A Guide to Japanese Poetry Forms

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We’ve all heard of haiku, but it’s far from the only form of Japanese poetry. Rather, it is only one of a long line of poetic forms that precede many forms of English poetry. The forms of Japanese poetry, in particular, have always fascinated me not only for their brevity but for a different approach to content. Although not a complete text, this guide to Japanese poetry forms is a good place to start.

Waka

The earliest Japanese poetry has its roots in Chinese poetry and the Chinese language. While the earliest Japanese poems written in Chinese were called kanshi, the earliest Japanese poems written in Japanese were called waka. Waka is less a form than a general term for classical Japanese poetry.

Shape name Meaning of form name Lines and syllables
Bussokusekika Buddha Footprint Poem Six lines
5/7/5/7/7/7
Choka Long poem Nine lines
5/7/5/7/5/7/5/7/7
Katauta Half-poem, fragment of a poem Three lines
5/7/7
Sedoka Poem repeated by the head, memorized poem Six lines
5/7/7/5/7/7
Tanka Short poem Five lines
5/7/5/7/7
The five forms of waka

These classic forms of Japanese poetry are still used today, not only by Japanese poets, but also by poets around the world. In Victoria Chang’s recent book, OBIT, she extensively used poems in the form of obituaries to mourn her parents. Interspersed in these sad pages were little poems about her children, all in tanka form.

image of two OBIT tankas by Victoria Chang
From OBIT by Victoria Chang

Renga

Of all the classical forms of waka poetry, tanka was the most popular. They were so popular, in fact, that poets began to use them to communicate. A poet wrote the first three lines, then another poet completed the six-line stanza. Six lines were not enough for a conversation, however, and so the renga was born.

Renga use the tanka form of 5/7/5/7/7, but use it as a stanza. A renga must have at least 100 stanzas. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, renga were a favorite pastime not only of Japanese poets, but of all Japanese, from aristocrats down to the bottom. The Renga were initially based on light and comical subjects. Over time and the form remained popular, however, more serious renga were written. Thus, a distinction between mushin (comic strip) and ushin (serious) renga was made.

Haiku

Look again at the tanka or renga form. Pay close attention to these first three lines. Five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables. Seems familiar? From the 100-stanza renga and the six-line tanka, the most famous form of Japanese poetry is haiku. Even at a fairly young age, I remember English teachers assigning the shape of haiku because of its small size and lack of rhymes. The form consists of three lines: five syllables, seven syllables and five syllables. Only 17 syllables in total. Simple, yes?

Well, maybe not that simple. Haikus generally focus on nature. With so few syllables available, each image should have as much oomph as possible. Rather than simply describing a pastoral setting, haiku seek to explore nature as a metaphor for the emotion and emotions evoked by nature.

One of the most famous haikus is that of Matsuo Bashō, titled “The Old Pond”, which can be found in Basho: the complete haiku.

“The Old Pond” by Matsuo Bashō

Japanese:

Furuike you

kawazu tobikomu

mizu no oto

English:

An old silent pond …

A frog jumps into the pond,

splash! Silence again.

Despite its popularity, haiku is actually a new form of Japanese poetry. It began to be written in the 17th century, and the term haiku did not come into use until the 19th century. Karai Senryu created a variation (the Senryu, named after him) that shifted his focus from nature and emotion to human weaknesses and the irony of life. These variations are often much less serious and more satirical than their older cousin. Haiku was popularized in English at the start of the 20th century by imagist poets such as Ezra Pound, HD, and TE Hulme.

Haiga

Haiga is not really a form of poetry, but rather a different way of delivering that poetry. Japan, like China, has a rich history in calligraphy. Not only are words important, but the way those words are placed on a page can be beauty and art.

Portrait of Matsuo Bashō by Yokoi Kinkoku
A portrait of the poet Basho, with his most famous poem “An Old Pond” (circa 1820)

As early as the 7th century in China and the 17th century in Japan, poems were placed on a board using calligraphy. During the Edo period in Japan, the haiku and senryu forms became the chosen forms for this particular artistic treatment, and this is how the haiga was born. The haiga were frequently painted on wooden blocks, cloth or paper and used as room decorations.

In Zen Buddhism, creating a haiga is a way of meditating, focusing on the words of the poem, the painted pastoral image, and the calligraphy all at once. These days, haiga seems to have found a crooked home with Instagram. Just search for poetry to find hundreds of images with stanzas floating in front of them. Okay, maybe that pushes the shape too much.


Now take some paper and pencil and write yourself a haiku. Spin the tanka. While you’re at it, don’t forget to make your haiku a metaphor for nature and your inner emotional landscape. Write a tanka about your kids (or someone else’s kids) like Victoria Chang. Embrace these wonderful forms of Japanese poetry and all the depths they contain.

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