Coneflower, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.
This is the sequel to red Ravine’s haiku (one-a-day), a practice born from reading Clark Strand’s Seeds from a Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey during a year-long Writing Intensive with Natalie Goldberg in Taos, New Mexico. Last year we had a great response from our readers to the practice of writing a haiku or senryu each day, and wanted to continue the practice into the New Year.
The idea for the sequel post came after doing further research on the history of haiku. This year’s challenge is to co-create and build on the poems of other haiku writers, a kind of word play running through the poetic forms of tanka and renga.
haiku & senryu (part one)
Haiku uses simple, direct language, words that evoke a season, and usually incorporates a cutting or pivot word, so that one half of a haiku seems to speak to the other. According to Patterns In Poetry, haiku is closely tied to the Japanese aesthetic of Yugen and the spirituality of Buddhism. It is written in a 17-syllable form (usually three lines of 5-7-5) that looks deceptively simple. Yet if you read the work of the masters like Basho, Buson, and Issa, wandering poets who lived during Japan’s Edo-period (1600-1868), it becomes clear that the practice of haiku can take years to master.
Senryu is similar to haiku but strays from seasonal or nature themes. According to Simply Haiku, senryu focuses on people and portrays characteristics of human beings and foibles, and the psychology of the human mind. Senryu can express human misfortunes or the hardships of humanity, and even when they depict living things or inanimate objects, human attributes are emphasized.
What both haiku and senryu have in common is that they derive from a form of Japanese court poetry called tanka.
Characteristics of haiku:
17 syllables, 3 lines (with variations for language differences)
Simple, direct, non-metaphorical language
Captures a transitory insight or moment in time called satori or the aha moment
Contains a kigo, an image of nature that evokes a particular season
Contains a cutting or pivot word that turns the movement of the poem
Based on experience, speaks of the common, in the moment, just as it is
tanka (part two)
Tanka, the oldest Japanese poetry form, was often written to explore religious or courtly themes and had a structure of five lines with a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable structure. One person would contribute the first three lines (5-7-5) of the tanka, and a different author would complete the poem by composing a 7-7 section and adding a pivot point such as in this tanka from George Knox at Aha! Poetry:
in the check-out line
a worn face ahead of me
turns tentatively. . .
realities of desire
fade in final reckoning
-tanka by George Knox
There is an excerpt from an article, Come Pivot With Me by Jane Reichhold which explains the pivot point or bridge in this way:
The use of a pivot word is a beloved technique from tanka, still being used after 1,300 years, in that form and its much younger grandchild — haiku (only 3 centuries old).
One of the trademarks of a tanka (besides the traditional five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 onji — syllables) is a short poetic statement depicting nature (here it may seem much like something you could call a haiku) which is linked to a designated feeling or emotional attitude of the author. This latter aspect is a basic one dividing the two forms today.
By expressing emotional feelings tanka affirms a connectedness between something unseen but real — our feelings — with the observable world around us. Tanka gives the mind a picture which can, if it is successful, joins for and evokes a felt emotional state.
Characteristics of tanka
31 syllables, 5 lines
Write the first section of a tanka (5-7-5), similar to a haiku.
Another person picks up the first 3 lines and writes a response (or continuation) by composing two lines of 7-7 syllables.
Can reflect nature or lean toward senryu
Emotional, contemplative, imaginative, reflective, written to be chanted
Here’s a final example of classic tanka from the same site, translated from the Kokinshu by Donald Keene, and written by Anonymous:
Because there was a seed
A pine has grown even here
On these barren rocks:
If we really love our love
What can keep us from meeting?
-tanka by Anonymous
renga (part three)
Renga (linked elegance) is a form of linked poetry which evolved from tanka, the oldest Japanese poetry form. In renga’s 800 year history it has gone through many ideological changes. (And it was Basho who, after 500 years, snipped off the first three lines of renga to form haiku.)
In renga, one person would often contribute the first three lines (5-7-5) of the poetic chain and a different author would complete the chain by composing a 7-7 section. Then another author would build on the previous 7-7, with another 5-7-5 passage. This chaining of verses or renga, could sometimes add up to hundreds of linked tanka.
