As we examine poetry from Asia, we will first look at the form of haiku and tanka. Specifically, we are going to examine the tradition of Japanese Death Poetry in Japan, China and Korea.
Death poems have been written by Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Zen monks, by many haiku poets, and Japanese Samurai. It was an ancient custom in Japan for literate persons to compose a jisei on their deathbed. The format of the poem is as follows – three lines with syllable counts of 5/7/5, conveying strong emotions through images of nature and the natural world.
Tanka poetry is similar to haiku – its formal structure is five times with syllable counts of 5/7/5/7/7. Tanka poetry typically contain two images – the first of nature, and the second of the poet meditating on the meaning of nature. While still conveying very deep emotion, tanka poetry is also know for being more whimsical and dream-like than haiku.
As you analyze these poems remember that you need to be able to summarize the poem, explain the tone, and the use of metaphor, symbolism or imagery by the poet. As all of these poems are about the same topic (the death of the speaker) it should be easier for you to conduct analysis. Also remember the aspects of Japanese culture we have discussed in class – usually very reserved in outward displays of emotion, these death poems allowed these individuals a chance to finally express their feelings and emotions openly right before their death. This means for many of these poems there is a lifetime of emotion wrapped up in three short lines – making them incredibly moving!
Click here for the haiku’s covered in class.
Click here for the tanka poetry covered in class.