Love Haiku

© 2006..2009 by Andreas Wittenstein. Some rights reserved. (CC)

Haiku (俳句) is a traditional Japanese poetic form canonically consisting of three lines of 5, 7, and 5 moras each, totalling 17 moras. In English, the Latin term mora (plural morae) is often roughly translated to mean “syllable”, and strict English haiku, such as these Love Haiku, consist of 17 syllables divided into three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables each.

Phonetically, however, the English syllable has very little in common with the Japanese mora, called on (音) or onsetsu (音節) in Japanese. Japanese is a mora-rhythm language, in which each mora in a phrase has roughly the same duration; so that when enunciating a phrase, Japanese speakers will often clap their hands in time with the moras for clarity. English, in contrast, is closer to a stress-rhythm language, in which there is a roughly equal time interval between primary stresses in a phrase; thus the rhythmic unit in most English poetry is the foot.

Japanese has a very simple syllable structure of (C)V: Every syllable consists of either just a single vowel, or by a single consonant followed by a single vowel. To an English-speaker, however, this simple structure is complicated by syllabic nasals, long vowels, vowel sequences, geminate consonants, and voiceless vowels.

Thus what sounds to us like a syllable-final [n] consonant in Japanese is in fact phonologically a vowel [n̩], so that the English word ‘in’, for example, counts as two syllables: [ɪ] + [n̩]. In fact, in Japanese, an ‘n’ in this position would actually be accented. Most English dialects also have syllabic nasals, such as the vocalic ‘n’ in the word ‘eaten’, but only after consonants.

Vowel sequences present a similar problem to English listeners, to whom long vowels (that is, sequences of the same vowel) sound like single stressed vowels, and sequences of disparate vowels sound like single diphthongs. In English, vowel length is confounded with other factors such as syllable stress, the distinction between tense and lax vowels, and the distinction between open syllables and closed syllables with voiced versus voiceless syllable endings. Thus, to abide by Japanese phonological rules, the English word ‘I’ would have to count as two syllables: [a] + [i].

Furthermore, in Japanese the vowels [i] and [u] become voiceless [] and [] between voiceless obstruents, which to an English ear appears to make for very complicated syllables indeed. On the other hand, to a Japanese ear, the monosyllabic English word ‘gasps’ would consist of four moras: [ga] + [su̥] + [pu̥] + [su̥].

To a Japanese listener unfamiliar with English, then, none of these Love Haiku conform to the classical haiku form, and some, such as Reach, would appear to have more than twice the regulation 17 moras. On the other hand, since the concept of a mora is not directly applicable to English, most poets in the English language today use the term ‘haiku’ even more loosely, to refer to any terse verse in three lines, sometimes restricted to three lines of 2, 3, and 2 feet each; or still more loosely to any poem that can be read in a single breath.

So why would I bother trying to squeeze English into the strict English haiku form? For several reasons: I like the jewel-like conciseness of the form, for which English culture has no equivalent; and Japanese being a polysyllabic language, haiku is more appropriate for English than, say, the traditional four-syllable Chinese form of chéngyǔ (成語), such as yī tú qiān yán (一圖千言), meaning “A picture is worth a thousand words”. I like the primality of the number of 17, which forces an interesting asymmetry on the poem. And I admire the inspired wordplay found in the best traditional Japanese haiku. Perhaps most importantly, I enjoy the challenge of squeezing a poem into the haiku form as a puzzle.

Classical Japanese haiku were poems celebrating specific moments in nature, and as such obeyed rules concerning not just the form but also the content. Thus in a nature haiku it is important to include a kigo 季語 word indicating the season, as well as a kidai (季題) word indicating the setting. Naturally, these restrictions are not strictly observed in modern Japanese romantic haiku.

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