About a thousand years ago, a poet named Ki no Tsurayuki wrote:
"The poetry of Japan has its roots in the human heart and flourishes
in the countless leaves of words. Because human beings possess interests
of so many kinds it is in poetry that they give expression to the meditations
of their hearts in terms of the sights appearing before their eyes and
the sounds coming to their ears. Hearing the warbler sing among the blossoms
and the frog in his fresh waters — is there any living being not given
The "song" he meant (uta) was a waka. It is a poem in thirty-one
syllables, arranged in five lines, of 5/7/5/7/7 syllables respectively.
For example, here is a poem written by a famous Heian-period woman, Ono
The flowers withered, (5)
Their color faded away, (7)
While meaninglessly (5)
I spent my days in the world (7)
And the long rains were falling. (7) (1)
The waka is often said to have an "upper verse," which refers
to the first three lines, and a "lower verse," the last two.
The haiku form is based on the "upper verse"; another form,
called a renga, is made from alternating the two — first a three-line,
seventeen syllable verse, then a two-line, fourteen syllable one, each
by a different poet for up to a hundred verses!
Often when we read Japanese poetry in translation the syllable count
seems wrong. One reason is that Japanese words often cannot be translated
by a single equivalent word in English. More important, however, is the
fact that English poetic forms are not usually based on syllables, but
on stress. Where Japanese poems rely on internal rhythms and sounds for
their effects, English poems often use rhyme. Each language uses its
special characteristics to form poetry — but all poetry "has
its roots in the human heart."
Traditionally, it was the heart responding to nature that was most sung
about: Ki no Tsurayuki asked, "Hearing the warbler sing among the
blossoms and the frog in his fresh waters — is there any living
being not given to song?" Even in modern times, nature — and our
response to it — is a frequent topic, as in this poem by Saitô Mokichi
Is this what
quietude is like?
On a winter night
the sounds of the air
which surrounds me. (2)
Modern poets are less likely to write exclusively about the "beauties
of nature" than their ancestors were, however. At one time the topics
to be treated by a waka, and even the words a poet was allowed to use,
were subject to strict regulations. In modern times, however, any topic
is acceptable, and any of the "countless leaves of words" may
be used. A good example is this poem by Ishikawa Takuboku (1885-1912):
like putting on
dirty socks. (3)
These "short poems" have been important to the Japanese throughout
their history. These have been used to celebrate special occasions since
ancient times, and indeed, still are. The Imperial family still runs
an annual poetry-writing contest open to all, and many Japanese are amateur
poets. In the Heian period especially, waka were a most important form
of communication between lovers, and a person's skill in poetry was a
major criterion in determining his or her standing in society, even influencing
political positions. Throughout its history, the waka has had an importance
in Japanese society unparalleled in the West.
What is a waka, then? It is a short poem, with specific structural requirements,
written to express feelings. It differs from poetry in our own tradition
both in form and in influence. There is yet another general difference:
Over the centuries, waka were written more to capture emotions than to
explain or define them. Ono no Komachi, in the poem above, did not mention
why her days seemed meaningless; Takuboku did not tell us what those
memories were that made him feel so awful. In contrast, much Western
poetry has been concerned with the reasons for a particular feeling,
as well as the emotion itself; it has told stories, created allegories,
and even discussed theology. But the "Japanese poem" has traditionally
treated the "what" rather than the "why" of experience,
and opens a wealth of subtle emotions to us. It is an especially rich
source for increasing our understanding of the Japanese experience, in
reading poetry and, as in the exercises that follow, trying to write
(1) Poem translated in Donald Keene, Anthology of Japanese Literature from the
Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century (New York: Grove Press, 1955), 81.
Amy Vladeck Heinrich, Fragments of Rainbows: The Life and Poetry of Saitô Mokichi,
1882-1953 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).
(3) Carl Sesar, trans., Poems
to Eat, by Ishikawa Takuboku (Tokyo, Palo Alto, CA: Kodansha International, 1966).
Essay written by Dr. Amy Vladeck Heinrich, director, C.V. Starr
East Asian Library, Columbia University.