In Which I Attempt Classical Japanese Poetry

Tanka a lot, August

Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash

I am no poet, and I know it

But I admire poetry a whole lot (though if I didn’t, I’d never admit it — what kind of person doesn’t like poetry?). Although I write all the time, it’s very rare that I can crank my brain up to generating an honest-to-God, worthwhile poem.

Still, there are times when I feel the need. Last month, for example, while on a long walk with my husband I found myself counting syllables on my fingers as I compulsively created haiku (that’s the plural as well as the singular form of the word, by the way; I checked. Haikus are not a thing). By the time we got home, my husband was worried I’d developed some sort of tic, but I had my July-ku’s committed to memory:

Without the fireworks,
what is the month of July?
Safer, saner, sad.

We canceled our trip;
Distant family must wait.
But time won’t stand still.

(You carry a gun
because you want protection,
but not a face mask?)

The best we can do,
a barbecue via Zoom.
When is the vaccine?

Next year, huge parties
to celebrate our freedom.
This year, survival.

In an out-of-control time, a strict poetic structure is appealing

It gives the mind something to do besides fret, and I have to confess that when it comes to fretting, of late I’ve been doing more than my fair share. So far, I notice my hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing has had little effect on either politics or the pandemic. Time for a break.

To distract and refresh my beleaguered brain, I turned to a form of poetry you probably learned in grade school: the tanka. In case your recall is rusty when it comes to what constitutes a tanka, the rules are as follows. It must have five lines. The first line has five syllables, the second has seven, the third has five (so far, like a haiku), and the last two lines both have seven syllables. So, a 5,7,5,7,7 syllable count. 

Lots of careful drumming of fingertips on the desktop is involved. It’s soothing and absorbing, somewhat like doing the crossword puzzle in the in-flight magazine when you’re flying through turbulence.

All of which is a lot of wind-up for a very short poem, but here it is:

Augustanka

Covid still surges
But wait, there’s more (for the West):
Cue wildfire season.
Welcome to endless summer!
There’s no “back to school” —
The Beach Boys’ dream has come true,
And so have parents’ nightmares.

Feel free to let me know whether or not I counted correctly. Thanks for indulging me, and enjoy the dog days. 

6 Replies to “In Which I Attempt Classical Japanese Poetry”

  1. Hannah

    Loving the haikus, Jan! The one about people who carry guns but refuse to wear face masks especially resonates.

  2. Laurie

    I am going to leave the haiku writing to you, Jan. My attempts thus far (also just in my brain ond counting on my fingers) have been nothing short of pathetic. I hope your final haiku is a good predictor of 2021!

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