The haiku is a popular Japanese poetry form known worldwide. The tanka is an older, closely related poetic form that also has its origin in Japan. A haiku has three lines and a tanka has five lines. As adopted by American poets, these short, non-rhyming poems are written using a set amount of syllables per line.
Counting Syllables in a Haiku
It is common for the haiku to be taught in elementary schools as an early introduction to poetry because of its simple format. As it is usually taught, the first line has five syllables, the second line has seven syllables, and the third line has five syllables, as in these two examples I wrote:
The early spring rain
lingers on the tattered grass;
the earth drinks the rest.
A hot April day,
Sun bribes Rain with the promise
In the Japanese language, syllable sounds are much shorter than they are in English. Therefore, many English language poets try to achieve an effect closer to the Japanese tradition by creating haikus with fewer syllables per line, as in the following example:
A secret smile,
the crescent moon sits
in the daytime sky.
However, there is more to a haiku than the syllable count.
Nature and the Pivot
Although the topic of a haiku can be almost anything, the haiku traditionally mentions a season of the year–winter, spring, summer, fall. Sometimes the season is not mentioned directly. For instance to signify the winter, the haiku could talk about snow or frost. My first example above uses the word “Spring.” The second haiku implies that the season is spring through use of the words “hot April day.”
Instead of referring to a particular season of the year, a haiku may simply mention any aspect of nature–such as wind, temperature, flowers, ocean, trees, animals, or birds. In the third haiku above, the moon and sky are the references to nature.
Also, in the true tradition, a haiku has a pivot–that is, a pause or a break in meaning after either the first or second line that turns the poem in a different direction. In the first haiku above, the focus on the rain in the first two lines switches to the earth in the last line. In both the second and third haikus, the first line of the poem stands on its own and the second and third lines are a unit forming a complete thought and taking the poem to an unexpected place.
A traditional American tanka follows the 5-7-5-7-7 pattern for the number of syllable in each line. Ideally, each line of a tanka has its own unique imagery that fits together as a whole poem. In some cases, the first three lines function as a complete thought, with the last two lines providing further explanation. Here is an example:
My car, hell on wheels,
Drives me down an empty beach.
Sand performs dervish.
The sound is big, the smell, wide.
On the other hand, it is also common for the first two lines of a tanka to form a complete thought and then the last three lines to form a thought, as is the case in my tanka below:
My nights are dreamless
comas wrapped in blank pages.
My dreams are sleepless,
living as my surrogates,
As with haikus, many poets write tankas with fewer syllables per line. Unlike a haiku, a tanka does not have to refer to a season or to nature. A tanka traditionally does not use violent imagery.