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Tanka to Haiku: A Brief History

by Ashraful Musaddeq

During 9th to 12th century, tanka became popular in Japan. It is a genre of Japanese waka (poetry) that consists of five units (or lines) with onji/syllable structure: 5-7-5-7-7. The 5-7-5 is called the kami-no-ku (upper phrase) and the 7-7 is called the shimo-no-ku (lower phrase). It was often written to explore religious or courtly themes.

In the early Heian period (at the beginning of the 10th century), tanka became the main form of waka. Another form was tanka prose, the melding of tanka and prose in single literary compositions. The tanka-based game was also become popular: one poet recited/created half of a tanka and the other finished it off. This sequential, collaborative tanka was called renga.

However, in the 15th century, Japanese poetic form renga blossomed. It is a poem that several poets create cooperatively. It has two-verse style with sound unit counts of 5-7-5 and 7-7; one is called tan-renga (short renga)- other is called cho-renga (long renga). Members alternately add verses, until they complete a poem generally composed of 100 verses. This renga was consists of at least two ku or stanzas, usually many more. The Buddhist priest Sogi (1421 - 1502) and Matsuo Basho (1644 - 1694) are the most famous two masters of renga.

During the Edo period, the 36-verse kasen became the most popular form of renga and commonly spoken words with humor and intelligence. This style of renga came to be called haikai no renga (comical linked poem) or simply haikai.

The first stanza of the renga chain is called hokku. Basho developed this introduction into an independent poem. During Meiji period, Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) renamed hokku as haiku in 1892 which is an abbreviation of 'haikai no ku' (a verse of haikai).

In the 16th century, humorous haikai became popular. Haikai is a parody poem made of verses of 17 and 14 syllables like renga. It was usually written by two or more participants in a communal setting. Two of the most important features in haikai were linking and shifting with a focus on moving forward. Haikai includes a number of forms. Basho called it 'poetic spirit' (fuga) that includes haiku, renku, haibun, haiga and senryu. He defined fuga as a spirit which seeks beauty in nature and tries to escape the conflicts of everyday life.

In the 17th century, the hokku had begun to appear as an independent poem. Hokku (starting verse) is the opening stanza of a renga or of its later derivative renku (haikai no renga). Basho started to write hokku as an independent poem and incorporated in haibun (hokku + prose) and haiga (hokku + painting). He raised the haiku from a comic verse to a serious form with the spirit of Zen Buddhism. Shiki renamed hokku as haiku. But Basho is considered as the father of hokku/haiku.

Typically, a hokku is 17 moras (onji) with three metrical units of 5-7-5 moras respectively. It includes a kireji (cutting-word) and a kigo (seasonal reference). Kigo indicates in which season it is set and kireji divides it into two independent parts. It is traditionally written in a single vertical line in present tense without metaphor.

Another Japanese short poem is senryu (river willow) which is similar to haiku: three lines with 17 or fewer total moras. It is about human nature and presented with satire. It does not include a kireji or kigo. During Edo period haikai poet Senryu Karai (1718-1790) developed this form.

Haiga is a traditional Japanese art form composed of brush painting and calligraphy of haiku. Calligraphy is written with black sumi ink (Chinese black ink) and watercolor painting. Nonoguchi (Hinaya) Ryuho (1595-1669) is the inventor of haiga. But it became a major form of imaginative expression with Basho. Yosa Buson turned haiga into a more purely painterly medium.

Haibun (haikai + writings) is a literary composition that combines prose and haiku. Matsuo Basho was the prominent early writer of haibun. His most famous haibun is Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Interior).

Author is a public servant, as well as a poet of Bangladesh. He used to write poems in English and Bengali.

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