Here’s what the Imayo poetry form is:
The imayo is a poem form from 12th century Japan that was originally intended for song.
It has since been adapted into a poem with four 12-syllable lines, each divided up into sections of seven and five syllables by a caesura.
Despite its similarities to the haiku, the imayo is rarely mentioned in the western world.
So if you want to learn all about the Imayo poetry type, then you’ve come to the right place.
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Forms of Poetry: The Imayo
The imayo is a quaint Japanese form somewhat reminiscent of the haiku, though a bit longer.
Much like the haiku, the imayo uses sections split into five and seven syllables but has no specific requirements in terms of rhyme and meter.
There isn’t much western documentation on the imayo available online.
To be more accurate, it initially looks like plenty of documentation until you realize that most of the sites are just copy and paste descriptions of the form.
As such, there will be some gentle speculation to fill in the gaps, but I’ll make it clear which parts of the article are speculation.
Basic Properties of an Imayo
|Rarely seen or mentioned in the western world; sources written in English are scattered at best
How Is the Imayo Structured?
An imayo is comprised of four 12-syllable lines.
Each line is divided into a 7-syllable and a 5-syllable section, with a hard pause (or caesura) in between.
The pause will generally be represented by a comma, semi-colon, or similar punctuation.
Here we should immediately ask some basic questions about the form, based on what we know about Japanese poetry.
A wide variety of Japanese poems were not originally divided up by syllables but by on, a phonetic unit unique to the Japanese language.
So while I wasn’t able to find a source to back this up, I’m guessing the convention here is the same and that this is ultimately a description of the westernized imayo.
Similarly, caesuras are an unusual division when we’re talking about Japanese poetry, so I have to ask myself if the form originally used kireji. Kireji refer to special “cutting words” that can be used to divide poetry up into sections in Japanese.
English haikus tend to use caesuras as stand-ins for these kireji (if the tradition is acknowledged at all), so I would be interested in finding out if the imayo originally worked the same way as haikus in this regard.
Many Japanese forms are very closely linked to each other or are descendants of each other, which is why I’m bring up these questions about a form that’s so obviously similar to a haiku, but in the end it’s only conjecture until I can find more concrete sources.
Some sources listed the imayo as an 8-line poem instead, divided up into lines with syllable counts of 7/5/7/5/7/5/7/5.
Since the poem was originally meant to be sung out loud, I personally don’t think how you write the form on the page is incredibly important, as long as the form would sound the same when you read it out loud.
Do note that sources calling it a 4-line poem are in the majority, though.
Example of an Imayo
Scent of Autumn
Beyond Autumn’s falling leaves, there is a calm peace,
hidden beneath the fresh reds, resting on sidewalks,
carried on the flowing breezes, from backyard to street,
with a chilling precision, as if aimed at us.
The above poem is a simple no-frills example of the imayo.
In this example, a comma is used after the seventh syllable to act as the caesura.
Take note of how the poem continues to flow from line to line without actually stopping the sentence at any point.
Japanese short poems frequently contained a single thought spread out across multiple clauses, so I tried to capture that tendency here.
Tips for Writing an Imayo
If you’re familiar with writing haikus, then you’re already in a good position to work on your first imayo.
An imayo honestly feels like the natural evolution of a haiku if you were to extend it to a slightly longer length. Having 48 syllables to work with instead of 17 also means that you’ll have much more time to complete your thoughts.
The caesura may initially seem off-putting, but one good way to make it easier on yourself is to conceptualize the imayo as an 8-line poem, even if you’ll be condensing it into the 4-line version after you finish it.
By thinking of the shorter 5-syllable sections as their own “lines,” you make it easier to divide up the thoughts appropriately.
If you go into the poem thinking you have 12 syllables to complete each thought, you’ll be setting yourself up for disappointment.
Assume you only have 7 syllables to set up the next “line” instead and then another 5 to finish off the section.
While this may sound counter-intuitive, it will actually feel quite natural from a technical standpoint once you start writing since it cuts down on wasted words.
Long words tend to not work well.
Just as with a haiku, the short sections make it difficult to utilize words with too many syllables.
Try to say what you need to say with crisp, common words that roll together well.
The beauty of a well-written imayo will not come from your large vocabulary but from how well you can utilize a limited section of your vocabulary.
Focus your efforts on imagery as much as possible.
Metaphors and similes are always nice inclusions in poetry, but nothing will contribute more to an imayo than a concrete image for your reader to focus on and get lost in.
Remember that imayos are not a platform from which to share your most complicated thoughts, but tiny little canvases upon which to paint some pretty scenery for your readers to enjoy.
For similar reasons, creating a vivid setting tends to take priority over narrative elements and characters.
You may ultimately only have enough space to describe a location, so use that space to attribute as much feeling and depth to that setting as possible, instead of trying to shoehorn in a full narrative arc of some kind.
Short poems do not thrive on ambition, but on creativity. You’ll know you’re doing a good job when you start having fun.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this form.
Initially, I couldn’t understand the appeal of writing “a haiku but longer,” but it really is nice having some extra space to work with.
Having written a few for practice, I would honestly say that the imayo is actually better suited for English than the haiku, so it’s a shame this form doesn’t get more coverage.
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