Poetry has its seed in the human heart and blossoms forth in innumerable leaves of words … it is poetry which, with only a part of its power, moves heaven and earth, pacifies unseen gods and demons, reconciles men and women and calms the hearts of savage warriors.

Ki no Tsurayuki, Preface to the Kokinshū, Early Tenth Century

Tsurayuki’s words, written over a thousand years ago, are the first description by a Japanese of waka. The word is made up of two parts: wa meaning ‘Japanese’ and ka meaning ‘poem’ or ‘song’. It was probably coined at about the time Tsurayuki was writing as a way to distinguish the poetry written by the Japanese in their own language from that they read and wrote in Chinese – the source of much of Japan’s poetic inspiration.

Today, the type of waka best known outside of Japan is probably the haiku, a sequence of three ‘lines’ of five, seven and five syllables and describing an aspect of nature. Haiku are now written in many languages other than Japanese, and widely in Japan itself. They are, however, a relatively late form of waka, beginning to be written in the seventeenth century, by which time the Japanese had already been writing poetry for a thousand years.

Waka were first composed, before the advent of writing in Japan, to celebrate victories in battle and love, or for religious reasons, and this tradition of poetry for public occasions carried through to the first great age of written waka in the seventh and eighth centuries, with highly wrought nagauta ‘long poems’, consisting of alternating ‘lines’ of five and seven syllables, being composed for performance on public occasions at the imperial court. At the same time, tanka ‘short poems’, consisting of five ‘lines’ in the pattern of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, became a useful shorthand for private communication between friends and lovers, and the ability to compose a tanka on a given topic became an essential skill for any gentleman or lady at court. Over time, the tanka became the premier poetic form for the Japanese aristocracy and nobles competed to produce ever better examples of the art in poetry competitions, while critics formulated elaborate critiques and definitions of what was ‘acceptable’ poetry.

Eventually, the tanka of the court became ossified, and the vitality of waka was transferred to a new form, renga ‘linked verse’ which pairs or groups of poets would compose jointly, with one poet supplying the initial 5-7-5 of a verse and another the concluding 7-7, often building up to hundred verse sequences. Finally, the initial 5-7-5 of a renga became a poetic form on its own, the haiku, and great poets came to be found among the samurai warriors and the townsfolk of early modern Japan.

'Simply moving and elegant'