Waka poetry often focuses on themes such as nature, love, and spirituality. Many waka poems express feelings of longing, sadness, and loneliness, as well as the beauty of the natural world.
Explore Waka Poetry
Waka Poetry Definition
Waka poetry consists of five lines, with a syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7. The form is similar to haiku but with two additional lines.
Waka poems are traditionally written in Japanese and are known for their concise and powerful use of language.
History of Waka Poetry
In Japan, waka poetry has been an important art form for centuries, and it has been widely practiced by poets and scholars. The most famous collection of waka poetry is the Kokin Wakashu, which was compiled in the 10th century and includes over 1,100 poems from various poets.
Today, waka poetry continues to be appreciated and practiced in Japan and worldwide modern poets often experiment with the traditional form, using it to express various emotions and ideas.
Types of Waka Poems
Traditionally, the term “waka” was used to describe a few different types of poems. These are:
- Katauta: This is the shortest type of waka poem and consists of just three lines with a syllable count of 5-7-7. Katauta is often used as one half of an exchange of two poems.
- Chōka: This type of waka poem consists of a repeating pattern of 5-7 on phrases, with a final phrase of 7 on. It can have any number of lines, but the most common form has alternating lines of 5-7-5-7-5-7…5-7-7. Chōka is often composed to commemorate public events and can be followed by a hanka.
- Tanka: This is the most widely composed type of waka poem in history. Tanka consists of five lines with a syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7. It is known for its concise and powerful use of language, often focusing on themes such as nature, love, and spirituality.
- Sedōka: This type of waka poem consists of two sets of 5-7-7, which is similar to two katauta poems. Sedōka is often in the form of mondōka or an exchange between lovers known as sōmonka.
- Bussokusekika: This type of waka poem is similar to tanka but has an extra phrase of 7 added to the end. It consists of six lines with a syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7-7. Bussokusekika is often used to express solemn or religious themes.
Examples of Waka Poetry
When I eat melons by Yamanoue no Okura
Here is an example of a traditional Waka poem; it takes the form of a chōka and was written in the Nara Period. The poem reads:
When I eat melons
My children come to my mind;
When I eat chestnuts
The longing is even worse.
Where do they come from,
Flickering before my eyes.
Making me helpless
Endlessly night after night.
Not letting me sleep in peace?
This section of text is a great example of the kind of form and subject matter that these poems could take. The poet uses natural images, something that Japanese poems are well-known for, as well as inserting a human element: the poet’s love for his children.
The Flowers Withered by Ono no Komachi
Here is another example of a waka poem, this time written by a female poet, Ono no Komachi. It reads:
The flowers withered,
Their color faded away,
I spent my days in the world
And the long rains were falling.
Readers who are familiar with haiku poetry are likely to see some similarities between this five-line poem’s subject matter and style and the way that traditional haiku are written.
How to Write a Waka Poem
Here are a few straightforward steps to writing a waka poem:
- Choose a Theme: Select a theme for your poem, such as nature, love, or spirituality. This will help you focus your thoughts and ideas.
- Determine the Syllable Count: A waka poem consists of five lines with a syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7. This means that the first and third lines should have five syllables, the second and fourth lines should have seven syllables, and the fifth line should have seven syllables.
- Brainstorm: Spend some time brainstorming ideas and words related to your chosen theme. Consider using sensory language and vivid imagery to make your poem more evocative.
- Write Your Poem: Using your syllable count and your brainstorming notes, begin writing your waka poem. Start with the first line, and work your way down to the fifth line. Be mindful of the syllable count, and try to use language that is both concise and powerful.
An example of waka poetry is the famous poem by Emperor Tenji, who composed a chōka about his grief after the death of his wife. The poem was included in the Manyoshu, an anthology of Japanese poetry compiled in the 8th century.
To write a waka poem, choose a theme and determine the syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7. Brainstorm ideas related to your theme; use vivid imagery and sensory language. Write the poem, revise and edit it, then share it with others.
Waka poems are usually about nature, love, spirituality, and other themes that express human emotions and experiences. They are known for their use of vivid imagery and concise language, capturing the essence of a moment or feeling.
Related Literary Terms
- Haiku Poem: a three-line Japanese poem that follows a syllable pattern of 5-7-5.
- Tanka Poetry: this is an important form of Japanese poetry that follows a syllable pattern of 5-7-5-7-7.
- Tercet: is a three-line stanza. It is a common stanza form, although not as common as the couplet and quatrain.
- Imagery: refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.