Eighth Day: Japanese Poetry

The thousand year plus history of Japanese poetry, poetic form and genre has intrigued, influenced and set poets from the West a-squabble during the last century or so as various groups attempt to extrapolate and propound their one right and true whole from their small portion of the elephant. Tread with care.

WhiskWhisk by Yoko’s Dogs

Pedlar Press

Writers, unlike most other artists, generally eschew the rigour and joys of collective creating but here, four very different and independently prolific Canadian poets compose as Yoko’s Dogs, as complement to their separate artistries. Whisk’s mostly 4- and 8-stanza poems alternate short 3-line, and shorter 2-line verses in the manner of renga, the centuries old genre of Japanese collaborative linked poetry.

So brief a form lends itself to Imagist concision and piquancy; writing verses in turn, to acrobatic repartee that the Dogs employ with the sure agility of trapeze artists—according readers equal share in the fun. Sensuous images and their juxtapositionings mesh to generate mood and meanings that ripple below the surface words. Much more to these poems than greets the eye of initial readings and, teasingly, they revealed to me, a little more on every one subsequent.


Tanka100g100 Tanka by 100 Poets

of Australia & New Zealand

Edited by Amelia Fielden, Beverley George & Patricia Prime

Ginninderra Press

Tanka, like haiku, seem (too) often written and enjoyed merely as playful counting ditty. The poets here, however, with subtlety, wit, allusion, metaphor, and sonnet-like volta, show off all the artistry and nuance of the form as poetry. Compiled in emulation of the influential 13th century Japanese anthology, Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, many of these tanka (short songs) also touch on love—yearnings, gentle erotica, heartbreak, remembrances.

But as classic Japanese waka has in its 1 300-year lifetime, modernised into tanka, so do these contemporary poets extend the form to the modern Australasian world—surfers waxing boards, dreaming of that perfect wave; zesty fragrances of oranges doomed to tomorrow’s marmalade; the insidious onset of Alzheimers; bushfires spewing “breath from Hades”… Wonderfully diverse; skilfully portrayed.


MomentaryStayA Momentary Stay by Charl JF Cilliers

Lots, it’s been said, depends on the colour of a wheelbarrow in the rain. Even more, judging by the volume and ferocity of haiku discussions I witness across the planet, depends on the interpretation of haiku; what it is, how it’s to be writ.

There are five haiku and a tanka in this book which is worth reading just for the joy of seeing the forms interpreted with rare understanding of the nuances of their Japanese antecedents. Two examples (that also encapsulate the tenor of the whole collection):


The moon’s half awake –

I sing in its hollow shape

on the edge of light.


The mystery enfolds

me – here where willow trees bend

over their shadows.

Cilliers fills his collection with keen observations of his world and mullings over the ways in which poetry helps make sense of it.


StarlightRecycling Starlight by Penny Harter

Mountains & Rivers Press

Harter opens this moving collection that charts the journey through her first year of widowhood, with a haibun—the ‘prose poem plus haiku’ form Matsuo Bashō famously employed to compose his travel journals in 17th century Japan. The poetry begins at Bill’s deathbed and with cancer’s ruthless wasting of a husband’s body; it continues, portraying numbness of loss and the exquisite shards of pain that penetrate it.

There is another haibun for the packing and move to a new home, trailed by memories; memories that waken the vain hopes that “I can dream myself back home.” At the last, and as the title suggests, the poems transition to a sense of balance regained; into some letting go of the darkness and to the tasting, again, of that which was, and will always be, sweetness.



Living with Haiku by Pieter Scholtz

(Drawings by Andrew Verster)

Horus Publications

Very few South African poets pay serious attention to Japanese poetry form and genre. But since Steve Shapiro’s, In a Borrowed Tent, won the ’96 Ingrid Jonker, there’s been a steady, albeit slow, growth of interest in haiku, tanka, haibun and renku.

Haiku can take you far from the peaceful, monkish communing-with-nature roots you may associate it with, and Scholtz wisely sidesteps, straddles perhaps, the often bloody divides of opinion about the form. He also looks to Yosa Buson’s mastery of haiga for his pairings of drawings with the haiku in the collection.

The poet writes succinctly of love, life, and about the brain haemorrhage that almost killed him, managing always, to find beauty in even the difficult parts of life.


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