Haiku Metrics and Issues of Emulation: New Paradigms for Japanese and English Haiku Form RICHARD GILBERT and Judy Yoneoka
The question of how English haiku form may best emulate Japanese 5-7-5 haiku (or whether it even should at all) has been hotly debated for decades. A recent trend in Japanese poetic analysis, however, interprets haiku in terms of 3 segments of 8 beats each onto which the 5-7-5 -on are mapped. This paper presents an overview of this trend, supported both by theory from metrical phonology and by observed experimental data of subjects reading haiku in Japanese. It was found that the 8‑8‑8 metrical pattern is indeed verifiably present in haiku reading, and that this pattern serves to map both haiku with 5-7-5 –on and other -on counts. Based on these findings, implications for English haiku form, especially with respect to emulation, lineation, and metricality are discussed within the context of the North American haiku movement. It is proposed that haiku in both Japanese verse and English free verse may naturally fit into a similar metrical form. It is also hoped that a metrical analysis, operating across both languages, may help clear up some misconceptions regarding the Japanese haiku in the West, while providing an impetus to bridge the widening gap between the Japanese and world haiku movements.
In 1952, R. H. Blyth eloquently described some of the qualities of Japanese haiku that make this poetic form one of the most unique in world literature—qualities which have sparked a worldwide study and practice of haiku, in numerous languages. His description has lost none of its relevance:
It is not merely the brevity by which [the haiku] isolates a particular group of phenomena from all the rest; nor its suggestiveness, through which it reveals a whole world of experience. It is not only in its remarkable use of the season word, by which it gives us a feeling of a quarter of the year; nor its faint all-pervading humour. Its peculiar quality is its self-effacing, self-annihilative nature, by which it enables us, more than any other form of literature, to grasp the thing-in-itself (vol. 4, p. 980).
To a large extent, the evolution of form in English haiku has been wedded to the qualities Blyth (along with others) outlines above, whether considered from an aesthetic, experiential, or literary perspective. That is, the Japanese haiku, and the literary culture which bore it, has provided a model example for a new form of English, and indeed global, poetry. As this form has evolved, the question of how the English haiku might best emulate the Japanese has given way to a growing body of poetic works that maintain themselves autonomously, outside of clear Japanese haiku referents. Nowadays, some North American poets may be inspired by a growing body of English haiku composed by poets outside Japan, and have little interest in Japanese culture or literature. “An important change that is occurring in American haiku is the decrease in those being introduced to haiku through Japanese culture and an increase in those discovering haiku from the poetry-writing arena . . . I think that the world’s haiku poets recognize our common heritage in Japanese haiku, and at the same time acknowledge that Japanese and American haiku will likely grow apart (Gurga, 1997).”
English haiku has firmly established itself as a distinct free-verse poetic form, and in general, the passion for some sort of “mirror-like” emulation of the Japanese haiku has in many quarters either devolved into or achieved (depending on your point of view) mere inspiration, complete autonomy, or divergence. Speaking of devolution, Ross (1993) writes that,
The fourth generation [of the mid-1980s on] of American haiku poets has through experimentation all but obliterated the requisite form and substance of classic Japanese haiku: there is a consistent lack of seasonal references, surrealist techniques and figurative expression are introduced, regular prosody is eliminated, and human, rather than nature, subjects are increasingly emphasized. Contemporary American haiku has been made a poetic vehicle for eroticism, psychological expression, political and social commentary. (p. xxiii)
One could argue that statements along these lines have likewise been made in recent decades in Japan, regarding the Japanese haiku, so perhaps it’s modernity that is in question. Nonetheless, recent polemics beg the question of what English haiku form is, and how to delimit and define this form from other short poetic forms, as well as in relationship to the Japanese haiku. While questions of haiku content and aesthetics command our attention, and surely depend upon critical contributions for the English haiku to flourish, in this paper we would like to address the framework of haiku by taking a new look at the Japanese haiku, and then offering some suggestions for how a metrical approach might be considered as a bridge between haiku forms and languages, the English and Japanese.
We wish to demonstrate the validity of a novel metrical approach to haiku form—whose theory and practical application has only recently been demonstrated in phonological studies.1 We will show that the 5-7-5 moraic2 structure of Japanese haiku “floats,” as it were, upon a deeper template, a timed, metrical substructure, composed of three segments3 of four bi-moraic feet, making for a total of 24 morae, into which the 17 (+/-) morae of 5+7+5 morae fit. We will then apply an analogic form of this same metrical template to the English haiku. This metrical approach is not intended to provide a prescriptive “rule” for haiku composition in English in terms of a bilingual mirroring—-in any case, the template is inclusive of the bulk of acclaimed contemporary free-verse haiku. Since English haiku has (reasonably) abandoned strict syllable‑counting, a metrical approach may serve to redefine, delimit, or refine English haiku length, meter, and closure, beyond the concept of “as long as a single breath,” or “short,” or “about X (choose your number) syllables.” We might instead say that the English haiku approximates the tripartite, 24-mora metrical structure of the Japanese haiku, and that analogical forms of metrical emulation are possible. A metrical approach allows for a great deal of flexibility in the English haiku syllable-count, as an intrinsic constituent of its definition, while maintaining an identity to the Japanese haiku metrical form. Some may find this an elegant solution. It seems that, as long as we continue to use the term “haiku” in English to define the poetic form, a linkage to the Japanese haiku is desirable.
In traditional Blues, a 12-bar musical structure, there are nearly an infinite variety of styles, tempos, and contexts. Blues-like musical structures can be heard in the indigenous musics of many countries. Thus, radically divergent contexts can share similar musical structures. As musicians know, feeling the sense of rhythm, and sharing rhythmic structures from beyond one’s own shores creates a bridge across languages and cultures. At the dawn of the modern free-verse movement, the Imagist Manifesto (item three) stated: “As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in [the] sequence of a metronome.”4 Current linguistic theory, and public readings too, indicate that the English haiku has music and, as in all languages, metricality, though the English haiku may not possess as regular a meter as the Japanese haiku.5 It may be that many English haiku abide analogically within the 24-mora metrical structure of Japanese haiku, not in prosodic particulars (involving a one-to-one identification of morae with English syllables), but in linguistically valid metrical terms—and this may be entirely serendipitous. It is not our intention to provide a proof at this point in time, but rather to explore some implications. We hope that this paper serves to encourage further aural consideration and study of Japanese and English rhythmic haiku expression, and promote cross-cultural dialogue.