Tag Archives: syllables

The Essence of Haiku

I am not a poetry person. I don’t read poetry [mostly], and I certainly don’t write it, but ever since my university days, I’ve loved the sound of haiku… in Japanese.

In particular, I love the Bashō haiku about the Old Pond:

Furu ike ya
Kawazu tobikomu
Mizu no oto

There are countless translations of this haiku, but the one I like the best is the one that sticks the most closely to the actual Japanese words:

Old pond
Frog jumps in
Sound of water

Water can have all sorts of sounds, so the onomatopoeic word ‘plop’ used in some translations kind of makes sense, but while that idea is obviously understood by Japanese readers, the actual words are so much more…subtle?

Mizu means water.
Oto means sound.
No is a possessive.

Thus ‘mizu no oto’ literally means ‘water’s sound’. It is left to our imaginations to decide which one of the many mizu no oto is made by a frog when it jumps into a pond.

It’s been fifty years since I last tried to mangle the Japanese language, so I went looking for a proper native speaker to recite this haiku. What I found was a video that gave the best explanation of haiku I’ve ever heard. Syllables vs mora vs on. Content words vs rhythm. And a whole lot more.

I promise. The video below is well worth the listen:

Oh, and you’ll find the recitation I was talking about at 2:37. You’re welcome. 😀


#Haiku help needed – update 24/1/2016

Thank you to all those who left comments and suggestions. Your help gave me a really valuable insight into haiku, at least in the English form, and why it’s so hard to write.

For those interested, my little insight has to do with the sound of the haiku when spoken out loud. You see, the very first time I came across the haiku form it was at uni. where I was studying Japanese. And of course, it was the famous frog haiku by Basho:

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

To this day I love the sound of those three lines and seventeen syllables flow. They flow, almost like music, and I believe the reason is that in Japanese, each syllable is given its full value. In English, however, the written word is often very different to the spoken sound because we truncate syllables. Just think of that oh-so-Aussie ‘g’day’. ‘Good day’ has two syllables, but how many are there in ‘gday’?

Sadly, this insight merely highlights the fact that I don’t have the skills to make music with the imagery I see in my head. 😦

I may return to the ideas and feel of this little ‘pome’ of mine one day, but for now I’ll stick to what I know best…prose.

Heartfelt thanks to all,



Okay. I do not write poetry, but I’ve always loved the old, traditional Haiku of Japan, so when I needed a title for part 8 of Innerscape, this sort-of Haiku popped into my head:

Condolences like ash,
Softly falling,
The finality of gone

I like it, and it really fits the story, but as a haiku it’s a fail. The total syllables are 17, but their placement is all wrong: 6-4-7 instead of 5-7-5.

My question is this – as I’m writing in English, can I get away with it?



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