Village Haiku Preservation Society

This year I was a judge for the 5th Annual Japan-Russia Haiku Contest. It was an honor to be a part of, and I cherish having the opportunity to be involved in activities like this, but I was dismayed by the range poetry submissions that were allowed as ‘haiku.’ If I was submitting a 2-line or 6-line poem to a quatrain competition, that would be ridiculous, right? A quatrain has 4-lines! If I was submitting an 11-line or 17-line poem to a sonnet competition, then that, too, would be equally ridiculous (sonnets traditionally have 14-lines). So why are 7-syllable or 14-syllable poems allowable in haiku contests when a haiku should have 17 syllables? Judging this contest made me realize the very wide [misguided] definition of haiku that people have.

Yosa Buson

Haiku poet Yosa no Buson 与謝 蕪村 (1716 – 1784)

The contest had three language categories: Japanese, Russian, and English. Of course the Japanese haiku submissions consisted of 17-syllable poems (with some 16- and 18- syllable exceptions).

I can’t speak for Russian or any other language, but there is no reason why English haiku should not be written strictly in 17 syllables, like the Japanese model upon which it is based.

For the competition, the English haiku consisted of an Open category and a Student category. There were 226 Open submissions and 152 Student submissions from people all over the world—some native English speakers, many (most?) not. 51 counties were represented. A fantastic showing!

I feel like if this contest is meant to honor and celebrate the haiku tradition that we’ve inherited from centuries ago, the contest should promote a stricter approach as to what English submissions are accepted, and consequently how it chooses its winners.

Here’s the break down of the English haiku submissions:

Category

Total submissions

Avr. Syllables

Open

226

14

Student

152

14

Even Japanese master haiku poets sometimes vary their writing and compose 16 or 18 syllable haiku. I haven’t analyzed every haiku in the centuries-long history of the genre, but I can say confidently that varying from the 17-syllable pattern is rare and not the norm. With this in mind, let’s propose that 16-18 syllables for English haiku is acceptable. Only about one third of the Open submissions and one fourth of the Student submissions fall into this range. One person even submitted a 31-syllable haiku! Waka poems, from which haiku evolved, consist of 31 syllables in a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern, so surely this person confused the two…??

Category

Less than 16-18 syllables 16-18 syllables

More than 16-18 syllables

Open

61.95%

34.51%

3.54%

Student

70%

26%

4%

It’s great having so many submissions and from such a large variety of countries, but I think that allowing for just anything to be submitted as a haiku is a grave mistake for propagating the art form.

The Results

Four independent judges selected two winners for the Open category and 20 Runner’s-Up. Of these, again, the average syllable count was 14, and only 9 of these fell between 16-18 syllables.

The judges selected one winner and 20 Runner’s-Up in the Student category. Of these the average syllable count was 15, and 11 had between 16-18 syllables.

One may think that there is not such a difference between 14 and 17—a mere 3 syllables. But 3-syllables are a lot! “I love you” is 3-syllables. You’re telling me those three words tagged onto a note or a message don’t make a huge difference in how the message is received?!

Composing haiku is not an exercise in “stream-of-conscious” writing or “word association.” A master haiku is a carefully constructed poem, albeit short!

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