Jan 30, 2008

Haiku and Waka poetry

'Poetry has its seed in the human heart and blossoms forth in innumerable leaves of words ... it is poetry which, with only a part of its power, moves heaven and earth, pacifies unseen gods and demons, reconciles men and women and calms the hearts of savage warriors.'

Ki no Tsurayuki, Preface to the Kokinshû, Ninth Century

Most people know the haiku form of Japanese poetry from grade school, a short poem of three 'lines' of five, seven and five syllables and describing an aspect of nature. Haiku is descended from renga a linked verse form that was descended from waka a 5 line poem with 5-7-5-7-7 syllables in each line. Some of the earliest and most famous of waka poetry were collected in the Man'yoshu, Kokin Wakashu, and the Shinsen Waka in 759, 905 and 934 respectively as Imperial anthologies.

Some people say waka is easier because you have a little more room for expression, where haiku is so brief and one must be very concise. Waka were first composed, before the advent of writing in Japan, to celebrate victories in battle and love, or for religious reasons, and this tradition of poetry for public occasions carried through to the first great age of written waka in the seventh and eighth centuries, with highly wrought nagauta 'long poems', consisting of alternating 'lines' of five and seven syllables, being composed for performance on public occasions at the imperial court.

Here is a link to a great site about waka poetry, including poems in kana, romanji, English translations as well as commentary on famous waka poets and major collections of waka poetry.

Waka was used as a means of communication between lovers during Heian (medival times), so you find a lot of love poetry -- and a lot of lost love poetry throughout the collections of waka. Waka was also frequently written on beautiful rice paper in running kana script. So for Valentine ’s Day, why not compose a waka poem and write it out on some fancy paper for your partner, lover, or spouse?


  1. Thank you Sensei,
    I found this site the other day and was reading some. I like these. Ronda
    Four poems by Hitomaro, Lord Kakinomoto

  2. Ronda,

    I hope you will try your hand at writing waka. See you on Sunday.