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Haiku vs. Tanka

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  Teri Lapping  —  Grammar Tips
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Haiku vs. Tanka

Poetry takes on many forms across the globe. Poems can rhyme, poems can flow without punctuation, poems can express or describe or inspire. 

In this article, I will discuss two forms of Japanese poetry: the Haiku and the Tanka.

You will also learn to write a Japanese poem of your own. 


How do the Haiku and the Tanka Compare?

Both types of poetry share roots in the Japanese art traditions and in Japanese philosophy.

Both types of poetry are short, concise, and intense. 

Both use precise detail in their descriptions. 

Both types of poetry share many common rules. For example, the phrases are not intended to be read as a sentence, there are no capital letters used except in proper names and nouns.

Both types of poetry are intended to be uttered within the exhale of one breath.

Every word in a haiku or a tanga poem is carefully chosen and carries much importance. It is deceptively difficult to express images and ideas in such a minimal format. 


What is a Haiku?

The haiku is a compact and powerful Japanese poem that originated in the 13th century; it is the shortest and one of the most well-known forms of Japanese poetry.  

The word haiku is from the Japanese words “haikai no kuwhich means “light verse.” 

It is a form of poetry that does not rhyme. It is written in the present tense. It typically describes nature, emotions, and human consciousness.

The Haiku poem is constructed differently in Japanese and in English. 

In Japanese, this poem is written vertically as a solitary line. 

In English, it is written in three horizontal lines, consisting of 17 syllables (“on” or “morae”), arranged in a 5 – 7 – 5 pattern.

The first line consists of five syllables (named “kami go”.)
The second line consists of seven syllables (named: “naka shichi.)
The third line consists of five syllables (named: “shimo go”.)

There are usually three elements in a traditional haiku poem

a nature reference, 
two images that are juxtaposed, and 
a final line, a “cutting word” (“kireji”,) which pulls together the first two lines and closes the poem. 

For example: 

I am nobody:
A red sinking autumn sun
Took my name away.

RICHARD WRIGHT 



What is a Tanka?

Like the haiku, the tanka is also a relatively short and compact Japanese poem form that originated in the 17th century. The tanka is the shortest form of poetry after the haiku.

The word “tanka” is from the Japanese words “tanwhich means “short” and “kawhich means “song.” 

It often uses personification, metaphors, and similes to turn the reader inward, and to provoke a focus on central human emotions and experiences.

Like the haiku, the tanka is constructed differently in Japanese and in English. 

In Japanese, this poem is written vertically as a solitary line. 

In English, it is written in five horizontal lines, consisting of 31 syllables, arranged in a 5 – 7 – 5 – 7 - 7 pattern.

The first line consists of five syllables (named “kami go”.)
The second line consists of seven syllables (named: "naka shichi”.)
The third line consists of five syllables (named “shimo go”.)
The four line consists of seven syllables.
The fifth line consists of seven syllables. 

The first three lines of the tanka, called the “upper phrase” (“kami-no-ku”), are arranged in a 5 – 7 – 5 pattern which resembles the haiku poem in its structure. The “upper phrase” will often describe a thought or observation about the natural world. 

The next two lines of the tanka, called the “lower phrase” (“shimo-no-ku”) are arranged in a 7 – 7 pattern and will often comment or summarize the observation of the “upper phrase.”

For example:

cold wind blows outside
while the moon gleams as stars do
light struck through my thoughts
two fireflies have merged their winds
once so bright now just shadows

JASON


Writing a Haiku or a Tanka poem


Do you want to write your own haiku or tanka poem? You can! 

Writing a haiku or a tanka poem can be inspiring and rewarding! All it requires is concentration and focus. 

The following tips and thoughts will help you on your way:

Choose a topic: use what comes to mind without judgement. At this stage, don’t worry about counting syllables or controlling the form. Carry a notebook and ask yourself questions: 
What are you observing? 
What are you thinking about right now? 
How are you feeling? 

Convert your thoughts into images and symbols which capture the essence of your observations. Use details from all your senses.

Continue some of your sentence without pause from one line to the next, flowing the sentences around the ends of each line. 

Use a variety or rhythms and word structures within the lines. Use different multi-syllabic words at the ends of the lines to create an interesting rhythm: do not end each line with a one-syllable word.  

Do not make a rhyme at the end of the line. You do not need to use a title or punctuation.


When Writing a Haiku

Now is time to pay attention to the syllabic structure of the poem:

Line 1: 5 syllables
Line 2: 7 syllables
Line 3: 5 syllables

The first two lines contain the images; the third line sums up the poem.

For example:

the sun rose at dawn
warming the world with its light
though my bed was cold

TERI



When writing a Tanka:

Follow the structure of a tanka poem:

Line 1: 5 syllables
Line 2: 7 syllables
Line 3: 5 syllables
Line 4: 7 syllables
Line 5: 7 syllables

The first two lines will describe your experience. The third line will reflect on the first two lines. In the last two lines, reflect on the rest of the poem.  

For example:

I fell in the lake
into the deepest black hole
I am silent now
without your touch and your look
I breath and I die

TERI


Conclusion


The modern-day haiku and tanka poems take many liberties with the traditional form. Nevertheless, the haiku and the tanka remain very special forms of poetry. When successful, their condensed, powerful form still touches our unconscious as well as our conscious awareness. 

If you wish to read a haiku or a tanka poem, create an atmosphere conducive to thought and consideration. Slow yourself down into the rhythm of the poem. Read the poem more than once. Breathe and enjoy. 

Useful Note: For a quick check to see if your poem follows the rules, try out this awesome haiku checker!

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