Six traditional ways of expression: Poetry

The language of the soul: poetry

Hello and welcome in the next installment of ‘six traditional ways of expresssion’. Today we are going to look at the land where words are mightier than the sword, and feelings are often abundantly expressed. Yes: today is all about traditional Japanese poetry, or waka in Japanese.

Waka (和歌)

Waka poetry written in Japanese (in contrast to the older tradition of Chinese poetry), and is characterised by lines of five or seven morae. Morae are “the minimal unit used in phonology that determines stress and timing”. In most Western languages this equals a syllable, but in Japanese the ‘n’, or ん, is in itself a mora. Thus this is critical for the formation of, for example, haiku.
Waka mainly encompasses tanka and chōka. Due to the dominant use of tanka however, the term waka has become the same as tanka.

'kyokusui no utage' a Haian practice of drinking sake and composing poetry while sitting next to a stream. The poet must have improvise a poem by the time the sake cup reaches him/her

kyokusui no utage‘: a Heian practice of drinking sake and composing poetry while sitting next to a stream. The poet must have improvise a poem by the time the sake cup reaches him/her

Tanka (短歌) and Chōka (長歌)

These two types of waka are respectively the ‘short poem’ and the ‘long poem’. The tanka consists of five lines wit ha 5-7-5-7-7 metre. Chōka can be as long as the poet wanted and switches between lines of five and seven morae, ending with two lines of seven mora. The shortest ‘long poem’ consisted of nine lines and is written in the Man’yōshū (万葉集) , the oldest book of Japanese poetry. By the end of the tenth century the two above forms had become so popular that other forms of waka were practically abolished. These ‘minor forms’ were the kata-uta, the shortest form of Japanese poetry with a 5-7-7 metre, the Sedōka,composed of two sets of 5-7-7, and the Bussokusekika, which is a tanka with an extra line of 7 morae at the end.


Pages of the Man’yōshū

Renga (連歌)

The ‘collaborative poetry’ or renga was one of the most important literary art in pre-modern Japan. Renga were made by multiple poets who each write a stanza following the previous one. Hence the name. A renga consists of at least two stanza and uses a 7-5- ot 7-7 mora count. The first stanza is called the hokku (発句) and is created by a special guest when present. It is seen as the greeting of the stanza. The hokku always consist of a 5-7-5 morae count, and is the predecessor of the more modern haiku. The second stanza,or waki (), is created by the person organising the gathering and uses a 7-7 morae count. The third stanza is again in the 5-7-5 form and must end in the te-form. After that the poets are free to choose which form they use.

As renga grew in popularity and became institutionalized, it also lost a lot of its original vulgarity and coarseness. Where the most important criteria used to be how great the link between the two verses was, now it had set forms and became ‘stale’ according to the critics. In response to this staleness ‘haikai no renga‘ or ‘renku’ (連句) came into existence. it embraces the vulgar attitude and contempt for traditional poetic and cultural ideas, as you can read in the following poem:

kasumi no koromo suso wa nurekeri
The robe of haze is wet at its hem

to which the next poet responded:

saohime no haru tachi nagara shito o shite
Princess Sao of spring pissed as she started

statue of Matsuo Bashō, one of the most famous poets of the Edo period.

statue of Matsuo Bashō, one of the most famous poets of the Edo period and participant in many haikai no renga.

Lastly we need to address the following: though most of the above may seem quite easy,  every poet needed a great knowledge of the classic texts and literature. Spotting the references and using them to form the next stanza resulted in praise,while overlooking one could mean loosing your hard-earned prestige. We also have but slightly touched the many special techniques and terms, for example ‘pillow words’. This is a theme were many books have already been written about, and is a bit too complex to explain in this short article. Feel free to explore the world of Japanese poetry by yourself though, and if you feel like it, why don’t you write us your own tanka or haiku? Inari out!

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