haiku, humor

On Rules: Moral Hazard; 5-7-5; …

The difference between respecting a rule and worshiping it can be vital, as with the Moral Hazard Rule against bailouts and the like.  A discussion of the Moral Hazard Rule could bog down in controversy over who is to blame for a mess, who is suffering, who has a hidden agenda, and so on.  So I will discuss something simpler and less important by itself, but good for illustrating that vital difference.  Please remember that difference the next time U hear somebody who worships a rule arguing with somebody who ignores it.  Maybe each of them is partly right and partly wrong.

The 5-7-5 Rule says that a haiku is a 3-line poem in blank verse, where the lines have syllable counts of 5, 7, and 5.  Tho he was razzed intensely at the time, Bill Clinton had a point when he fussed about what “is” means.  Does the rule say how the word “haiku” is (or should be) used?  By whom?  Does the rule specify the essence of haikuness?  My own attitude is both traditional and pragmatic, more nuanced than I can express in 3 lines.

I first encountered the 5-7-5 Rule as a junior in college, back when students used typewriters and people with scholarly aspirations kept bibliographic info on 3×5 cards.  (Yes, that long ago.)  A friend was interested in Japanese culture, but not so interested as to learn the language.  He was enthusiastic about some short Japanese poems that, as translated into English, were limp and vague.  Poetry is notoriously difficult to translate, and my friend explained that these translations had the special burden of being translations of haiku, using the 5-7-5 Rule to define a word that was new to me.  My friend said he was settling for bad poems in English that began as good ones in Japanese, and that people cannot write haiku in English anyway, in part because we do not have Japanese calligraphy.  I took the purported impossibility as a challenge.

After some scribbling and counting, I put a 3×5 card in my typewriter, banged on a few keys, and silently handed the card to my friend.  It had 3 lines:

Haiku written on
a typewriter: ultimate
incongruity.

We shared a laugh and I kept the card.

In the course of about 50 years, I eventually wrote about 50 haiku, all conforming to the 5-7-5 Rule.  While thinking about ways I might publish some of my haiku, I did some web browsing and found many haiku that I liked, including the following gem by Alexis Rotella:

Just friends: …
he watches my gauze dress
blowing on the line.

I barely noticed the violation of 5-7-5 and did not mind it at all.  Some time later, Lew Gardner sent me a handout from the haiku class he teaches, with examples that included Just friends: … and the following gem by Anita Virgil:

walking the snow-crust
     not sinking
       sinking

Now the violation of 5-7-5 is integral to the imagery!

Anybody who gripes about the foregoing violations of 5-7-5 is just being churlish.  Anybody who is oblivious to 5-7-5 is missing much of the fun in a successful translation by Harry Behn of one of Basho Matsuo’s haiku:

An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.

I needed strict observance of 5-7-5 to prove a point long ago, but the 5-5-5 of my last borrowing from Lew’s handout is close enough to support a funnier joke with a haiku that refers to itself.  I salute whoever topped my 1st effort with the classic

You have just started
reading the haiku
that you just finished.

Far from being hidebound about tradition, I often write on oddball topics, always provide titles, and sometimes write 3 lines that would be unintelligible w/o stage setting by the title.  But I also honor tradition with a serious effort at abiding by 5-7-5.  So far, I have almost always been happier with the result (of all the heating and hammering that effort entailed) than with the looser early version that I brought to my wordsmith’s forge.

Abiding by 5-7-5 has been helpful to me; I recommend giving it a try.  The precision of 5-7-5 is also appealing, and I deeply appreciate the importance of precise definitions in math.  I also know that poetry ain’t math.

Who Miscounted?

This so-called “haiku”
ignores 5-7-5, so
it’s not a haiku.

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13 thoughts on “On Rules: Moral Hazard; 5-7-5; …

  1. For a while, I liked the irony of having the only post that was mostly about haiku being the only post that did not end with one. Then I came up with an appropriate haiku that I could add for a net increase in irony. Irony for me is like entropy in thermodynamics. It never goes down.

    Like

  2. Great post and points. I am still learning about the “traditional” rules of haiku and also strive to follow the 5-7-5 rule only because I feel it usually has a nice rhythm to it. I have even gotten into the habit of thinking in this rhythm in everyday interactions. But I will say I am not a fan of being a strict rule follower, especially when it comes to writing. I will not sacrifice the perfect word, rhythm or mood just to follow a rule. I’m sure my “doing my own thing” drives the purists nuts but I don’t really care. I do appreciate constructive criticism though and you are one of the few that have reached out with a great suggested improvement. So I thank you for that. Now on with my learning……

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment and the [Like].

      U might want to read “The Haiku Handbook” by Higginson & Harter, available on Amazon.com. It turns out that the 5-7-5 Rule for haiku written in English comes largely from a mistranslation of “onji” in Japanese as “syllable” in English. Partly for that reason and partly because slavish adherence to the rule is so silly, H&H dislike 5-7-5. If any self-styled “purist” ever hassles U about 5-7-5, U can hit them wi H&H’s book. It is a fairly hefty paperback, but not heavy enough to cause real damage.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. For a long time I strived to adhere to the 5-7-5 simply because of the challenge, even though I knew it wasn’t an accurate definition of Japanese haiku, since the Japanese sound unit, onji, does not equal an English syllable. Most of mine have been 5-7-5, although my rebel heart quite enjoys reading and writing rebel haiku that doesn’t abide by the English rule. I haven’t posted many of mine, but after reading your blog, I’m feeling the urge to haiku again.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I probably should have said something about onji vs. syllable. BTW, I did end my own streak of (5-7-5)-compliance with a (5-7-4) haiku whose last line insisted on staying just as it was. Please do continue to break the rule when U see a reason to rebel.

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  5. I don’t have the great knowledge and expertise in haiku of some of your other commenters, but my feeling about art is general is that the conventions are essential. I don’t mean by this that they must always be followed, though. Rather, that when there are recognized conventions, it possible to see how creative someone is being when they break them (as in the examples you gave). If haiku simply became a free-for-all of form, there would be nothing to judge creativity against.

    Liked by 1 person

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