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Japanese Poetry; Genre and Form


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Japanese Verse  The earliest poems of Japan were written in the ancient language of scholars, classical Chinese. The first poems written in the Japanese language were in waka form. Traditionally considered the first Japanese poem to ever be composed is found in the Kojiki, (Record of Ancient Matters) 712 BC. The poem is attributed to a Japanese god, Susano-o, on the occasion of building a palace for his bride,a classic waka.

Eightfold rising clouds
Build an eightfold fence,
An eightfold Izumo fence
Wherein to keep my bride---
Oh, splendid eightfold fence!
                         --- Susano-o  From Seeds in the Heart, A History of Japanese Literature Vol I
                                               by Donald Keene,1999,Columbia University Press

The preface of the 905 AD, imperial commissioned anthology of court poetry, the Kokinshú, states "Japanese poetry has its seeds in the human heart". According to the Kokinshú, the purpose of writing is to expose what is in the heart of the poet, not the mind. Truthfulness to experience is honored. Inspiration comes from the experience. Experience could be of love, grief, doubt, an observation or a perception of nature etc. To invent an experience denigrated the poem.

The poetry of the Kokinshú was written with classical language by members of the court and utilized the waka extensively. A century earlier the Man'yôshû was compiled also including poetry in the waka form. The Man'yôshû is thought to be the finest collection of Japanese poetry because of the variety of poetic forms, the inclusion of poets of different social class and the intensity of emotion provided through colloquial as well as classical language. From these collections, the waka stood out as the verse form to be emulated.

Important to note: Japanese poetry is actually measured by onji or "sound character without meaning" written in kana, syllabic Japanese script. However the onji is impossible to emulate in English so we default to the closest English equivalent, the syllable. An onji is often shorter than most English syllables, similar to the English "it" or "be" and consequently often includes less thought content. e.g. the Japanese word for Japan is Nippon, in English we count Nip-pon, 2 syllables, the Japanese would count ni-p-po-n, 4 onji, scribed in kana or Japanese script as 日本. To truly emulate Japanese we might actually have to use more English syllables. Japanese also does not use puntuation and therefore relies on the kireji or cutting word. The kireji is a strong word which naturally causes the reader to pause or change focus. In longer Japanese poems 2 strong lines inserted in the midst of the poem or at the end of the poem serves as kireji. Additionaly, adjectives and adverbs need not be placed directly in front or back of the noun or verb modified, they can go almost anywhere which allows Japanese haiku more flexibility in line count.

Most Japanese forms are:

  • brief, concise.
  • in English, syllabic.
  • inspired by the experience, written from the heart.
  • descendants of the waka.
Forth to the field of spring
I went to gather violets--
Enamoured of the field
I slept three all night through.                                            
by Akahito from the Man'yosho
haru no no ni
sumire tsumi ni to
koshi ware so
no wo natsukashimi
hiti you nenikeru



Bussokuseki                       Choka                    Death Poem or Jisei          Dodoitsu   Haibun Haiga

Haikai-no Renga

Haiku Hokku Imayo   Iroha-Mokigusari             Kanshi                                   
Katuata Kouta Mondo Renga                        Sedoka


Shintaishi Somonka  Tanka Waka




~~ © ~~ Poems by Judi Van Gorder ~~

For permission to use this work you can write to Tinker1111@icloud.com

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