Well, I always feel bad for the poets out there, because I feel like you get the short end of the stick on my blog. Truth is I know next to nothing about poetry, so I figure it’s better that I just stay quiet about it rather than embarrass myself.
But today you poets are in for a surprise. I have an expert in the figurative house, and her name is Sarah Potter, and she has agreed to discuss Japanese Poetic Forms with you today.
Let it never be said that I don’t care about all of you.
And now, here’s Sarah!
Sarah Potter “Waning” Lyrical About Japanese Poetic Forms
Thank you so much, Bill, for inviting me as a guest on your wonderful blog. I’m both excited and a bit daunted, as this is the first time a fellow blogger has asked me to write about poetry.
My love affair with Japanese poetic forms began in December 2010, when I signed up for a Twitter account. Here, I stumbled upon haiku, which fitted the 140-character limit for tweets while also having something meaningful to say. To my delight, my first attempts at haiku were retweeted numerous times and gained me a band of followers, including some from Japan! I saw this as a great compliment, as haiku is a traditional Japanese poetic form. [Note: The spelling for haiku is the same in singular and plural].
A year later, I started blogging as Sarah Potter Writes, with my main focus on haiku. Again I collected some Japanese followers, despite my unavoidable Anglicisation of their traditional poetic form. Most Japanese words are polysyllabic, meaning each one consists of multiple syllables. This makes it extra hard to pen a haiku in English and stick rigidly to the 17-syllable limit, without producing something unwieldly that defeats the object of the poem. Nevertheless, I do stick rigidly to the 17-syllable rule as I like challenges.
So here are the rules of traditional Japanese haiku that it’s my quest to adhere to as much as possible, without destroying the meditative spirit of the exercise…
- 17 syllables
- 3 lines (5/7/5 syllable count)
- No adverbs
- Sparing with adjectives
- Use present tense
- Focus on images from nature
- Focus on brief moment in time
- Contains a season word to indicate the time of year
- Can be read in one breath
- Pauses at end of 1st or 2nd line (*see below for further explanation)
- Brings enlightenment and illumination
(*In haiku, ideally there’s a juxtaposition of two images or ideas, with the cutting word between them that signals a break in the line of thought. This can be an actual word, or expressed in punctuation, most commonly an ellipsis).
On the subject of punctuation, you will notice that most haiku poems have no punctuation of any kind, or capital letters at the beginning of lines. The reason I don’t adhere to this rule on my blog, is that the three-line formatting disappears during automatic post shares with Facebook. This produces an unpunctuated lowercase string of words that, at times, can read as random nonsense.
Here are two of my bird haiku:
plump wood pigeon contemplates
the meaning of spring
horizon smudged grey…
invisible seagulls squawk
beyond summer rain
Further to one-verse haiku, is Haikai no renga (also known as renku), which is a linked verse game. I wrote the following verses, one for each phase of the moon. The name used at the end of the second line of the opening verse is the Shinto moon god, and the last line of the final verse is the Shinto sun goddess.
under cutglass stars
she dreams of Tsukuyomi
new moon love potion
legged draped over crescent moon
girl hangs upside down
gibbous halfway house
shadow night crickets gossip
she needs sedating
full moon tree-trunk spin
naked dancing on silver
she coruscates dew
blackbird sings her home
waning moon ambushed by dawn
You will notice on my blog that I usually post a photograph with my haiku. Some haiku purists might object to this, but I love photography, although I do try to compose haiku that will also stand on their own without a photo.
In 2012, I had the delight of collaborating with artist, Julian Sutherland-Beatson, to produce some haiga (haiku art). This involved me providing him with some haiku poems that he interpreted and integrated into paintings. Here’s one of them. To see the full set of paintings, click here.
Senryū shares the 17-syllable, 3-line poetic form of haiku, but is more often about human foibles than nature, tends towards the humorous or cynical, and doesn’t contain a cutting or a season word. You will notice that a number of senryū are about old age, often written by poets who are of mature years themselves, so either they’re laughing at themselves or a loved one in a playful way. Here’s one of my senryū and you can draw what conclusions you like from it!
old tartan blanket
once used for picnics and lust
keeps his stiff knees warm
Now for the classical poetic form of Tanka. Historically, it predates haiku and is one of the major genres of Japanese literature, often sung in its early days. Here are the rules of the Tanka:
- 31 syllables
- 5 lines (5/7/5/7/7 syllable count)
- Lines 1 & 2 are the upper phrase (Kaminoku), containing the primary image
- Line 3 contains the pivotal image (as in a sonnet)
- Lines 4 & 5 are the lower phrase (shimonoku), switching from the image to a contrasting image or a study of the emotional response
- Unlike haiku, it can contain simile, metaphor, and personification
Here are two of my tanka:
enhanced by rhododendrons
— rejuvenation —
an old woman with grey hair
wearing neon pink lipstick
rain tumbles, birds swoop,
music floats from the red house
an old man, his piano,
a candelabra, her face
Finally, I’ll touch briefly on dodoitsu, which I’d never heard of until Bill mentioned it in one of his posts.
- 26 syllables
- Four lines (7/7/7/5)
- Focuses on work or love
- Usually has a humorous twist
Here’s my first dodoitsu (more to follow on my blog soon):
Through the window a rainbow
she is desperate to share.
Moulded in cushion comfort
he prefers his tea.
Why do I love Japanese poetic forms? It’s to do with their simplicity: their ability to bring tiny details into sharp focus. It’s the challenge of saying a great deal in as few words as possible. They’re meditative, calming, uplifting, and encourage one to see the world through a new and better lens. It has also helped improve my fiction writing and made it more succinct and attuned to the senses.
Connect with Sarah:
AND THAT, MY FRIENDS, IS A BRIEF GLIMPSE OF SARAH
Thank you so much, Sarah. I learned tons today and now I can rest, for awhile, on my laurels, feeling good about myself for posting something to do with poetry. You have done me a great service.
Seriously, folks, go check Sarah out. She is seriously talented.
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”