Mondo Poetry Form: Take a Sip From Master’s Cup

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Here’s what the Mondo poetry form is:

The mondo is a Japanese poetic form emerging from Zen student-master traditions.

The poem ultimately consists of two verses, with one posing a question and the other answering, usually in 5-7-7 syllable structures.

So if you want to learn all about the Mondo poetry type, then you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s get right to it!

Mondo Poem Type (Simply Explained & Examples)

Forms of Poetry: The Mondo

A mondo is a Japanese poetic form consisting of two verses with a 5-7-7 or (less commonly) 5-7-5 syllable structure.

The poem traces its origins to the Zen tradition of a master rapid-firing questions at their student, usually with an emphasis on finding wisdom within nature.

Despite the name, the form has no relation whatsoever to the slang term or to the American company that produces flashy posters and T-shirts.

These are instead related to the Italian usage of “mondo” where it apparently means “world.”

The mondo is closely related to two similar Japanese concepts, the sedoka and the katuata.

We’ll discuss those at a later date though, so they only merit a quick mention for now.

The main difference is that the mondo is traditionally a collaborative work by a master and a student.

Basic Properties of a Mondo

Beautiful Japanese woman wearing a traditional dress outdoor in autumn.
Rhyme StructureNone
PopularityUncommon in modern usage
ThemeTraditionally an exchange between student and master

How Is a Mondo Structured?

Beautiful Asian woman thinking and writing at the desk.

The mondo, as briefly mentioned above, traditionally starts with the master’s verse.

This is a short verse ‘questioning’ the student’s understanding.

One of the central themes of Zen is a keen focus on intuition, so the poem should be treated as a quick exchange that tests the intuition of the student, often using nature as a motif.

The student’s ‘answer’ should showcase their ability to draw wisdom from their surroundings and innermost thoughts.

It can be clever, cunning, or just thought-provoking in some way, as long as it shows that effort is being put into the thought process.

Each verse typically follows a 5-7-7 syllable structure, though there are some examples of 5-7-5 structures instead.

Haiku lovers will immediately recognize the similarity.

Five and seven-syllable lines are quite popular in Japanese literature, so it should be understood that the division here is in the theming.

A traditional haiku is about admiring and expressing the beauty of the world around you and was originally expected to use the seasons as a core facet of the form.

Mondos are instead about admiring and expressing the wisdom that exists naturally within both humans and nature, at least as far as I can tell from my research.

Example of a Mondo

Quick disclaimer: I’m kind of cheating in the sense that I wrote both the first and second verse.

While this poem form is traditionally a collaborative verse, I’m not about to hire an assistant just to cover one 19-syllable verse of a poem.

Forgive me, land of the rising sun.

Why does the bird sing
so early in the morning
upon its nest in the trees?

Perhaps serenading
the grounded creatures beneath
to pay the price for its wings.

The above poem should give you some idea of how a mondo exchange would go.

The master asks a question that seemingly has no answer (until science ruins everything beautiful) and the student posits an answer that has some interesting thought behind it.

In this case “perhaps” is used to clarify that it is not a known answer, but a proposed one.

This isn’t necessary but it can be nice to signify the answerer’s state of mind within the poem.

Of course, it would be wise to get a second person to write with you if you actually want to honor the traditions of the form.

As a side note, we of course know in the modern era that birdsong is mostly a sign that a bunch of feathered bachelors is trying to get laid, but you should really pretend that science never happened when writing a mondo.

Ignorance is bliss, after all.

Tips for Writing a Mondo

Asian vintage classic brush tools for hand writting in old style.

The question needs to be open-ended and poignant and should be a test of the answerer’s wit.

Using the first verse of a mondo to ask if someone wants fries with their burger and shake may certainly be interesting, but it wouldn’t exactly be in the spirit of the form.

By asking an open-ended question that has no clear answer, you allow the second contributor plenty of room to think and come up with their own way to expand the poem.

The worst thing that the first contributor can do is try to “guide” the poem in a certain direction.

It’s the first poet’s job to open up the poem and the second person’s job to close it.

Do not mix up your roles.

The answerer should ideally come up with an answer that is poignant and meaningful.

It should be poetic in its execution, often representing the most interesting answer rather than the correct one.

While poets of the ancient past could only offer wild conjectures about why things are the way we are, we are still equipped to make up our own answers, even if we know they’re just wishful thinking.

We know why comets have tails, but it’s cuter to imagine that it helps them guide themselves as they fly.

We know how rainbows work, but it’s always tantalizing to try to find that pot of gold.

Allow your brain to dip back into ancestral, superstitious ways of thinking.

That’s where you’ll find your poetic answers to seemingly serious questions.

Poet’s Note


The mondo, frankly speaking, is not a form that has aged quite as well as the similar haiku.

It’s still a fun exercise, but we’ll never be able to reclaim the ancient experience of seriously contemplating the meanings of things and coming up with our own self-taught mythologies.

Nowadays we have the means to answer most of the questions that perplexed our forefathers, so this exercise has largely become more of a game than a scholarly pursuit.

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