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Tinker

Choka

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Explore the Craft of Writing Poetry

The Epic

Japanese Poetry

The choka (長歌 long poem) was the epic, story telling form of Japanese poetry from the 1st to the 13th century, known as the Waka period. Storytelling was rare in the Japanese language during the Waka period although it is found in the Man'yôshû and even the Kokinshú. Most often the Japanese poet would write epics in classical Chinese. Still, the occasional poet with a story to tell would tackle the choka, the earliest of which can be traced back to the 1st century. It describes a battle and is 149 lines long.

Originally chokas were sung, but not in the Western sense of being sung. The oral tradition of the choka was to recite the words in a high pitch.

The defining features of the choka are:

  1. a narrative.
  2. syllabic. Composed of any number of couplets made up of alternating 5-7 onji (sound syllables) per line. In English we can only treat the onji as a syllable.
  3. unrhymed.
  4. concluded by a hanka, an envoy in the form of the waka, 31 onji or sound syllables in 5 lines with 5-7-5-7-7. "han" meaning repetition, the hanka is to summarize the choka. The word tanka is often substituted for hanka or waka (they are all rooted in the same 31 syllable, 5 line form, their root seems to make them interchangeable with only subtle differences to separate them.)

    Here is my attempt to provide a highly condensed version inspired by the history and features of the choka.

    Tale of Honor by Judi Van Gorder

    Kilimanjaro
    fresh snow crunches under foot
    narrow mountain path
    traveled by lone samurai
    seeker of vengeance
    returned from war, tracks his prey,
    young brother's killers. . . .

    at rise of the waning moon
    sneak thieves strike village
    novice boy challenged jackals
    dagger drawn thrust low
    youngster's entrails ripped and spilled
    cowards run to hills
    with sun high in winter sky
    sibling soldier stalks,
    prowling panther poised to kill

    disciplined, steadfast
    trained warrior against pack
    jackals ring soldier
    jab, snap, samurai honor
    blood on Kilimanjaro

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