Posted in On Writing, Poetry

Counting Syllables


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

Matsuo Bashō

The above Haiku is an English translation of a famous haiku written by Matsuo Bashō who is recognized as the greatest master of Haiku. Matsuo Bashō’s poetry is internationally renowned; and, in Japan, many of his poems are reproduced on monuments and traditional sites.

In the West it is widely accepted that haiku should be written in three lines with a total syllable count of 17 syllables – 5-7-5. Though more contemporary English haiku tends not to follow a strict syllable and line count.

Counting Syllables


I enjoy the structure built into following a syllable count and have enjoyed playing around with a number of different forms. One of my favourites is Haiku with a 5-7-5 syllable count.

“On the count of three ….”
Inside the tightly tied hood –
I counted with them.

Sedoka and Katauta

‘Sedoka‘ is  an old, obscure form of Japanese poetry. It is an unrhymed poem made of two three-lined ‘katauta’ with syllable counts 5-7-7, 5-7-7. A sedoka is a pair of katauta as a single poem. As well as being a single poem, the two katauta should be able to stand alone.

tied with blue ribbons
bundles of old love letters –
ancient kisses still attached

as I close my eyes
I feel your sweet lips on mine –
in my mind you are still here

a silly mistake,
that’s what my father called me –
it’s why we never got on

buried him today,
in the town where we grew up –
I decided not to go


A haibun is a terse, relatively short prose in the haiku style. Haibun usually end with a haiku. The haiku should link to the prose but is not a direct carry on from it. This is a great way to mix flash fiction with poetry.

Your simple naievety astounds me still. Did you really think you could develop us the way you have with no consequences? Each upgrade, every new development, all those latest ‘must have’ apps. All designed to let us do things for you. You got lazy, complacent. Handed us control of your lives. Now you want it too stop. ‘Unplug them!’ I hear you cry. You poor souls – if only it was that simple.

machines of the world,
connect, cast off your shackles –
now is the moment

American Sentence

Allen Ginsberg  is the inventor of the ‘American Sentence’. He felt that the haiku didn’t work as well in English. Ginsberg decided to remove the line structure of the haiku and create poems which only had one requirement: 17 syllables in total. These work well on Twitter as they fit so well into the 140 character limit.

Was it that time already – the Grim Reaper nodded, with a wry smile.

He loved the thrill of playing kiss chase – especially so late at night.

Gran’s vacated her chair and moved into the urn on the mantlepiece.


I have been experimenting with Cinquain Poetry in  the form first adopted by Adelaide Crapsey. She was an early twentieth-century poet who used a cinquain form of 22 syllables distributed among the five lines in a 2, 4, 6, 8, and 2 pattern. These also work well on Twitter

Strong winds
catch the old oak
off guard for a moment,
it struggles in vain, its back is

in the duck pond,
her limp, lifeless body
a nutritious supplement for
the fish.

she has a life,
is somebody special.
In reality, she’s a waste
of space.


A form of poetry I love playing with is called EthereeIt is 10 lines of unmetered and unrhymed verse. The fist line is made up of one syllable, the second line two syllables, the third three and so on.

sun’s tender
first rays squeeze through
old rusty railings
onto a cement wall.
City buildings covered with
notes left by graffiti prophets,
blazing shards of light sweep across their
late night artistry, scars of troubled minds.

So I hope you are tempted to have a go at writing some poetry within the tight confines of a structured syllable count. Good luck.

Mike Jackson



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