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Passions in Poetry

Digital Passions
Poetry Magazine

Digital Passions #9
published Wednesday, July 18, 2001


Editor's Notes by Karilea Rilling Jungel
Featured Poet - A Selection by Beki Reese
Copyright Infringement by Poet deVine
Talking to Trees - A Poetry Duet
The Language of Silence by Karen A. Hood
The Whispering Tree (Poem) by Linda Bramblett
The Final Word by Poet deVine

* Bonus Features, Poetry & Prose

All About Haiku by Nancy Ness
Haiku and Senryu Selected by Sven/Temptress
Tanka Selected by Marge Tindal
Love Poems Selected by Sven
Poems on Life Selected by Marge Tindal
Spiritual Poetry Selected by Kathleen
Poetry Buffet Selected by Karen A. Hood
Friendship Poems Selected by Lone Wolf
Teen Poetry Selected by Javier Agosto
Going Nuts (Short Story) by Karen A. Hood

Read It All (one big page)

The Final Word Haiku and Senryu


All About Haiku
by Nancy Ness (aka Nan)

It's easy to write haiku, isn't it? The format is simple: We need only write about nature and convey a universal truth, while confining our verse to 17 syllables. Break the 17 syllables into three lines of 5-7-5 each, and we've succeeded. Haven't we? The Japanese forefathers who wrote great poetic works for centuries may not have been inclined to think so.

Haiku is significantly more involved than this simplified rendition.

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What could be so difficult? What is so intriguing about Haiku? Furthermore, why are so many poets beginning to write Tanka? What, many still ask, is Senryu? Why are these Japanese poetic formats becoming so increasingly popular in today's Western cultures? To answer these questions, we have to look at the origin and evolution of Japanese poetry.

The appeal of these seemingly simple verses undoubtedly stems from their unique messages that deliver succinct words of wisdom to their readers. A well-written Haiku will incorporate two criteria. It will impart a universal sentiment that relates to all of humanity - in 17 "onji" (Japanese equivalent of syllables) or less, and it will allude thematically in some way to nature.

It's often difficult, though, to translate specific poetry from one language to another without losing some of its intrinsic ambience. Adapting Japanese poetry to English is a classic example of this principle. Japanese verse is primarily syllabic rather than metered or rhymed. The commonality of word endings in Japanese would make the concept of rhyming much to simplistic for the mature reader.

Inherent differences in the two languages hinder a smooth translation of poetry. Unlike English, Japanese is inclined to adhere to very succinct verbiage, thereby using very few syllables to say a great deal. Proper Japanese grammar also permits the interchanging of word order where English does not. The result of these syntactical differences is that writing in English is significantly more restrictive. English syllables inherently contain more information than Japanese, resulting in a verse of the same onji or syllable count being much more profuse.

The structure of Haiku, is infinitely more flexible in the Japanese language than its English counterpart. Most Japanese poetry is comprised of verse that involves some combination of five and seven onji lines. Historically, Japanese Haiku were written on one line - composed of two major parts of varying lengths, such as 5-12, 12-5, 8-9, 9-8, 7-10, or 10-7 onji. Properly written, each line of Japanese poetry carries an odd number of onji.

Modern day Western versions of Haiku differ somewhat from the original classic format. The ultimate "English Haiku" challenge is to write effective verse in fewer syllables than the standard 17. The Western writer must make a choice. If he/she opts to conform to the rigid structure of form, then a 17 syllable Haiku will adhere to the Japanese onji format. If one prefers to adapt to the doctrine of brevity, an abbreviated version is genre of choice.

Contemporary haiku writers are now penning their verse in 3-5-3 format as well. These 11 syllables more closely approximate the same Japanese message using a total of 17. Some brave Western poets have attempted to narrow down their syllable count even further to a 2-3-2 pattern, but usually find that effective writing on this level is difficult within English grammar constraints. Unlike Japanese renditions, rearranging English syllables would alter the intended meaning of most short verses.

