Having 17 syllables is in the definition of Haiku, but does it have to have exactly 17 syllables? Is this usually followed strictly, or is it more of a guideline rather than a rule?

I am asking about Haikus written in English, not Japanese.

  • 5
    Wikipedia answers your question rather thoroughly: Haiku (in general), Haiku (in English). The short answer is "no, there are many exceptions and alternate forms." Do these articles answer your question?
    – Standback
    Nov 4, 2012 at 15:55
  • The second page is, the first I've seen and is too much tight to Japanese language, I didn't come across the second and is helpful, thanks. Nov 4, 2012 at 18:16
  • A haiku written by Veronica Little: A snowball's chance in hell? You will be mine.You will see. Let me get my coat.
    – user15509
    Oct 13, 2015 at 22:31

4 Answers 4


Haiku don't have to have 17 syllables. That "rule" is based on something that makes sense in Japanese, not so much in English.

The "syllables" (onji) in Japanese are in a 5 - 7- 5 pattern, but Japanese is primarily polysyllabic...so creating Haiku in English based on the same pattern is likely to result in a poem that is often too long.

Haiku is less a syllabic form than a kind of poetry. Traditional Haiku have three lines, the first and third lines are separated by a kind of interjection. Consider Buson's haiku:

a single poppy
blowing in a field of wheat -
your face in the crowd

The first two lines are connected by the middle line. I remember reading somewhere that Haiku are almost formed like jokes: there's a setup (first line) and a punch-line (third line).

Good Haiku go beyond the form. The syllabic structure that many learn in elementary school is often the result of teaching about syllables rather than what Haiku really are.

  • 2
    It should be noted that "onji" is a term that isn't actually used in Japanese; "on" would be more correct. See this article which lists sources. Obviously the mention of "onji" doesn't detract from the answer, but it could be helpful to know this tidbit if the reader does further searching into the matter.
    – zr00
    Feb 22, 2018 at 18:05

Let me start by saying that this question has already been answered and the answer is no.

I've been writing and publishing haiku for about a decade now, so I wanted to weigh in.

Western haiku writers, starting more or less in the early 1900s used the 5-7-5 syllable form in imitation of the Japanese. But because of the way the Japanese language works (it tends to use very standard-length sounds as opposed to English, for example, where a single syllable can be various lengths) those writing in the haiku form started to break away from strict adherence to the 5-7-5 rule.

If you look at any haiku publication today (The Heron's Nest, for example), you'll see haiku in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some haiku consist of only a single word.

The main thing that makes a haiku a haiku is the spirit of the poem. But that's a whole other topic. And books have been written by far better writers than myself on the topic so I won't try to recapitulate that here.

At the end of the day, if you want to write in 5-7-5 you can, of course. Some still do. But the syllables contained in the poem are not as important as the spirit of the poem. You can read a history of people trying to define it on the Haiku Society of America site, but the best way, IMHO, is to read good haiku and learn from them.

What I mean by the spirit of the poem (I know, it's pretty vague, right?) is the feeling you get when you read a good haiku. A haiku is traditionally made up of two parts. You have two images, not necessarily related, and then the spark that jumps between them when you read the poem. That's what I'm trying to get at as the spirit of haiku.

Buson wrote a famous haiku that goes something like "sudden chill/ in the bedroom/ stepping on my dead wife's comb". This can perhaps give you an idea of the sort of mild jolt between the two halves. (Like I said, books have been written on these subjects, so please forgive the necessarily sketchy nature of my reply.)

Another example is a haiku by Nick Virgilio: "lily:/ out of the water.../ out of itself"

Some commentators on haiku have said that they are unfinished poems, that the reader finishes the poem in his or her mind.

  • 1
    Would that single word haiku have been "Supercalifra- / -gilisticexpiali- / -dociosity"?
    – Joe Z.
    Mar 21, 2014 at 15:05
  • 2
    You'd have a great answer here if you attempted to state what "the spirit of the poem" is. An imprecise answer is better than the sort of "it's Japanese so I can't explain it" non-answer that happens so often when discussing Japanese culture.
    – DougM
    Mar 21, 2014 at 16:03

In the original text of ten random haikus by classical Japanese poets I just checked, length varies from 11 to 19 syllables and only two had 17. Just as they say in French, “il ne faut pas être plus royaliste que le roi”, you can’t be more of a haiku poet than Buson or Bashō.

A haiku is more about content than form — I would say that if nature isn’t evoked at least in filigree, or if it doesn’t describe the impression of a fleeting moment, it’s not a haiku.

Certain considerations of form do seem universal: there must be a natural pause between each of the three “lines” without run-ons as in much modern western poetry, the second line is the longest, and the last, if not absolutely the shortest in syllables, falls off the tongue the most quickly.


In order for it to be a Haiku, it must have 17 syllables. Because a Haiku is strictly 3 un-rhymed lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, people usually are very strict about this. If it is over or under 17 syllables, I'm sorry, but they probably wouldn't classify it as a Haiku. Hope that helps!

  • 4
    This is contradicted by the Wikipedia article about haiku. However, many people are taught the 5-7-5 syllable pattern for haiku, and it's become a commonly-held misconception. So, although I'd disagree with this answer in a technical sense, I think it reflects a widespread belief nonetheless.
    – J.R.
    Nov 8, 2012 at 10:48

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