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Japanese Poetic Forms

The Japanese Ideal

Without much doubt we can assert that the Japanese have a precise way of looking at the world and representing it with a restraint and precision somewhat unique only to them. Not surprisingly then, their approach to the poetic form shows similar discipline and artistry which often sets the poetry of this beautiful culture apart.

Poetic Forms

There is a surprisingly large number of different poetic forms in most languages and Japanese is no exception. Let’s take a look at some of the common and more interesting among them to get a better sense of the techniques that serve to illustrate the nature of this exotic land.

Haiku is perhaps the most recognizable form of Japanese poetry, as the word itself is more likely to be familiar to us. Traditionally the Haiku is a 3-line poem which has 5 syllables each in the first and third lines, leaving the middle (or second) line with 7 syllables. This of course is an over simplification of the concept which is actually harder to translate accurately into an English format, when you consider that the Japanese count sounds and not syllables. A more noteworthy feature is that the choice of words should be objective and thus allow the reader to garner their own reaction to the content. All this from 3 lines! This feature aptly demonstrates the paradox that is Japanese Poetry, which is both simplistic and complex at the same time. It has been said that the Haiku is both the easiest and hardest form of poetry to compose.

Often mistaken for the Haiku, the next poetic form Senryu is similar in its format comprising a 5-7-5 pattern of syllables. However, unlike the Haiku, this form generally addresses subjects of human interest rather than nature, as more specifically found in Haiku.

Easy to see why there is often some confusion as to which form is being used!

~ Kenkabo. looking for the shoes. of the visitor—the little boy. has them on. ~ Koka. squinting. to read the sign. optician ~ Alan Pizzarelli. Her name forgotten… the sweetheart my father said. I would forget. ~ Ross Kremer.

Want to be even more confused? The Katauta poetic form is similarly a 3-line poem which may follow the 5-7-5 pattern as previously described or the 5-7-7 format. Technically this form is considered a half or incomplete poem and is distinguishable from the other two so far mentioned formats by, once again, the subject matter. Unlike others, this poem would be written and addressed specifically to a lover. The pairing together of the poems can culminate in a question and answer format that comprises the conversation of two lovers and will have thus evolved into what is known as the Sedoka form. Closely related to this idea of question and answer within the form is the Mondo poem which focuses on the meaning of nature. This poem could be as simple as a one liner or as long as a 5-7-7 format that possess the question and then presents the response.

This is but a small taste of the many nuances found within the Japanese poetic structure that illustrates the amazing restraint and precision born out of a simplicity that belies the underlying complexity of those forms. A fascinating culture is definitely revealed through this window that is their poetic heritage.