On Poetry – Part 6: Exotic forms – the Haiku, Luc Bat and Tanaga

In this post, we are going to look at forms of poetry that originated in languages other than English. In many cases, there is the argument that a lot of the power of the poetry has been lost, or at least changed, through the language differences, but many will also argue that these forms are still lovely in any language, and I certainly believe this to be true.

We’re going to look at the haiku, as well as two similar forms, the senryu and the tanka, before moving on to the luc bat and tanaga. All are relatively short and quite simple to understand, but as always if you have any questions, feel free to ask.

The haiku, senryu and tanka

All three of these forms are of Japanese origin, and all have very similar rules. We’ll start with the haiku, a form that many people know to be a three line poem, with five syllables, then seven syllables, then five syllables for the lines. What less people seem to be aware of is that there are more rules than this to the haiku – the haiku needs to have some sort of reference to the season, or at the very least the weather or atmosphere (often known as a kigo word), and it should include little if no verbs, instead engaging the senses with an image of nature, a single moment. As a quick example, I’m going to make something up on the spot (uh oh):

The sun shimmers on
the icy cold winter waves,
no life to be seen.  

The senryu follows the same syllabic rules of that haiku, but instead focuses more on the human nature (without that kigo word) than the physical or geographical nature. English-speakers and writers tend not to follow the syllabic conventions so strongly for this form, and overall it hasn’t been as popular as the haiku (though often the content of the two has been mixed up anyway, and the rules appropriated for different purposes). Despite this, this form was popular with the American beat poets like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac.

The tanka is similar to both these forms, only with five lines and a syllable count of 5,7,5,7,7. It is becoming more popular, and there is a growing amount of websites dedicated to the tanka online, for those interested in this odd form. The other rules for this one are rather vague and lost in translation, so again it is best just to enjoy it for what it is.

Luc Bat

The luc bat is a Vietnamese poem, in which lines of six syllables alternate with lines of eight syllables (‘luc bat’ translates as ‘six eight’). The length is not fixed, but the rhyming pattern makes this a form that is easier to do than to try and explain. The sixth syllable of the first line rhymes with the sixth syllable of the next line, but the eighth syllable of that second line then rhymes with the sixth syllable of lines three and four, and the eight syllable of the fourth line rhymes with the sixth syllable of the fifth and sixth, so that each rhyme appears three times (though not always at the end of the line), until the end of the poem, where it will finish rhyming with the first line again. If this doesn’t quite make sense, look at this example below, taken from http://lonestar.texas.net/~robison/luc_bat.html :

The luc bat shows two trends.
The poem’s rhyme scheme tends to climb;
Lines alternate in time.
A six-beat line is prime; an eight-
Beat one succeeds its mate.
The form is not ornate, and yet
Does its job… Don’t forget,
To conclude this vignette, it bends.

Hopefully you can see the rhyme pattern in this poem – I have underlined one set of rhyming words to illustrate how it works. The best way to get your head around this form, as always, is to try it!


The tanaga consists of four seven-syllable lines, usually with a rhyme scheme of aaaa, although it has lately been changed to abab, abba, and aabb. It is a Filipino form, and is not particularly well known in English as yet – so much so that there aren’t any well known English tanagas (an opportunity for a talented poet, perhaps?), so I will simply move on and show an example, this one coming from the ever trusty Stephen Fry book, The Ode Less Travelled (I am suspecting he wrote this one):

The tanaga owes its genes
to forms from the Philippines.
To count all your words like beans
you may need adding machines. 

So there we have it, five forms from non-English speaking languages, all quite easy to master and quite fun to write.

Do you enjoy any of these forms, and will you try any you haven’t heard of before?

What are your thoughts on the language barriers – do you think these poems still work in English? Do you still enjoy them in English?