Tanka on haiku – questioning the rules of beauty

There are many set forms of poetic structure. Books and websites abound, setting out the rules of form and content that allow us to label our work and provide a framework in which to explore a concent. The very stringency of these forms, where rhyme schemes, syllable counts and even content are dictated give us a measure against which we can be judged, and many will judge on the slightest deviance from the accepted norm.

I enjoy writing haiku. The ‘midnight haiku’ I started publishing a couple of years ago now have become a staple feature of the blog and I think I have missed no more than a couple of days in that time to illness. I like the constraints imposed by the widely accepted ‘English form’ of the poem; seventeen syllables in a 5-7-5 pattern leave no room for extraneous thoughts, but give plenty of space to explore ideas.

Technically, I don’t always get it ‘right’. A haiku should not simply be a seventeen syllable sentence split over three lines. There is not just the word and syllable limit to consider; there is a sub-text of rules for writing haiku, which Colleen clarifies in her weekly challenge. Amongst many other considerations, there should be a reference to nature or the seasons and, for some there should be ‘opposition’ between the first and second couplets, with the middle line providing the point of balance. But then, ‘English form’ haiku doesn’t get it right either when compared to the original Japanese form, where syllables are instead sounds and thus counted differently.

I struggle sometimes with the sound and syllable count, simply because I am aware of my own Yorkshire accent that will render that count differently than, say, an American or even southern English voice. Would a reader, for example, read ‘memory’ as three syllables or as ‘mem’ry’ in two? As I write, I can also count a silence as a syllable, but know that is impossible to convey in written form.

For me, writing haiku and tanka is a break from freedom. The constraints force me to look at what I wish to say and mould the initial idea into a pre-determined form. It is a good exercise in brevity, discipline and clarity… as well as a way to infuse a single concept with layers of meaning, there to be unpicked by the reader who stops long enough to consider what is read and written, but making equal sense to the casual glance.

Conforming to familiar forms is something we learn to be comfortable with. Form reaches its final shape through long evolution and we admire expressions of its perfection, whether in a prize-winning rose or a symmetrical face. Even in creative endeavours, we hold that perfection as a measure against which to judge results. Where writing is concerned, for example, opinion may by polarised by the ‘wrong’ placement of a comma or an unusual usage of grammar. Such anomalies are held as faults by purists, rather than being seen as an attempt by the writer to express a tone or concept for which there is no written form.

We all have our bugbears. One of mine, oddly enough, is that of being constrained by fashion to hold a shape that has no echo in the heart. I do not believe that true beauty needs to conform to any form. On the other hand, the source and reason of beauty matters to me. I find it grates when those who adopt a fashion for fashion’s sake break the rules, not to serve the essence behind the form, but simply because they care too little to seek understanding, merely apeing their own perception of an easy way to gain popularity.

Fashions come and go and, like any other fashion, becoming a slave to popularity is a self-imposed limitation of spirit. Rhyming verse is seen as passé  these days unless you are writing comic verse or rhymes for children… but I often think in rhyme, so why should I not write what comes? I enjoy following the constraints of dictated form…but know that outside of those strict lines there is a  freedom seldom found within them. The fluidity of the formless is the space in which new and unique beauty may be brought to being.

Yet, although we may be harsh judges of those who ‘break the rules’, being contrary creatures, we love the ‘quirky’, the innovative, the novel and unusual too. We can feel the difference between simply ignoring convention through arrogance and choosing to be  creatively individual. What may be lacking in stringent adherence to the ‘rules’ of beauty is then made up for in individuality and it is the very flaws to which the purist objects that give a face character and charm, making it memorable. It is from the unpredictable mutation of a flower that a new rose is born; it is the white raven that stands out from the crowd. And poetry needs no form at all in order to speak to the heart.

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She writes alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. Find out more at France and Vincent. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent. Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com.
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34 Responses to Tanka on haiku – questioning the rules of beauty

  1. Reblogged this on Colleen Chesebro ~ Fairy Whisperer and commented:
    Sue shares her thoughts on writing the Japanese poetry forms. I stand corrected – she brings up excellent points about diction and pronunciation in British English vs. American English. I accept that some poets write in their native language which is then translated into English. The syllable count may be off because of the differences in language. I have no problems with this. The poetry challenge was started to share our love of poetry, while learning about the different forms. Please write your poetry with your particular syllable count as close to the 5/7/5 format as possible. If you are not spot on, don’t worry. Creativity should be allowed to flourish. That works for me. Thank you Sue, for sharing your thoughts. ❤

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Sue, thank you for sharing your thoughts about the Japanese poetry forms. I neglected to take into account the way other people pronounce words. I love the rules, but there must be room for creativity. I’ve reblogged your post because I think it is important to recognize poets should write in their own language, with their own pronunciations and syllable count. Thank you for that. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sue Vincent says:

      I never even considered accent till a couple of readers commented on non-adherence to the form. Looking back over past poems, I can see how and where a number of them could have been read in a different voice or accent, thus changing the count. ❤

      Liked by 2 people

      • I noticed it from quite a few of my participants. I know English is a second language for them. The whole idea was to be as creative as possible with the haiku in English form. We need to know the rules in order to bend the rules. 😀 ❤


  3. Ritu says:

    We were just talking about poetry free form today and how a colleague of mine was put off poetry for life as on her school book, after putting in a lot of effort to write a poem she was told it was wrong!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Bernadette says:

    Sue and interesting and complex post examining the yin and yang of the poetic form. It sort of reminds me of life in general.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Brilliant words, Sue. I do all the wrong things when it comes to both poetry and dressing. I write in rhyming verse. My poetry usually comes to me that way and although I have experimented since I started my blog with other forms such as freestyle and haiku it is rhyming verse that I like best. I like the rhythm. I am a chartered accountant – a woman in a very male dominated world and a specialist in my area of regulatory requirements. I should power dress in suits, preferable in shades of white, grey and black. I don’t though. I wear bright colours like yellow and pink and once a week I have a 50 shades of [colour] day just to perk up the office.


    • Sue Vincent says:

      I’m afraid I think in rhyming verse half the time. I do not think there is a better type of poetry for engaging children…or the child within. I also believe that in pre-literate societies, many old teachings were transmitted via rhyme as that is the best way to remember a tale… so there is good reason to defy fashion and go for rhyme.
      I worked in the corporate world for a large percentage of my working life too. I didn’t conform then either…though I could if I absolutely had to. 😉


  6. Running Elk says:

    Constraining deep thoughts:
    In the form of a Haiku,
    Why is it so diff… ?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. memadtwo says:

    I love your observations and all the comments too. I like the puzzle aspect of trying different forms, and it focuses me, which I often need. But some forms feel more natural than others. And sometimes, the words just come in their own rhythm and sound. It’s all good. (K)


  8. I know that rhyming verse can be frowned upon as not ‘proper poetry’ but i find that it is a style that I express myself best in. I have only been writing haiku since I started blogging and will often break the rules with that, too, although I do try not to.
    I agree that there are times when we need to follow the rules, but when I get a verse in my head I am going to write it as I am no good at the intellectual type of poetry!


  9. macjam47 says:

    You are spot on, Sue!


  10. Denis1950 says:

    I love the Tanka and philosophy Sue. Since I began sticking to 3/5/3 haiku I have found liberation in the restriction, have you tried ?


  11. Pingback: Colleen’s Weekly #Poetry Challenge # 34 – POWER & ALLURE – Colleen Chesebro ~ Fairy Whisperer

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