Poetic Forms: Haiku, Senryu, Tanka, and Lunes

counting sylllables
mentioning cherry blossoms
this is not haiku

(from Zen Rampage, back cover)

Haiku

Everyone knows what a haiku is, right? A poem in three lines, with seventeen syllables divided five/seven/five.

That’s the commonly accepted definition of a haiku in English, but to understand how we got there, it’s worth knowing a little bit about haiku in Japanese. You can look up the history yourself: I’d just like to point out a few standard features of a Japanese haiku.

  • It has seventeen syllables.
  • It has a conceptual break after either the fifth syllable or the twelfth.
  • It includes a seasonal word to ground it in nature.
  • It is not metaphorical.

The conceptual break explains why English haiku are commonly divided as they are: Five/seven/five includes both possible breaks in thought—depending upon where your poem puts its emphasis. This format also explains why so many English haiku are simply bad: It isn’t enough to divide your lines; each line also needs to be a complete mini thought in it’s own right; and one of those breaks must create an interesting shift in perception if the poem is to have any power.

Senryu

Note the haiku’s traditional requirement for a seasonal word, and it’s avoidance of metaphor. In Japanese poetry, if you write seventeen syllables with a break like a haiku, but without a seasonal word, that’s a senryu (pronounced like “send you,” but with an “R” instead of a “D”). Senryu are often humorous, frequently feature people, and may be metaphorical or otherwise more self-consciously contrived.

For most English-speaking people’s purposes, however, this is just a wasted word. If you write something with a haiku’s syllable count and breaks, you might as well call it a haiku, because pretty much everybody who reads it will call it that.

Tanka

A related form (in that it developed from the same historic roots as haiku and senryu) is the tanka. In English, this is thirty-one syllables in five lines, divided five/seven/five/seven/seven. Obviously, with nearly twice the syllables of a haiku, a tanka can treat a slightly larger subject. Here’s an example (also from Zen Rampage).

“Eighty-two years old!”
The stranger’s bony finger
prodding my shoulder.
How am I to understand
the meaning of his bared teeth?

I hope it’s evident that each line carries its own bit of meaning, like individual building blocks contributing to a five-block structure.

Lune

It’s worth noting that Japanese words have more syllables on average than English words do. So in effect, seventeen syllables in English can carry more meaning. In a way, English haiku are cheating.

To better represent the sparsity of thought in a Japanese haiku, a literature professor named Robert Kelly invented the lune, a thirteen-syllable poem divided five/three/five. He named this form the lune, because the right side of most examples creates a crescent shape, like a crescent moon.

Here’s an example I posted to Twitter and Facebook a few days ago.

if not for the birds
I’d not know
that I cannot fly

(For what it’s worth, the lune is probably my favorite form of poem. And considering how much I love the sonnet, that’s saying something!)

Another fellow, named Jack Collum, was teaching this form to children, and slightly misremembered it. Instead of five/three/five syllables, he thought three/five/three words. This being somewhat easier for children to count, the form has stuck.

Note that because “lune” is an English word, two or more of these poems are “lunes.” By contrast, more than one haiku, senryu, or tanka become “two haiku,” “five senryu,” or “seventy-nine tanka,” for example.

Final Words

I hope that this brief overview of these related forms has inspired you to write some of your own. Just remember to make each line stand at least somewhat on its own, rather than seeming like a sudden U-turn in the street, simply because you’ve run out of syllables. And try to have a significant change in thought, some measure of surprise, in one of the breaks. Your readers will appreciate the effort!

—Les

6 Comments

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