tagHow ToHow to Write Other Japanese Poetry

How to Write Other Japanese Poetry


When anyone decides to read or write Japanese Poetry a common thread in many of their forms quickly becomes apparent. Many are familiar with the basic form of haiku and in an earlier discussion I outlined the basic form for the tanka. These two forms of Japanese Poems follow a basic syllabic form using lines of 5 and 7 onji (part of Japanese speech approximating an English Syllable). This use of lines 5 and 7 onji long is also a feature of many other Japanese forms.

It should be remembered with these Japanese forms, when someone refers to syllables they are talking about the Japanese Onji, a part of speech similar to the English syllable but shorter. A single syllable word like "lake" in English could actually take two or three onji to pronounce. So as most writers of English language haiku these days will shorten the form to less than 17 syllables to more closely match the Japanese original, these other Japanese forms are often shortened too.

Katautas - A katautas is a basic form of Japanese Poetry from which many other forms such as haiku and tanka evolved. It is an unrhymed form of question and/or answer with the basic syllabic form of 5-7-7 onji. The brevity of the form is intended to intimate an utterance or "...a spontaneous emotive word or phrase." (1, pg. 154)

Why does the stream run?
The banks of the brook bloom
with roe and cup-moss, with rue.
(1, pg. 155)

Choka The choka is an unrhymed poem of any length using alternating 5- and 7- syllable lines ending with one additional 7- syllable line. The following poem is in the general syllabic form 5-7-5-7-5-7-5-7-7

Why does the brook run?
The banks of the stream are green.
Why does the stream run?
The banks of the brook bloom
with roe and cup-moss.
The grain in the fields, straw men
talking with the wind.
Have you come far water-borne
Here are hounds-tongue, mistletoe.
(1, pg. 156)

Sedoka A sedoka is basically two katautas with a space between the two triplets (three lined stanzas), except that the sedoka is not necessarily of the question or answer pattern. The form is marked by a turn, or slight break between the stanzas. Though written by one poet, it can be written as dialogue as in the following 5-7-7, 5-7-7 syllable poem.


I am wearing blue
in honor of the sky. Shall
you wear green to honor earth?

I will don rainbows;
I will wear snow on my back—
White, allcolor forever.

    Lewis Turco

Somonka The somonka is a love poem in the form of a letter, made up of two tankas written by two poets. The first tanka is a statement of love, the second is the response. The following example was written by a single poet, but is written in the form of a somonka using a 5-7-5-7-7, 5-7-5-7-7 syllable form.


I am writing you
from a pit. It is quite dark
here. I see little.
I am scratching this note on a stone
Where are you? It has been long.

Thank you for your note.
I do not know where I am
I believe I may
be with you. It is not dark
here. The light has blinded me.

    Lewis Turco

Renga The renga is a tanka written by two poets where the first poet writes the triplet (three line stanza) and the second poet finishes the poem with a couplet (two lined stanza) response. Often the renga is extended creating a renga chain where a sequence of renga are created by a number of poets. The basic idea is that the first triplet will establish a subject with the following couplet and all ensuing triplets and couplets comment on, amplify or add to the initial triplet. Another arrangement will have the initial triplet set the subject and the following couplet will be a response. Ensuing triplets will then rephrase the initial triplet and the following couplets will be responses to the rephrased triplet.

Renga chains were very popular in Japan with drinking establishments often acting as meeting places for the poets involved in writing these chains. As the chains got longer and longer and the poem got more and more complicated the poets would often get very rowdy. A specific type of renga chain growing out of these social events was the haikai no renga which was a humorous renga chain. Haikai no renga translates as "renga of humor," an appropriate title considering the often drunken times these gatherings often became.




1. Turco, Lewis The New Book of Forms, A Handbook of Poetics University Press of New England 1986.

2. Ueda, Makoto ed. Modern Japanese Tanka, An Anthology Columbia University Press, New York 1996

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