Japanese Short Forms

Whenever I feel my poetry getting scattered or disjointed I delve back into some Japanese poetical forms – namely haiku, tanka, and haibun.

I like haiku for the rigid requirements it makes me place on myself – how can I say something relevant or profound in such a short space? The idea is to create an image and a response to that image in very little space. Just because the poems are short doesn’t mean they are easy to write. Same with tanka. Haibun is a new form for me, sort of a “what would happen if a haiku and a prose poem got together and had a child” kind of format. I’ve only written a few, and I’m not happy with them yet. It may be my discomfort with prose poems holding me back or my liking of haiku standing alone. We will see if I can push past all that. In the meantime, I use haiku and tanka to reconnect myself with the essence of poetry. When poems come as small, quiet thoughts rather than big missives, haiku is the way to go.

A refresher:

Haiku – Japanese short-form poetry of around 17 syllables that typically has a seasonal reference (kigo) and a ‘cutting’ word (kireji) or phrase.  The syllable count is a guideline since Japanese sounds are generally shorter than their English counterparts, and 12 syllables seem to be closer to the Japanese intent than the 17.  The seasonal word is a requirement for traditional haiku poets, not so much for more modern and English poems.  The kigo can use events, weather patterns, seasonal conditions, and seasonal markers to clue the reader into what season is being referenced. It’s also used as a shorthand way of cueing the reader into an emotion connected with the season word. The cutting word or kireji is often used as a bridge to enhance the images used by the poet. It’s another one of those things that are distinctly Japanese and hard to translate to the English language.

The most famous haiku is from Bashō—

furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

old pond . . .

a frog leaps in

water sound

my favorite:

                Though I’m in Kyoto

                when the cuckoo sings

                I long for Kyoto

Another haiku poet is Kobayashi Issa

A tethered horse,


      in both stirrups.

In the cherry blossom’s shade

    there is no such thing

          as a stranger

Tanka – The bad thing about trying to find a tanka (or even haiku) definition, is that in English, we seem to be hell bent on describing the poem form by how many syllables and lines it has, rather than on the spirit or intent. If you know anything about poets, you know rules were made to be bent, twisted, broken, and reformed, syllable count be damned.

Here is a definition from Wikipedia:

“Tanka consists of five units (often treated as separate lines when Romanized or translated) usually with the following pattern of onji:


The 5-7-5 is called the kami-no-ku (“upper phrase”), and the 7-7 is called the shimo-no-ku (“lower phrase”). Tanka is a much older form of Japanese poetry than haiku.”

From AmericanTanka.com: “A tanka is a five-line poem that evokes a single moment with vivid precision and emotional veracity.”

Tanka by Yosano Akiko

Goodbye my love

For a night at Fuzan spring

I was your wife.

Now until the end of the world

I demand that you forget me.

It was only

the thin thread of a cloud,

almost transparent,

leading me along the way

like an ancient sacred song.

Haibun definition from Wikipedia:

“Haibun  is a literary composition that combines prose and haiku. The range of haibun is broad and includes, but is not limited to, the following forms of prose: autobiography, biography, diary, essay, historiography, prose poem, short story and travel literature.

A haibun may record a scene, or a special moment, in a highly descriptive and objective manner or may occupy a wholly fictional or dream-like space. The accompanying haiku may have a direct or subtle relationship with the prose and encompass or hint at the gist of what is recorded in the prose sections.”

A haibun example from Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry


Tish Davis

It’s so dry the dirt along the bike path has changed color. Last year the kids and I searched for crawdads in the adjacent stream. Now pebbles and stones rest without reflection, leaving only a few dark puddles closely guarded by trees. Our family walk interrupted — a couple of boys with sharpened spears jabbing at fish. They look up, throw down their sticks and run. I send my son to the trash can, my daughter and I taking off our shoes to wait.

He returns with 2 cups, super-sized. We spend the next half hour shuttling fish, a pond not far away. I make up a song, Fish Rescue. By the last trip, both children have memorized the refrain.

Sometimes I still wonder if I’m doing it right.

    slam of a car door

    our dog runs

    as fast as he can

Is anyone out there writing haibun? Or even prose poetry? Tell me that haibun is not as complicated as I’m making it out to be – or that my haiku sometimes could use a companion to pal around with.

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