Notes on Japanese Forms

First published in Tidepools: Haiku On Gabriola (Gabriola, British Columbia: Pacific-Rim Publishers, 2011). See my introduction to the book. See also the corresponding pages for each of the following forms elsewhere on this site (for renku, see the Collaborations page). For those new to haiku, or who might want a refresher on haiku basics, please read “Becoming a Haiku Poet,” “Getting Started with Haiku,” and the other links on the Further Reading page. As with any definition, of course, especially with haiku and related genres, your mileage may vary.

HAIKU in English is typically a three-line poem that uses concrete sensory images to convey or imply natural and human seasonal phenomena (employing kigo, or season words), using a two-part juxtapositional structure (employing the equiva­lent to kireji, or cutting words), as well as simple and primarily objective sensory language. Originally a Japanese genre of poetry, now written and adapted in many languages worldwide, traditional haiku in Japanese consists of seventeen sounds (not to be confused with syllables) in a pattern of 5-7-5. Because of differences in language, this rhythm is generally not followed for literary haiku in most lan­guages other than Japanese. As intuitive and emotional poems, haiku often cap­ture a sense of wonder and wholeness in presenting existence such as it is. Rather than presenting one’s emotions, haiku present the cause of one’s emotions, thus empowering the reader to have the same intuitive reaction to an experience that the poet had. According to translator R. H. Blyth, “A haiku . . . is a hand beckon­ing, a door half-opened, a mirror wiped clean. It is a way of returning to nature, to our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature, our falling leaf nature, in short, to our Buddha nature. It is a way in which the cold winter rain, the swallows of evening, even the very day in its hotness, and the length of the night become truly alive, share in our humanity, speak their own silent and expressive language.”       +


SENRYU in English follows the same form as haiku, but focuses more on human foibles. Where haiku typically celebrates a subject, senryu often pokes fun at its victims with satire, irony, and humour. Traditional haiku require a season word and two-part juxtapositional structure; these techniques might occur in senryu, but they are not required. The lack of them does not make the poem a senryu, and the use of them does not necessarily make the poem a haiku. The chief differentia­tor is typically one of tone, not whether they focus on humans (many haiku have humans in them too).


HAIBUN in English combines often autobiographical prose with haiku. The most famous example is Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi, or Narrow Road to the Interior, which combines personal stories, literary references, and descriptions of natural scenery with haiku written to commemorate events and locations. Haibun enable haiku poets to share a larger context or setting for haiku, and to explore topics or stories at greater length than possible in individual haiku.

HAIGA is the art of combining brush painting, haiku, and calligraphy. A traditional haiga requires all three of these elements. Just as haiku succeeds by creating space and energy in the relationship of its two juxtaposed parts, haiga energizes viewers through the “leap” or even disjunction between the poem and the paint­ing (the painting is typically not an illustration of the poem). Haiga also employs calligraphy to create a pleasing visual whole, whether the calligraphy is highly re­fined and formal or ordinary and home-spun. Modern haiga sometimes replaces one of the three requirements, such as by using a photograph instead of a painting (also known as photo-haiga, or shahai in Japanese), or by typesetting words on a computer instead of using calligraphy. Some purists do not consider these variations to be authentic haiga, but they are increasingly popular as computer technology evolves. While traditional haiga will continue to require brush painting, haiku, and calligraphy, artists and poets have explored many additional combinations with pleasing re­sults, such as using collage and other mixed-media presentations.

RENGAY is a six-verse form of collaborative linked poetry, usually by either two or three writers, that develops at least one central theme. Consisting of six verses in a regularly alternating pattern, the sequence for two writers is A3, B2, A3, B3, A2, B3, and the sequence for three writers is A3, B2, C3, A2, B3, C2, where the letters indicate the poets, and the numbers indicate the number of lines in each verse. Rengay was invented in 1992 by Garry Gay, and named by combining the Japanese word renga (linked verse) with his last name. Rengay has become increasingly popular and has spread around the world. [See]

RENKU in English is a collaborative form of linked poetry consisting of a varying number of verses, alternating three-line and two-line stanzas. Verses mentioning the moon or cherry blossoms are prescribed to appear in certain places, depend­ing on the seasonal unfolding of the verses. A more formal and older variation of renku is renga, whose “starting verse” (known as hokku) evolved into the indepen­dent verse we know as haiku. Renga were often written in lengths as long as 100 and occasionally 1,000 verses, but a more common length today is the kasen form, consisting of 36 verses. Each verse links to the immediately preceding verse, but generally seeks to avoid linking to other previous verses. Renku thus extends like a chain, link by link, as it tastes all of life.


TANKA in English is usually a five-line poem, often lyrical and overtly emotional, that explores the poet’s place in the world and his or her relationship to it. In Japa­nese, tanka are traditionally written with thirty-one sounds (not to be confused with syllables) in a pattern of 5-7-5-7-7. The history of tanka stretches back 1,300 years in Japan, where it began as uta, a short chanted song, and evolved into waka, a mode of poetic communication common in the royal court. These poems were written to hint at meaning, often through symbolism from the natural world, so that the recipient would understand but that the messenger might not. They often employ pivot lines as well as complex cultural and literary allusions. Unlike haiku, which focus on seasonal phenomena, tanka tend to focus on human relationships. According to the 1994 Haiku Society of America definitions committee led by Wil­liam J. Higginson, “The best tanka harmonize the writer’s emotional life with the elements of the outer world used to portray it.” In comparing tanka to haiku, Ger­ald St. Maur has written that tanka “moves us from the poetry of the noun to the poetry of the verb; in weaving terms, from the thread to the tapestry; in botanical terms, from seed to plant; in chemical terms, from element to compound; in paint­ing terms, from sketch to picture; and in musical terms, from chord to melody.”       +

“Our true home is the present moment. To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water.
The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment.” —Thich Nhat Hanh


“Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through
to guess about what was seen during a moment.” —Carl Sandburg


“Nature excels in the least things.” —Pliny the Elder