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Tinker

Waka

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Explore the Craft of Writing Poetry
Japanese Poetry

The waka is said to be the classic verse form of Japanese poetry. It is from the waka that most Japanese forms develop. Originally the term waka 和歌, which means "Japanese poem", simply separated and identified a poem that was written in the Japanese language from kanshi which is a poem written in Chinese by Japanese poets. (Chinese was the language of early Japanese scholars and the earliest Japanese literature was mostly written in Chinese. The most common form of kanshi is written using the Chinese form Qi, Cheng, Zhuan,Jie which the Japanese call Shichigon-zekku and is written in quatrains; it is the most popular form of Japanese chanted (shigin) poetry.

L1 kiku - 起句 Beginning, sets the scene.
L2 shoku - 承句 development, expands image
L3 tenku - 転句 contrasting image
L4 kekku - 結句 insight drawn from the images

The early waka developed from the 4 line zekku and was expanded by the Bussokuseki ,style verse which is an archaic poetic form with lines of 5-7-5-7-7-7 onji. Today the term Bussokuseki refers to the ancient poems inscribed beside the stone Buddha Foot at Yakushi Temple in Nara.

As a poetic genre, waka encompassed such verse forms as the choka, katuata, tanka, renga and sedoka but in time it was only identified with the short poem, the frame of the tanka.

The brevity of the waka allows the poet to provide a miniscule glimpse into a perceived subject. It limits the poet to a specific count of 31 onji, in English we use the less complicated, syllable. The result of which is defined images, exacting dialog, and a concentrated glimpse into the poet's world. It does not allow for storytelling, moral definition or expressions of religious devotion.

Early poems in waka form were more often sorrowful than joyful. Sorrow over the passing of time was a dominant theme. The ancient custom of writing a "Death Poem" was often written in waka verse.

If only I had
Merely watched as they fell ---
The plum blossoms---
But, alas, their fragrance
Lingers still on my sleeve.
             --- Sosei (859-897) from Seeds in the Heart by Keene

Today the waka appears on the surface to be the same as the tanka (short song). The physical structure is rooted in the same earth. However, the early waka was written by nobles and commoners alike and tended to use plain language and remained true to the experience. While the tanka was originally considered court poetry in classical language and it was acceptable for the experience to be imagined. The line between waka and tanka is very thin and seems to be defined more by time line than definition. The terms in today's world seem interchangeable and tanka is the favored. In my attempt to discover and understand nuances of poetic forms, I view and offer the forms as separate.

The defining features of the waka are:

  1. a pentastich, a poem written in 5 lines.
  2. syllabic, 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. 31 onji, in English, 31 syllables.
  3. true to the heart of the poet. The inspiration is to be drawn from the experience.
  4. an early model for the tanka and many other Japanese forms.
  5. gathered into collections. In most Japanese anthologies poems are arranged in seasonal sequence followed by considered, poetic-worthy topics such as love or grief.

    Purple fades to white,
    fragile plum blossoms retire
    to drift to the earth.
    Summer will pass, soon the fall,
    I too pale, my eyes water.
                          --- Judi Van Gorder

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