• Unit 5: Haiku and Tanka

    Unit 5: Haiku and Tanka

    Activity 1

    a. Discuss in your small group what a poetic device is.

    b. To remind yourself about poetic devices, study the table below in groups.



    In your small groups, identify any poetic devices used in a poem you have read before.

    Now, let’s define three terms, which we will come across in this Unit. These are:


    As a literary term, atmosphere means feelings that readers get from a narrative. These feelings are based on details, such as setting, background, objects and foreshadowing.


    This is the main idea about life in general in a literary work. The theme could be nature or environment.


    This is the point the writer wants a reader to get. The message could be that the writer wants the reader to consider conserving the environment. The writer could do this by showing the consequences of destroying the environment.

    In this Unit, we shall study the haiku and the tanka.


    A haiku is a short Japanese poem. This poem is normally made up of three lines. The first and last line has 5 moras. The middle line has seven moras. Mora is another word for sound unit. Here is an example of a haiku: The sky is so blue,

                     The sun is so warm up high,

                     I love the summer.

                   What feeling do you get as you read the above haiku? That     feeling is the atmosphere. In this case, it is a feeling of joy. This is expressed by the blue sky and the sun – which is warm. The blue sky and the sun are therefore images. They help create the atmosphere which enables us to understand this haiku.

       The haiku usually has seventeen syllables. A syllable is a segment of a spoken word usually made up of one or two sounds and spoken as one unit.

       The lines of the haiku rarely rhyme.

       As you have just seen, the haiku uses few words to capture a moment and create a picture in a reader’s mind. Therefore, the poet uses metaphors and personification. Read this haiku and see if you can spot the personification.


       Beans are kind to hearts,

       I like to eat them daily,

      And then do big farts.

    Can a plant or part of a plant have a heart like a human being?

       Haikus usually focus on nature. They use language that appeals to the senses to capture feelings or images in nature.  The poet does not give you the emotion he/she feels, but instead shows the details in the subject that cause that emotion.

    For instance, this haiku talks about the sky:

    1. The sky is so blue,

    2. The sun is so warm up high,

    3. I love the summer.

    Activity 2

    Read this haiku.

    With my Father

    by Issa Kobayashi

    With my father

    I would watch dawn

    over green fields.


    a. Mention any poetic devices used in this haiku.

    b. Explain the feeling the devices create in the reader.

    c. Would this poem still be a haiku if we added ‘the’ between ‘over’ and ‘green’? Why?

    Characteristics of a haiku

    −    contains three lines;

    −    has five syllables– sound units (moras) – in the first line, seven in the second and five in the last line

    −    contains seventeen syllables in total

    −    does not rhyme

    −    frequently has seasonal reference

    −    usually focuses on nature or natural phenomenon

    −    has two juxtaposed subjects that are divided into two contrasting parts In English, this division between two parts can be shown by a colon or dash.

    Activity 3

    a. Read the haikus below and identify the characteristics you have just read.


         I really like toast,

        It’s yummy when it’s hot,

        I like it best cold

    b. Identify any poetic devices in the haiku you have just read.

    c. Working in your small groups, read the haiku below and mention the poetic devices used. Thereafter, discuss what the haiku is talking about.

        A butterfly

    The falling flower thought I,

    Fluttering back to the branch–

    was a butterfly.

    How to write a haiku

    1. Write two sentences about nature. Focus on details of the environment that are similar to the human condition.

    2. Write a third sentence about something that is seemingly different from what you were writing in the first two sentences. You are shifting your focus from the first two lines and the ideas to something that may look as if it is different. Maybe you are looking outside and thinking about beautiful flowers and trees. Then you think of a hot cup of milky tea. The flowers and trees are growing, healthy and strong. The milk is a gift of healthy nature; the grass the cows eat, but someone could ask: What have trees and flowers to do with cows?

    3. Combine the three sentences and see whether the lines have any connection. Use language that appeals to the senses. This is what we mean by imagery.  Let your reader see, smell, taste, touch and hear nature. You may not need to involve all the senses all the time. You could think of words that strongly appeal to one or two senses. Remember, you are showing not telling. Don’t tell the reader the maize is healthy; show them that it is healthy without even mentioning the word ‘healthy’.

    4. Next rewrite the lines in the form of 5-7-5 syllables. Remember the poem does not need to have rhyme.

    Activity 4

    Working in your groups, use the above steps to compose a haiku. Share your ideas and discuss your different haikus. Your teacher will ask you to read the haiku you have written.


    A tanka is another form of Japanese poems, like the haiku. It is also called waka or uta. Tanka means a short song.

    Characteristics of the tanka

    1. The tanka is longer than the haiku. It has two additional lines that have seven syllables each. In total, it has 31 syllables. Its structure is 5-7-5-7-7.

    2. A tanka does not have end punctuation.

    3. It also does not use rhymes.

    4. The third line of the tanka acts like a pivot that divides the poem into two parts.

    5. The tanka uses imagery to convey its meaning. Remember, an imagery is a word that creates mental pictures. Examples include similes, metaphors and personification, though it could be any word that makes a reader smell, touch, hear, taste or see what the poet intends.

    Let’s look at the following tanka.

    Crash at two A.M.

    I opened my bedroom door

    A white cat ran by

    Startled by the clanging fall

    Of the treat jar’s metal lid

    (Accessed from www.poetry4kids.com)

    In this poem, we ‘hear’ the noise from the use of ‘crash’, and ‘clanging’. The cat becomes more visible when we are told it is ‘white’, instead of just a cat. Therefore, imagery makes the poem more alive. Note how the line on the cat is a pivot. We understand why the persona woke up, even without the last two lines. We also understand why the cat is hurrying by even without the first two lines.


    c. Read this tanka and then discuss its theme and message. Finally, discuss

         at least one poetic devices used.

         tree with lush leaves

         at an outdoor fair

         giving shade

         to a goldfish seller

         as summer begins

         Masaoka Shiki

    Writing a tanka

    How can we write a tanka? We can use the following steps.

       1. Think of a funny or amusing situation.

       2. Write down a few sentences that describe the situation.

       3. Think of powerful words that can appeal to the senses of the reader, and use them to describe the situation.

       4. Once you are done, think of how you can create the pattern 5-7-5-7-7.

    Activity 6

    a. Working in groups, study the following tankas and answer the questions that follow.

       1) For Satori

           In the spring of joy

           When even the mud chuckles

           My soul runs rabid

           Snaps at its own bleeding heels

           and barks: “What is happiness?”

    2) Sombre Girl

           She never saw fire

           from heaven or hotly fought

           with God; but her eyes

           smolder from Hiroshima

           and the cold death of Budha

           (Accessed at www.poetryfoundation.org)


        i) Identify the characteristics of a tanka in the two poems.

        ii) Give the images used in the two poems.

        iii) What is the atmosphere in the second poem and how has it been created?

        iv) Using your school library, research on Hiroshima and then discuss the message in the second poem.

        v) If your school has internet connection, research on tankas and write down two more examples of a tanka.

    b. Using suggestions on how to write a tanka, write one and share it with your group members. Your teacher will display the best tanka to the class.

    Unit 4: Themes and messages in a novelUnit 6: Sonnet and rhyme