By Yoshikuri Nagayori
When most people think of Japanese poetry, they think of Haiku. There are, however, quite a number of different kinds of Japanese poetry and it is quite evident that they are the predecessors of modern Haiku.
The first thing to note, however, is that the Japanese measure their poems in a different way than we in the West, do. They measure in "mora" comprised of "ku." The closest we have to that are lines comprised of syllables. Because of the written language of Japanese, it is impossible to measure in the same manner that we are used to. Since most people dont know how to speak or write Japanese, however, lines and syllables will suffice.
The oldest known form of Japanese poetry is Katauta. It is a 5-7-7 or a 5-7-5 count. It was used to ask a poignant question in one breath. The response would be in the same form and would be in one breath. This is the basis for all Japanese poetry.
How happy am I! I have met a handsome man!
How happy am I! I have met a lovely maid!
-Izanagi and Izanami at their first meeting
Sedoka was a simple pair of katauta, but it wasnt necessarily a question-answer and could be written by a single person.
Choka follows a repeating 5-7 pattern and ends in a 7.
Humility and justice
Defense of the weak
All are aspects of greatness
Hanging in the air
The perfume of Bushido
Keeping such standards
May rust the most iron will
The fires of rage may burn
Life may prevail
And wear our souls to dust
We must keep keen minds
Bathe ourselves with gentleness
Stalwart as an oak
Winds of adversity blow
We may bend but we must not break
Tanka became the most popular poetry form throughout Japan. It followed a 5-7-5 7-7 pattern. The 7-7 part of the poem was thematically different from the first part, but the two remained related. Skilled poets soon realized that a slight pause between the two parts could create some dramatic effects.
Even a goddess
Can love the ugliest boar
Can such luck be mine?
Will tomorrow be joyous
Or will its poems be sad
The popularity of the Tanka soon developed another poetic form known as Renga. This was popular in the Heian era as a game. One person would recite a 5-7-5 and another would reply with a 7-7 then another with a 5-7-5 and so on. It soon became a great honour to be the one to give the Hokku; the initial 5-7-5 stanza. In groups, the most competent poet was the one to start the poem, again, a great honour. Up to this point, there had been many anthologies published of Tanka and soon poets started writing collections of hokku only. It was understood that these were meant for starting Renga off, but soon became a poetic form themselves.
From Hokku, we get Haikai. Again a 5-7-5 count, but these are humorous in nature. They would often be satirical and full of puns.
From this, we can see the obvious development of the Haiku. It did take time, however. Tanka and Renga were popular for the entire Middle Ages in Japan.