Japanese Poetry Forms

Lately I have been exploring the many forms of poetry, both new and old, because sometimes I find it easier to write with a blueprint. Ultimately I intend to try my hand at every form I come across, for the sake of expanding my horizons, though undoubtedly I will use some of them only once. My main resource for this study is a website called Shadow Poetry: A Poet’s Writing Resource. Someone has asked me to share what I am learning, and I’m very happy to do so. So here is my first article about poetry, and I’ve created a new tab in the menu, “About Poetry,” for the express purpose of sharing what I’ve learned.

This first installment is about Japanese poetic forms. There are six that I have come across, and all of them are quite short. Evidently, the Japanese are fond of brevity.

Some characteristics are true of all the forms.

  1. Often these poems are untitled, but I don’t suppose it’s a crime to put a title on them. I title mine but have left the titles off of the examples below.
  2. Punctuation generally is not used.
  3. Initial capitals are optional as well.

Here are the 6 Japanese forms in summary, but read below for more information on each one.

Name       Stanzas       Lines           Syllables       Theme
Haiku            1                 3                  5-7-5            nature
Senryu          1                 3                  5-7-5            human nature
Katauta         1                 3          5-7-5 or 5-7-7     love (“half” poem)
Sedoka          2            3 each       5-7-7, 5-7-7        love (“whole” poem)
Tanka            1                 5              5-7-5-7-7         anything
Lanturne      1                 5              1-2-3-4-1         anything (shape poem)

 

Haiku

This is by far the most easily recognized of all Japanese forms. True Haiku is made up of 3 lines, with 5-7-5 kana (Japanese scripts), respectively. They cannot truly be compared to English syllables, but that is as close as we can get in the English language. So the rule for an English Haiku calls for 17 syllables divided in 5-7-5 over 3 lines. A master at this form may use fewer than 17 syllables, but never more. Haiku is generally not written in one long sentence. Instead, either the first or last line will be a phrase, and the other two will support that phrase. To be a true Haiku, the subject should be nature, and it should capture a single moment in time.

Sample:
Fragile yellow bloom
stretches toward the sunlight
nothing else matters

Senryu (pronounced, sen-RYE-you)

Many poems you see labeled as Haiku are actually Senryu. A Senryu looks like a Haiku, but the subject of the poem is human nature, as opposed to nature itself.

Sample:
Privileged hands these
Which utter things
My tongue may not tell

Perhaps an improvement on the above example would be:
Privileged hands these
Boldly they utter things
My tongue may not tell

It is still within the 17-syllable limit, but now the center line has more syllables than the top and bottom, and it is divided into a phrase and a sentence, rather than being one long sentence.

Katauta

Katauta may also look like a haiku, although it is equally acceptable to have two “extra” syllables in line 3. The subject of the Katauta is love, and the poem itself is written from a lover to his or her beloved. A Katauta is considered to be only half a poem.

Sample:
Darling, I love you
more than I did yesterday
less than I will tomorrow

Sedoka

Two Katauta poems written together form a Sedoka. In the sample below, the first half is the lover addressing the beloved, and the second half is the beloved’s response. I don’t know that it has to be this way, but this is how I chose to apply the form.

Sample:
Will you still love me
when youthful vigor has gone
and golden hair waxed silver?

I will love you till
the sun forgets how to shine
and the moon falls from the sky

Tanka

Tanka is one of the longer Japanese forms, if you can call it long. It has 5 lines as opposed to the usual 3. The syllables are distributed as follows: 5-7-5-7-7. Although the Tanka is written as one stanza, it generally has two parts, with the second part either contrasting or elaborating on the first. The nice thing about Tanka is that the poem may be written on any subject.

Sample:
Without is sunshine
new green, a warm gentle breeze—
Dark clouds rage within
choking out life, threatening
to destroy all that is good

Lanturne

Also 5 lines long, the Lanturne is a shape poem, intended to resemble the shape of the Japanese lantern. To achieve this effect, the line lengths are 1-2-3-4-1 syllables respectively, and the lines are centered on the page. Like the Tanka, the Lanturne may also be written on any subject.

Sample 1:
O
lanturne
shine your light
illuminate
me

In this example, I was originally going to use the word lantern, but I liked the way the longer word looked on the page, for it provided a better balance to illuminate. Not only that, but it gave a double meaning to the poem.

Not all Lanturnes will look as tidy as this one, however. Here’s another example:

Sample 2:
Night
beckons
to lovers
of all ages,
Come.

As you see, the shape will vary with the words chosen, even though the syllable count is the same.

To learn more about these forms, I recommend you begin with this article from Shadow Poetry, and then dig deeper at your local library or other online resources. And have fun mastering these six Japanese poetic forms.

All poems above © 2017 Abigail Gronway – All Rights Reserved