Here’s what the waka poem form is:
The waka is a type of Japanese poem form consisting of a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable structure.
The poet is generally expected to divide waka into two distinct sections, usually signified in English by a hard stop of some kind, such as a period or semi-colon.
This division is between the first three lines and the final couplet.
So if you want to learn all about the waka poem type, then you’ve come to the right place.
Let’s get into it!
Forms of Poetry: Waka
Waka is a type of Japanese poetry written with a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable count across five lines, though the measurement is actually slightly different in the native tongue.
It’s generally expected to be in two sections, a three-line section and a five-line section, or else the final line can stand alone as an independent thought.
The term “waka” is interesting in that it originally referred to “poetry in Japanese” and was as broad as that definition sounds.
The more common definition became a stand-in for tanka, effectively replacing the term entirely, until a revival of the term “tanka” in the nineteenth century.
Basic Properties of the Waka
|Popularity||Common throughout Japanese history|
How Is a Waka Structured?
The English adaptation of the waka is a five-line poem with exact syllable counts of 5-7-5-7-7, though this term can also be seen as synonymous with or very similar to tanka.
There are actually quite a few Japanese poem forms that use combinations of five and seven syllables, and since so much of the form’s history is lost in translation it can be hard to differentiate them in English.
One thing worth noting, though it’s really just trivia at this point, is that these “syllable counts” we refer to are actually the English adaptation.
Japan has its own phonetic units that are not entirely synonymous with the English word “syllable,” but since it’s the closest equivalent our language has, it became the standard overseas.
Waka are expected to be roughly divided up into two sections.
The first three lines function as one section while the last two lines are another.
The last line can be designed to stand alone, effectively creating a third section, but this is up to the poet’s discretion.
In English we tend to signify these divisions with punctuated caesuras (pauses), such as periods and semi-colons.
Commas can fulfill the same purpose but they’re a slightly “softer” stop, so it can be a more questionable division.
While the waka has a long and storied history, it’s also hard to pinpoint which parts should and should not be considered part of the modern form’s history, since the term’s definition has changed over time.
You could generously claim that all of Japanese poetry shares some blood with the waka and still not be far from the truth.
Example of a Waka
Look to the red sky
as sunset calls the old names
of forgotten men.
Soldiers who died in long wars
begging the now living to learn.
Since adaptations of Japanese poetry tend to only go off of syllable counts, they’re among the easiest poem forms to write (in English, at least).
While many Japanese forms have principle themes that they tend to return to, such as the haiku’s seasons, waka have seen a variety of eras and have been used in a variety of ways.
Take note of the period on line three in the example.
This seemingly minor detail encourages the writer to break up the poem into two complete but related thoughts.
At only five lines, it would be easy to base the entire poem on a single thought or sentence, so this grammatical division helps to prevent that tendency.
Tips for Writing Waka
Most of the tips for writing waka can be applied to writing short poems in general.
First, you want to make sure that every line is accomplishing something.
Whether it has a sharp image, an interesting twist, or just a pleasing sound in it, do not let a single line go wasted.
Second, choose a topic that is conducive to short poetry.
If you want to say something complex and multifaceted, then you may want to stop and ask yourself if a waka is really the right form for the message you want to convey.
Do not overestimate what you can realistically fit into the size of the form. It is appropriate for simple moments and images, but not for anything extensive.
Third, word choice is everything.
Something as simple as changing “the man runs” to “the man sprints” drastically changes a short line, cranking up the sense of urgency.
Pay close attention to connotations, the implied undertones of words, so that you’re using each syllable to the fullest.
Remember, above all else, that you only have 31 syllables to work with.
The end of the third line is a good place to stop and reevaluate. Is it working?
Does it raise questions or provoke an emotion of some kind?
If you haven’t hit on anything by that point, the last two lines will have a lot of heavy lifting to do and may not be able to handle it by themselves.
One oddity about very old forms, like this one, is that they have the richest and most extensive histories, but often the least concrete definitions.
This is the direct result of generations of poets iterating on and redefining these forms over and over again, leaving them in a sort of limbo where we have to first ask “which era of this form are we discussing?”
Comprehensive Collection of Poem Forms: Craft Words Into Art
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