Traditional Japanese poems – waka, renga, haikai, haiku and tanka
Poems have been one of the most familiar forms art for Japanese for a long, long time. The oldest surviving compilation of traditional poems, 和歌 (waka), is called “万葉集 (Manyo-shu),” which dates back to as old as 7th or 8th century. Waka is the grandfather of 俳句 (haiku), and although haiku emerged after more than a thousand years from the era of Manyo-shu, the format of the poem hasn’t changed at all. They consist of two types of verse: one with 5, 7, 5 syllables and the other with 7 and 7.
Vocal structure of traditional Japanese poems
As you can imagine from these musical notes, the reason why Japanese poems kept the same brief, phonetic format was because they were meant to be recited, as much as they were read, ever since the era of waka. Yet, they maintained their status as poems, and did not marry music to be sung (Japan had the form of art similar to troubadours in the Middle Age Europe, but it’s a different story).
It may be possible that waka chose not to be accompanied by music because of so-called 余韻 (yoin), which plays a big part in traditional Japanese culture. It is a very difficult notion to explain, but most online dictionaries define it as: reverberation; swelling (of a hymn); trailing note. lingering memory; aftertaste. suggestiveness (of a book, poem, etc.).
As yoin literally means “lingering” + “sound (or vibration that follows),” it means aesthetic/emotional impressions or feelings that remain inside you after an arresting presentation, display, or event was over. It could be used to describe the quality of the entire event, or just the transitional moment.
In case of Japanese poems, you can typically find yoin when there are rests (See the figure above. There is a quarter rest that is inserted after the 5 syllable part, and an eighth rest can substitute the first note in the 7 syllable part). Instead of adding words or meanings that could end up defining too narrowly how reader would feel about the poem, they made sure to leave rests (yoin) at critical timings so that the imagination of the readers won’t be hindered. Because you don’t want to define the significance of yoin inspired by rests, which are often made longer in impromptu to let lingering reverberation persist, you wouldn’t want accompanying music to interfere with them. The brevity of the poems themselves also contribute to significant yoin with his/her own imagination. When there are only 17 syllables altogether, it’s up to readers to complete the poetic world by unleashing his/her own imagination.
It was this “read aloud” part that made traditional Japanese poems popular among people, and made them one of the most exciting social entertainments. It is a bit similar to a live rap battle of today, where MCs perform on the same stage to see who can improvise the better verses: it’s an organic process through which the quality of the creation is determined by who the MCs are, what their musical/lyrical interactions are, and how audience reacts. By the same token, hundreds of years ago, Japanese aristocrats got together to write traditional 連歌 (renga), which was a suit of verses (could be as long as 100, but still consisted of 5,7,5 or 7,7 syllables) written by different participants to become a consistent piece of artistic creation. Everyone was supposed to improvise subsequent verse following the one written and read aloud by someone else. Instead of “dissing” or bragging, renga creators focused on making consistent flow in style, aesthetics and the emotions woven into the verses. As you can imagine, many techniques or ideas could be used to add additional verse to let the entire poem keep flowing.
As time went by, aestheticism-driven renga became adulterated to become haikai, which emerged during the Edo era (1603-1868) as it focused heavily on entertainment aspects and introduced – among other elements – a betting feature (albeit it was considered illegal) which gave prizes to the person who wrote the best additional verse. As haikai became popular among citizens, it also focused on satire and humor. It was also during this time of period that popular haikai poets started make living off of writing and teaching haikai, many of whom traveled extensively for creative inspiration and teaching opportunities. In a sense, poems took roots in ordinary people’s lives.
Then, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) entered increasingly commercialized haikai society and raised the aesthetic bar by focusing on discovering beauty in nature (he traveled a lot) or tranquil, solitary way of living. Other important haikai poets during the Edo era include Yosa Buson (1716-1784) and Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828).
俳句 (haiku), as it has come to be known as world’s shortest form of poems, was established in the 19th century during the Meiji era as a counter to haikai, its predecessor that had lost its aesthetic soul towards the end of Edo era. Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) criticized the status of haikai and attempted to elevate its artistic creativity to become one of the finest modern art in Japan.
Haiku is basically the first verse of renga, which consists of 5+7+5 syllables. It has kigo (a word that suggests the season), and kireji (cutting word), usually with one of two syllables, which is used to end a verse and functions as an implicit exclamation that expresses different emotions while adding clean rhythm. If you remember the rhythm notations above, kireji fits into where the quarter rests are, or the last two notes in 7 the syllables part.
短歌 (tanka) uses both the first (5, 7, 5 syllables) and the second verse (7, 7) of traditional waka format. It emerged during the Meiji era just like haiku. Whereas it uses the exact same format as waka, tanka is a modern art that captured the life and beauty lived by modern people using the modern language.