Try as we may, we just can't have it both ways. The trend of contemporary English-Haiku seems to be spurning the constrictions of tight form in favor of brevity, further affecting the evolution of the contemporary American Haiku

Although Haiku was the first of its kind to find its way to the Western world, it's merely one of many Japanese variations of the 5-7 poetic form. Numerous variations have developed over the centuries, and a select few have recently begun to permeate contemporary Western literary culture. Tanka is becoming quite a well-known poetic form in today's literary world, with Senryu following dutifully behind. These poetic forms, of course, are preceded by many others…

According to researchers of ancient Japanese poetry, the Katauta is recognized as their "basic unit of poetry." It incorporates a 5-7-7 onji format, or a total of 19 syllables. It has a specific rhythm and takes the form of either posing a question or giving an answer.

An expanded version of Katauta is used in both the Mondo and the Sedoka, which duplicate the syllabic pattern with 5-7-7-5-7-7, a total of 38 onji. The Mondo has.two distinct parts. First a question is posed, then a subsequent answer is written by a separate author. A distinct rhythm break occurs in the middle of this structure where the question and answer join. Sedoka is similar to a Mondo in that it also consists of two parts (one pair) of Katauta. The difference is that Sedoka were written by a single author and did not generally consist of a question and answer part.

Senryu is rapidly gaining popularity in the Western culture. Surprisingly, poets who consider themselves to be writing Haiku are frequently penning Senryu. The criteria for this format are similar to Haiku, but Senryu doesn't necessarily have to impart its message through an allusion to nature. The theme is totally optional.

Tanka is rapidly gaining popularity in the Western literary world as well. Of all the poetic forms ever written by the Japanese, Tanka adheres most rigidly to form in terms of structure. It requires 31 onji, and is divided into 5 lines of 5-7-5-7-7 onji each. Tanka, in its classical format, could also incorporate a variety of subjects.

Originally, Tanka were divided rhythmically at the end of the 12th onji with a new rhythm beginning at the 13th. Later, these poems were rhythmically divided at the end of the 17th. Modern Tanka utilizes either rhythmic version. Thematic approaches are optional, but a rhythmic division is still an important factor.

Tanka's advantage is that it allows the poet to delve further into themes that would be too longspun for Haiku to handle. Very rarely can Tanka, Haiku, or Senryu written in 17 or 31 respective English syllables be written properly to acquire the effect that the Japanese can do with their onji. To compensate, Western Tanka writers frequently choose to adapt a more concise version of 3-5-3-5-5 syllables, maintaining consistency in rhythmic format.

The most intricate Japanese poetic format is the Choka, the long poem. Its structure consists of 5-7-5-7-5-7-5-7-5-(any number of repetitions)-7-7 onji lines, and the poem itself can span any overall length. Choka are frequently known to exceed 100 lines. In spite of the succinct nature of the onji, many Choka correlate to epics in their extensive presentation.

Japanese poetry as a whole is certainly forging a Westward literary path. It can be enjoyed equally by both young and old… for its auditory appeal as well as its universal wisdom. It remains in its infancy in the English-speaking world, however. As I found when I began my research, there's much, much more to learn. Japanese works are perhaps the most succinct form of poetry in the world, yet we could write endless volumes about them….

These wonderful Japanese forms are rarely found in Western textbooks about formatted poetry. It's no surprise, then, that Westerners don't have a true understanding of their intrinsic nature. Haiku, along with its counterparts are perhaps the most ancient forms of poetry; yet they are likely also among the most under-rated and misunderstood poetic forms of our day.

There are understandably differing opinions about the "proper" way to write these wonderful poetic forms. Those traditionalists who think that retaining the classic Japanese style is most important are totally committed to their stance. Contemporary liberals who believe that adaptations are appropriate are equally as dogmatic in their opinions. Who's right? I feel that the answer lies completely and subjectively within the mind of the writer… or perhaps the reader… Doesn't it?