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?

On poetry – Part 2: Great books for reading and writing poetry

In my last post, I discussed how important it is to both read and write poetry to fully understand and appreciate it. I also pondered on the fact that poetic form and structure is not really taught in school any longer, nor is actually writing poetry particularly encouraged, and that this perhaps contributes to the general feeling of ill-ease which most people feel towards poetry. Yet, as I admitted, despite spending the first two decades of my life loathing poetry, I eventually changed my attitudes through learning to write poetry in its many forms and following its many varying rules, and this in turn helped me to enjoy reading poetry, as well.

Now I would like to share some fantastic books that may help you to appreciate both reading and writing poetry, whether you’re a reluctant novice or a seasoned poet. I will begin with a book that takes us right back to the basics of poetry, then move on to an anthology of poetic forms, before moving on to a more broader volume of poetry that encompasses the art form from the last few millennia.

The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking The Poet Within by Stephen Fry

This probably won’t come as a much of a surprise, but Stephen Fry loves poetry, and it has long been a hobby of his. In this book, he strips poetry down to the absolute basics, breaking it into four sections. First, he introduces us to metre, including different metres, iambs, end-stopping, enjambment and caesuras, and much more. Secondly, he explains rhyme, including different categories of rhyme, arranging rhyme, and what makes good and bad rhyme. Next, he goes into form, covering the stanza, why to bother with form at all, ballads, heroic verse, odes, closed forms such as villanelles and sestinas (and many more), comic verse such as the cento and limericks, exotic forms such as the haiku and senryu, sonnets, and shaped verse. Lastly, he looks at diction and poetics in today’s world.

What makes this book great, apart from the fact that it breaks down poetry to the fundamentals, is that with each section Fry has included a number of poetry exercises to help you master it skill by skill. He even includes a “how to read this book” foreword that explains how to make the most of these exercises. To top it all off, he is very enthusiastic and quite entertaining in his explanations, writing in a precise and accessible manner that will enable poets of all levels to gain something from reading this book. An absolute must read for budding poets everywhere.

The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland

This book differs substantially from Fry’s book, and focuses much more on the actual poetic forms themselves. It is a book often used for studying poetry at a university level, but you don’t need to be a university student to get something out of this book – you just need to be curious and open-minded. It is perhaps the most comprehensive listing of poetic forms, covering most of the major verse poems,  shaping forms such as elegies, the pastoral, and the ode, and also open forms.

What is remarkably useful about this book is that for each poetic structure, a dozen or so poems of that form are supplied to help you come to grips with how the form works. Often the poems range dramatically in terms of when they were written, so as to show how the form has evolved over time, and so often you will find classical poetry mixed in with quirky, contemporary poems that play around with the conventions of each form. This is definitely a book for those who feel a bit more confident with the basics of poetry and want more of a challenge.

Poetry For The Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty edited by Alan Jacobs

This book is only an anthology of poetry to read, but it is an amazing anthology. It focuses on spiritual poetry, and ranges from over 4000 years ago to the twentieth century, presenting the poetry in chronological order, from pre medieval times, to medieval times, and then century by century. As a large amount of poetry throughout history has explored this side of human existence, whether directly, or indirectly through themes of nature and life itself, this anthology says just as much about the evolution of poetry as it does the evolution of spirituality. I would recommend this book to anybody looking for some inspiration in their poetry writing, as you are bound to find some here.


So, there we have it. I will probably do more posts in the future on poetry, and perhaps will explain some of my favourite poetic forms, to illustrate why I believe knowing poetic form is so important to enjoying poetry on any level. But for now, if you have always wanted to write poetry but have never known where to start, these books should help set you on your way, especially the first two books.

Do you know of any books that look at poetry that you have found particularly useful?