March 5: The 5-7-5 Project

So as you all know (right? right?) the Haiku Foundation is running a haiku contest right now called HaikuNow. The deadline is March 31 and you are all going to enter (waves Jedi hand). I’m planning on entering myself, and here is where my story for today starts.

There are three categories in the contest: Traditional, Contemporary, and Innovative. I want to enter all three categories, because hey, why not. It’s probably best to go to the site for the explanation of what all these categories consist of, but suffice it to say, probably the majority of haiku you see here (mine and other people’s) fall into the Contemporary category, a few into the Innovative category, and practically none into the Traditional category, because the Traditional category requires that the haiku be three lines, 5-7-5 syllables. Yes! Isn’t that cool and retro!

On seeing this in the rules, I thought, “Wow. 5-7-5. Can I even do that? I mean, you know, without sounding like an idiot?” Whenever I’ve tried writing 5-7-5 in the past , they’ve ended up stilted and wordy, and that’s usually what I think about most 5-7-5 efforts by other people as well. I don’t think 5-7-5 works well most of the time for English haiku, for whatever reason. Unnecessary words and unnatural syntax seem to be almost inevitable.

But I’m always up for a challenge. So I devised this little project for myself about a week ago to try to ensure that by March 31 I would have a 5-7-5 haiku whose guts I didn’t hate. I decided to write one every day. Okay, that doesn’t sound like much of a project. But I also decided to then rewrite it in the way that I would write it if I were addressing the subject in my usual haiku style (whatever that is — if you’ve figured it out please let me know because I don’t have a clue).

I’m hoping that this exercise will help me figure out, not just how to write 5-7-5 better, but also a few other things I’ve been wondering about haiku, like whether maybe most people (including me) are in fact writing them too short these days, and what kind of information and words it is necessary or optimal to have in haiku, and … I don’t know. Some other stuff I don’t remember right now. It’s been a long day.

So just for fun … here’s one of my attempts at 5-7-5 and Not 5-7-5. You’re welcome to join me in this project if you want, for the month or just for a day or two or whatever. Let me know what your thoughts are.


three humpbacks breaching
three blue hills in the distance
that seem to rise, rise —


whale watch
on shore
blue hills breach



14 thoughts on “March 5: The 5-7-5 Project

    • That’s happened to me every once in a while, too.
      It’s interesting, practicing doing this has definitely made it easier for me to write 5-7-5 with more natural syntax and fewer extraneous words. I’ve actually written one or two I don’t hate already. 😉 I don’t think I’m going to make it a regular practice, though …

  1. interesting. i think i prefer your 575 here. the relationship is excellent with a cool twist. i’m not so sure i get the same sense from the second one. …because… …well… i dont think hills breach – in the traditional sense of that word – may be they do, but i wonder about it – which probably isnt quite what i should be wondering about??? i dont have that same issue with hills that rise. and of course whales do both.

    the scent of warm bread
    heavy coats on wooden pegs
    a winter kitchen

    winter kitchen
    coats on wooden pegs
    the scent of bread

    • of course in the first writing we can make that work – or work at it until we think it works. where as in the re-write we are at a disadvantage because we are limited to working with what we’ve already made work and trying to pare it down. still an interesting challenge. cool.

      • ha. now i wonder… if going the other way – yes, i think that would be difficult and challenging too – so i wonder if i’d then again find i prefer the first to the second largely because of the restrictions we’d have to work with to make the longer version work. hmmmm….

        • Yeah, I have “cheated” a few times and gone backwards to get the 5-7-5. This whole thing entertains me greatly. I actually have slightly more respect for 5-7-5 now than I used to, not that I think it’s necessary in any way to write haiku that way but I can appreciate it as an intellectual and linguistic exercise the way I appreciate writing sonnets and villanelles and sestinas and all those funny things too. It definitely does get easier with practice.

          Also — responding to your previous point — I’m not necessarily sticking strictly with the material that’s in the 5-7-5 when I write my shortened version, sometimes I’m just using it as inspiration.

    • Yeah … in a way I like both of them although I think (modern ELH) haiku purists are probably shuddering at #1. If they need to just call it a short poem they can go ahead, I don’t mind.

      I think when I was thinking about hills breaching, I was thinking about what it looks like when you round a coast and all of a sudden you see hills in the distance rising out of the ground the way whales suddenly rise out of the water … so “breach” here is pretty much equivalent to “rise” in the 5-7-5. I suppose it’s a metaphor … horrors!

      • oh. yeah. i see. more like driving up a hill and as you top the hill, in the distance you see hills rise above the road. yeah. i can see that. altho not in the ku so much. as i dont get a sense of driving or that i the reader is moving. i like the idea a lot tho.

        • Well, I guess all my experiences of whale watching have been from whale watching boats — I don’t know if in Hawaii you can see whales from shore or what but in New England (which is the only place I’ve ever gone whale watching) you have to go way out in the ocean to see any. So I guess I always think of whale watching as something you do when you’re moving … that’s interesting that some people might not read it that way depending on their experience.

          • that’s a really good point (imo) – the one about common experience between writer and reader. it’s a lot harder to make connections if you are not at least aware of the kind of experience being presented.

            in hawaii you can take boats to see whales. once you get to where you can see them reasonably well the boats usually stop (in my experience). then they move on if the whales move away. in fact if the whales come toward a boat the boat is required to stop by law – when a whale gets within a certain distance.

            yeah, you can see whales from shore here. i watched some a couple of weeks ago. these were a ways out there tho (i took some photos but they are small – in the right way i might be able to use one or two shots). a boat would have made it easier. sometimes they are closer in to shore in some places.

  2. I am really new to haiku and I too tend to write shorter ones rather than 5-7-5, but I also am going to enter in all three categories–why not, as you say. I really like your idea for studying the form and I think I’ll try writing one 5-7-5 each day as well. Personally, on your post, I like the second one more (big surprise), but the feel and meaning of each seems slightly different to me, so maybe it is good to have both!

    • I do like the second one better too but I also don’t hate the first one and sometimes I wonder how my response to the two of them has been shaped by by the kind of haiku that I’m used to seeing and not necessarily by what is more artistically successful. I’m trying to look really carefully at what I write this month and really think about what kind of language and information serves the purpose of haiku best.

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