The first part of the poem, called hokku or “starting verse,” frequently sets the tone for the rest of the poem, and the authors of hokku often earned the respect and admiration of their fellow poets. By the 19th century, largely through the work of Masaoka Shiki, hokku began to be written and read as individual poems. From the word hokku derives our word haiku.
Characteristics of renga:
Write the first section of a tanka (5-7-5), similar to a haiku. Hand this poem to another person.
Second person writes a response (or continuation) by composing two lines of 7-7 syllables. Then the second person hands off the completed tanka to a third person.
Third person writes another 3 lines of (5-7-5), beginning a new tanka
Continue in this way until you run out of time or feel that the poem is complete.
Contains a bridge or pivot point that links to the emotional element
Don’t try to force the storyline. When writing a response to the previous poem, focus only on the last section of the tanka, not the whole poem.
Think of each stanza as a springboard from which you are going to jump. The important thing to watch is what happens between the links.
Feel free to drop a haiku into this space anytime, day or night. Or join the word play and collaborative effort of tanka and renga. I’m a novice at the latter two; the first time I read about tanka and renga was when I started the research on this post. I thought it might be fun to explore these ancient forms of linked poetry, and see where the journey takes us.
Also, it’s okay to experiment, break form, and move out of the traditional structures. English syllables translate differently than onji. And according to Richard MacDonald (from his essay What is Tanka?), Japanese poetry is syllabic by nature and not metrical or rhymed, because like the French language, the Japanese language lacks stress accents.
There are different schools of thought about how rigid one should be in counting syllables. From what I have read, it is a matter of personal taste whether to stay close to the Japanese model, or stray from it for personal reasons or aesthetics in order to incorporate the heritage of the West into poetic work. The most important thing is to have fun with it. Last year’s practice was so enjoyable, I can’t wait to see the new collection we have by December!
Option 1 – haiku
Drop in a haiku or senryu, 17 syllables, 3 lines (with variations for language differences)
Option 2 – tanka
Grab another poet’s haiku, and write the 2 additional 7 syllable lines to create a tanka
Option 3 – renga
- Grab a tanka created by 2 other poets, and, focusing on the last 2 lines, start the beginning of a new tanka (5-7-5) to be completed by the next poet
bridge — word, or words leading the reader from the nature image to the statement of emotion
cutting (kireji) – Punctuation mark or word that divides a haiku into two parts. A cutting can be a hyphen, ellipses, colon or a word.
kigo — A seasonal reference in haiku. Usually a kigo has accumulated resonances and associations with earlier haiku and Japanese aesthetics about time.
onji – Japanese syllables. The language differences between Japanese and English are vast and complex. Converting onji to syllables may not always be a one for one process.
pivot word – A word in a haiku poem that changes, or turns the direction of the poem
renga — Japanese poetic form made up of linked tanka verse; the word renga means “linked elegance”
satori – A moment of insight or reflection that emerges in a Haiku poem (usually around the cutting or pivot word)
tanka – Japanese poetic form that is made up of 5 lines with a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable count. Haiku derives from tanka.
yugen — Japanese term for beauty that suggests mystery, depth and a tinge of sadness
RESOURCES USED IN WRITING THIS PIECE:
- Patterns In Poetry - great basic site for haiku, tanka, renga. Distills everything down to the simplest terms. Very helpful when first learning about the concepts.
- Aha! Poetry - In depth reviews and one of the best Internet resources for haiku. Edited by Jane Reichhold; features articles, advice, critiques, contests.
- What Is Tanka? — an essay by Richard MacDonald at Aha! Poetry
- Tanka vs Haiku – by Jane Reichhold at Aha! Poetry
- Seeds from a Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey by Clark Strand — wonderful book for learning about the spiritual practice of haiku and the inspiration for red Ravine’s first haiku (one-a-day) post
- Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry - original contributions from new poets
- The Haiku Society of America - educational resources, contests, and magazine. Founded in 1968 to promote the writing and appreciation of haiku in English.
-posted on red Ravine, Monday, February 9th, 2009