Haiku is an unrhymed, syllabic form adapted from the Japanese: three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables. Because it is so brief, a haiku is necessarily imagistic, concrete and pithy, juxtaposing two images in a very few words to create a single crystalline idea. The juxtaposed elements are linked in Japanese by a kireji, or “cutting word”—poets writing haiku in English or other Western languages often use a dash or an ellipsis to indicate the break or cut between the linked images. Haiku poems first appeared in Japan 700 years ago, but the form did not migrate into Western poetry until the 19th century, after Japan’s harbors were opened to European and American trade and travel, when several anthologies of haiku were translated into English and French. In the early years of the 20th century the Imagist poets adopted the form as an ideal poem, writing what they called “hokku” in the three-line 5-7-5 pattern. Mid-century Beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder were also enamored of the haiku form, and it has flourished in contemporary poetry, particularly American poetry. Because the form has been brought into English from a language written in characters, in which a haiku appears on a single line, many poets writing haiku in English are flexible about the syllable and line counts, focusing more on the brevity, condensed form and “Zen” attitude of haiku. Traditional Japanese haiku requires a seasonal reference, or kigo, drawn from a defined list of words pertaining to the natural world. The related short form of senryu is distinguished from haiku as being concerned with “human nature” or social and personal relationships.
Here are three examples of the haiku of Basho Matsuo, the first great poet of haiku in the 1600s: An old silent pond...
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.
a worm digs silently
into the chestnut.
Tanka may be defined in several ways, but this often lyrical, chiefly five-line poem, derived from the Japanese tanka and its predecessor, waka, continues to attract poets around the world. The following are three definitions or comments about tanka that may prove useful to members of the Tanka Society of America as we continue our study and appreciation of this poetry. By Pat Shelley, from Footsteps in the Fog, Foster City, California: Press Here, 1994: "Tanka in English is a small lyrical poem that belongs to everyone. Still written in thirty-one or fewer syllables in five rhythmic lines, as it was over 1,200 years ago, it can embrace all of human experience in its brief space with emotions of love, pity, suffering, loneliness, or death, expressed in the simplest language. It may sometimes seem fragmentary or lacking in unity because it is more intuitive than analytical, using imagery rather than abstractions . . . . One of the more challenging (and charming) of its elements is the subtle turn at the center of the poem, something unexpected perhaps, usually occurring after the second or third line as two seemingly unrelated events, images, or ideas are brought together, something less than narrative, an elliptical space that adds pleasure to our listening. Tanka is about our everyday lives in the smallest happenings, a little song of celebration." By Gerald St. Maur, from his 1999 Haiku Canada Newsletter article entitled "From Haiku to Tanka: Reversing Poetical History" (also published in the TSA Newsletter, II:1, Spring 2001) "In going beyond the experience of the moment, the tanka takes us from delight to fulfillment, from insight to comprehension, and psycho-organism to love; in general, from the spontaneous to the measured. To achieve this requires a fundamental shift in emphasis: from glimpse to gaze, from first sight to exploration, and from juxtaposition to interplay, in short, from awareness to perspective . . . .It is thus evident that to compose a tanka is to articulate reflectively . . . . It is a shift which, in...
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