They're Not All Haiku!

Forms of Syllabic Poetry

I've made a discovery of sorts in the past year—you know, there's more to by-the-syllable poetry than haiku! Such a poem is not solely determined by its structure, but also by its subject matter. It's a simple fact, but one that opened many doors for me and led me to find other types of syllabic poetry and what makes them what they are, in a sense outside structure. Here are some types of syllabic poetry and guidelines for reading and writing them:

What is a haiku?

A popular poetry form originating in Japan, haiku consists of three lines, the first and last of which are five syllables long, with a seven-syllable middle line. It's easy to remember as 5-7-5.

A haiku is not characterized only by its structure but by its subject matter; haiku is about nature. It often contains a kigo, a word or phrase that clearly indicates what season it concerns—for example, "leaves falling" could be a kigo for autumn, or "snow" for winter.

As it's much more difficult to keep syllabic form in English than in the original Japanese art form, it is often acceptable to use one syllable more or less in a line than the rule allows.

What is a senryu?

Also from Japan, senryu poetry is identical to haiku in structure (and leniency thereof in English), but differs in subject matter. Senryu focus on people rather than on nature and kigo.

What is a cinquain?

Cinquain poetry was developed by an American lady named Adelaide Crapsey. It consists of four lines with a syllable structure of 2-4-6-2. A cinquain is descriptive and sets a mood around a theme.

The style of a cinquain is intended to be different from the more traditional haiku and senryu. While those types often consist of three separate but related thoughts, a cinquain is designed to flow adhesively from beginning to end. However, all three types should create an atmosphere.

What is a tanka?

Yet another Japanese poetry form, tanka is longer than its sisters. Much like an extended haiku, tanka poetry is separated into five lines: 5-7-5-7-7. Also like haiku, tanka is meant to reflect nature. It sometimes contains other elements in addition. Sometimes poets who write in English will shorten the syllables of a tanka to 3-5-3-5-5.

Writing a tanka can be that simple, but it is an ancient form of poetry and there is much more technique involved in writing a quality tanka. I won't pretend to know or to have done it; but you can research this online, or find a book at the library or on writing poetry. It's fascinating, but difficult!

Syllabic poetry is meant to create a mood and both the reading and writing of it can be a very fun and rewarding experience. It also benefits from being easy to finish since such poems are so short! When writing (and even reading, if you're a syllable-counter like me), be careful not to get so stuck on structure that the feeling is lost. Break a rule now and then if you have to. (You can read my essay Comma Splice on the subject of breaking rules and artistic license! ::grin:: Shameless self-plug, I know.)

I hope this has helped you as a reader and writer of poetry as much as it has helped me! Feel free (and even encouraged!) to comment on that in a review. Thank you! Mistress Jakira