick skin and a sense of humor to be a haiku-er, 5-7-5 or otherwise! I’ll admit that I didn’t know about the 5-7-5 controversy, senryu or haibun until a few years ago when I got more interested in haiku as a pastime; like the irony about your winning flower girl poem actually being a senryu, almost everything I’ve created and posted here is haibun. But to me, it isn’t necessary to split hairs that way in the Glover Gardens blog; we’re loose and casual around here about such things (and we have the necessary thick skin). 🙂

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