James Kirkup is a skilled writer of haiku and has played a key part in bringing this genre to a wider audience in the West, but while I have great respect for him on both these counts I take issue with his statement that every haiku should have 17 syllables.
As a member of the British Haiku Society I am as concerned as anyone that the essence of haiku should not become diluted as it becomes more widely practised. But concentration on the 5-7-5 syllable count of haiku is misleading and obscures other important features of this form - a certain flexibility where appropriate can serve the spirit of haiku more faithfully than a rigid adherence to the "rules" at all times.
The syllable count in haiku is often misunderstood. Japanese poets do not count syllables, they count onji. This word means "sound symbol" and is much shorter than the English syllable and much more uniform in length. Approximately 12 English syllables best duplicates the length of Japanese haiku in the traditional form of 17 onji.
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