The power of 17 syllables.

Lessons from Haikus

An economic
way of expression for all
we see, do and feel

- Cogito

The origins of haikus traces back to 13th century Japan. Also known traditionally as hokku, haikus began as short, introductory stanzas of longer collaborative poems known as renga. These short stanzas succinctly depict the setting and act as introductions for the renga, and unlike the rest of the poem, is created by a single poet working alone. Over time, the hokku gained prominence and became recognised for its own worth, standing alone.

As a Japanese poetry form, its form follows the moras system - which are rhythmic units allocated to Japanese syllables. As there is no way for a direct translation from the Japanese mora system to the English syllables system, the 17 moras single-line rule is adapted and eventually became the 3-line, 5-7-5 syllables structure, totalling 17 syllables. Given its highly adaptable form that allows different poets to express their own styles, there is also no particular rhyme scheme attached to the haiku form.

The succinct, imagery-heavy nature of haikus gained increasing traction in the West especially during the Modernist era, especially with imagists. Take for example Ezra Pound, whose ‘In a Station of the Metro’ remains a classic till today.

In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

- Ezra Pound


As its popularity rises, more poets experiment with various styles and purposes. Haikus no longer only stuck by the strict 5-7-5 rule, and some may not even total up to 17 syllables.

However, what still remains is its economic use of language, capturing an idea, image or mood in a succinct manner. The beauty of simplicity and oftentimes, the mundane we take for granted.

If anything, haikus remind us of the power of language, and how incredibly creative we can get with words. We don’t always need the most verbose language, or the longest essays to convey an idea.

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