as sun sets
moon bares witness the hour;
chill earth grins.

I love well written haiku; thus I am often frustrated with the frivolous and imprecise way they are developed in English. The web sites available on the Internet with pages of haiku-like poems written as odes to the luncheon meat Spam attest to that. People tend to think that all they have to do is write verse in 5-7-5 syllables and they have a haiku. Not so. This poem was my first attempt at a serious haiku.

First of all, breath has a kigo, a defined word or phrase that symbolizes or implies the season of the poem. It also has a kireji, or cutting word—in this case ‘hour;’. It separates the stream of thought in the poem and builds a parallel between its two halves.

breath does not conform to the 5-7-5 syllable convention for a reason: this is not exactly the pattern which truly defines a haiku, because it does not allow for the brevity of thought that is the essence of the original style.

First of all, there is the fact that English is a terser language than Japanese. The English word ‘milk’, for example, has one syllable; in Japanese it has three syllables.

Moreover, in Japanese, a haiku calls for a structure of 5-7-5 on. An on is similar to a syllable but they are not the same thing. Long vowels and double consonants each count as double on and the letter ‘n’ at the end of a word counts as one on also. In fact the word ‘on‘ itself (pronounced ‘oh’ and then with a drawn out nasally ‘n’) counts as two on. Or consider this example: in English the word ‘delay’ counts as two syllables; in Japanese this would be three on because of the long ‘a’ sound.

By some standards, the recommend length of an English poem, to achieve the equivalent effect of Japanese—and thereby overcome the natural terseness of English and the effect of counting on—is twelve English syllables; usually, but not necessarily, in a 3-6-3 pattern. And while I am not so rigid as to suggest this has to be a ‘rule’, I do believe that limiting the syllables by some amount for an English haiku does give it more gravitas.

But if terseness is one of the issues that make English haiku differ from Japanese haiku, content is the main one. In Japan, haiku are deep, emotionally vibrant poems. Consider, for example the haiku old pond written by Japan’s greatest haiku poet, the 18th century poet Bashō, and perhaps the most well known Japanese haiku of all time. A word by word translation is:

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water’s sound

An alternate translation, supplied by Wikipedia, which preserves the syllable count in English at the cost of taking greater liberty with the sense is:

at the age old pond
a frog leaps into water
a deep resonance

In Japan, haiku are not throw away jokes. They are serious poems dealing with serious issues and while I am opening myself to criticism as being a purist, I think that is what they should remain, independent of what language they are written in.

Thank you very much for reading breath. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.


© 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem, either alone or with the notes that accompany it, may be printed and distributed—in part or amalgamated with other works—as long as the copyright notice and the address,, are also clearly printed with it and there is no fee charged.


Filed under Poetry

4 responses to “breath

  1. therealvixen

    Hey, Book of Pain! Sounds interesting!! Trial:-
    Warm desert winds
    Belly dancing about to begin;
    Barbecue night.
    (Does that sound serious:)

  2. I tried writin haiku and found the more I delved into the writing thereof, the less I understood. I now admire them from someone else’s pen.

    • They are little devils aren’t they? Like the concept of ‘time’; easy to understand until you start digging into the details and then the whole thing gets slipperier and slipperier until it always seems to be running away from you. 🙂