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:


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. 


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

  2. 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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