Western Ways With Japanese Verse


Western Ways with Japanese verse

Text of a talk given to Edinburgh Writers’ Club, 1st December 2014. The examples, not reproduced here for copyright reasons,  included poems by James Roderick Burns (The Salesman’s Shoes and Greetings from Luna Park), translations by Kenneth Rexroth from One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, and a renga extract from Verse Chain, by Alec Finlay. Other poems (tanka, haiku, hokku, senryu, sedoka, somonka, death poem  and haibun) by myself. I’ve not found Western examples of mondo or dodoitsu forms.

Japanese literature began with the tanka poem form in the 8th century, the first novels (by Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu) in the 10-11th centuries, and the linked-verse form renga in the 11th century, from which hokku and haiku later emerged. Haibun evolved from haiku.

Syllables and sound-symbols

The ‘on’, Japanese sound symbols, are not the same as Western syllables, and they relate to the underlying structure of the language itself. Strictly speaking, they don’t translate as equivalent to Western syllables, so a strict syllable count of words in English isn’t the same as an ‘onji’ count in Japanese. For instance, the word Tokyo has four ‘on’: to-o-kyo-o. However, for the sake of simplicity, I will use the word ‘syllable’ in the following.

Even the fact that we usually write haiku in three lines is more a Western convention than anything else. In Japanese, they can be written in three lines, but are often written as a single vertical line reading from top to bottom.

What we can agree on is that haiku and other Japanese forms should be as short and concise as possible to convey the meaning.

The ‘poetry voice’.

I hate the artificial voice some readers put on when they’re reading poetry – it is pretentious, irritating, and it gets in the way of meaning. But the Japanese poetry reading voice is even more stylised – or used to be. Poems were read in a monotone, very formally, pronouncing all the doubled syllables, and the ones which are usually omitted from normal speech (like the final ‘su’). The voice has been described as a ‘low falsetto’, and I won’t attempt it. Today, thankfully, most modern Japanese haiku poets don’t use this voice.


Tanka is a 5-line verse form, with the ‘syllable’ structure 5 7 5 7 7. They are often confessional poems, in which deep emotions are suggested.


Renga is linked verse, composed collectively at one time and in one place according to a prescribed schema or template. Solo renga can be written, but they are usually written in groups of four to eight poets, each of whom is free to offer their verse in each ‘round’.

The schema is the poem’s scaffolding. It sets out which verses are to be about each of the seasons, which non-seasonal, which about love, moon, flowers or other subjects. Each renga starts in the season in which it’s being written, and they all finish in Spring. For beginners, a 12-verse renga is common. Other forms are 20, 36 and the majestic 100-verse renga, which can take 24 hours to write.

Each succeeding verse, chosen by the master poet from verses offered by the participants, links to the preceding verse but shifts away from it. The links should avoid being too direct.

The role of the master poet is to guide, support, and assist participants, and to inform them about renga background, principles and methods. The term ‘master’ does not mean ‘boss’, but rather one who leads the event, based on experience.

Alternating verses are written in three and two lines. When I lead such events, I don’t follow strict syllable-counting, but lines should always be short.

Each verse is written in the spirit of haiku, in the present tense, and from the world of sensation and perception. Expression should be direct and straightforward, avoiding both metaphor and introspection.

Those taking part, whether they have worked in this way before or not, enjoy a unique experience of shared poetic composition.

The event always concludes with a reading of the finished poem by all of the assembled poets. The whole group is needed for the composition, whether or not an individual’s contribution has been chosen.


From the renga’s opening verse – the hokku – developed the haiku. These days, hokku as a separate verse form recalls a specific place. Examples read included hokku from North Uist, Assynt, Cockburnspath and other localities.


Haiku are poems of nature and of the seasons. They are almost always written in present tense, as the poet attempts to capture an image, an instant, a moment of understanding, a flash of inspiration, a sudden illumination. They are written in three lines, and the classical form consists of 17 ‘on’, divided 5 7 5. Haiku very frequently contain a kigo – a season word. The word may not be just the name of the season, but a word which characterises that season. Cherry always means Spring, because to the Japanese the word ‘cherry’ always and only suggests the flowers, never the fruit. They can also include a kireji, a cutting word, which signals a caesura, a gap, a pause, a change of viewpoint. The simplest form is the dash -.

Historically, the four Great Masters of haiku are Basho, Issa, Buson and Shiki. They are essential reading for those who want to pursue the art seriously.


Senryu are three-line poems, 5 7 5, about human foibles. They can be (often are) amusing or darkly humorous, or cynical.

Doubled forms:


The ‘head-poem’. Two tercets, each 5 7 5


Two 5 7 5 tercets, often written by two poets, in the form of question and response.


Paired tanka written by two poets, sometimes by lovers.


Death poem

A poem written as the poet senses death is very close. There are no set forms for this poem, but tanka is common.


Four-line poems, 7 7 7 5, about love or work, and usually comical. I’ve not found any Western authors using this form, so I may have to try it myself.


The haibun form was developed by Basho, in his Oku No Hosomichi – The Narrow Roads of the Interior. It is written in poetic prose, in the spirit of haiku, and usually concludes with a haiku. They are usually about journeys, real or allegorical. Today, Western haibun are generally around 500 words long. Although I have sometimes followed Basho in extending the length, the average length of the 112 poems in this collection is just under 500 words. They were written in the course of a four-week Hawthornden Fellowship in autumn 2013.

Examples read from The Book Of Ways were Aipples, Into the mountains, The Madagascar Blues, and Letting Go. The question and answer session which followed touched on creativity in schools, the difference between haiku and ‘wee poems’, Norman MacCaig, the renga schema, Alan Spence, the sources of inspiration and several other topics. I am grateful to the Edinburgh Writers’ Club for inviting me.







About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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