What Is Waka Poetry

Waka poetry is a traditional Japanese form of poetry, also known as Tanka or uta. It is composed of five phrases, typically expressing the joys, sorrows, and loves of the poet. Traditionally, Waka poetry was used to convey a poet’s thoughts and feelings, and the emotions of their heart. It is thought to have originated in the Heian Period in Japan, around the late 8th and early 9th centuries.

Waka poetry is written in a distinct meter or syllabic count. Each of the five elements of Waka (haikai, waki, kami-no-ku, saki-no-ka, and sorashi-no-ka) consists of a different set of lines with their own set of syllables. Waka is usually written in Japanese, with some works also written in other languages. The form has been adapted to different languages and cultures, from China to Africa.

The traditional forms of Waka include Haiku, Senryu, and Renga. Haiku and Senryu are the shortest Waka form, with three lines each. Renga, as the longest form, is composed of multiple lines of alternating length. All of these forms have their own distinct meter and syllabic count.

Elizabeth Alexander, author and professor at Yale University, comments, “The Waka form captures the brevity and depth of emotion in a way that can echo and reverberate, sweeping through different times, places, and readers. It is the ability of Waka, which has existed for over a thousand years, to capture and convey emotion in so few words that makes it so special and unique.”

The Waka form is often used to express emotion as well as to convey a message. It has also been used in political and religious ceremonies throughout history, often to convey messages of peace and unity, and to express national pride. The form has also been used to explore abstract concepts, to celebrate life, and to mourn the death of loved ones.

Many people today are actively engaging with the Waka form, finding their own voice and exploring the depths of emotion within their work. They often go beyond the traditional forms and use different languages, such as English, to express their ideas and feelings. Modern Waka is often characterized by the use of alliteration, repetition, and rhyme.

How to Write Waka Poetry

Writing a Waka poem is an exercise in both creativity and discipline. Each line must not only have a certain number of syllables, but must have a certain type of rhythmic structure, too. It is important to use imagery and descriptions to evoke an emotion or a certain image that is true to the idea of the poem.

Before beginning a Waka poem, it is important to be familiar with the form. There are different types of Waka, and each type has its own rules and structure. Once you have chosen the type and know the syllabic count and structure, it’s time to start writing.

Many poets believe that it is better to write several short Waka poems rather than one long one. Working with brief bursts of creativity can yield more meaningful and focused Waka poems. To begin the writing process, it is best to take some time to reflect on the topic. Think about an emotion or feeling that you want to convey, and then use words to bring that emotion to life.

The Waka form offers poets an opportunity to express emotions and ideas using few words. With practice, a poet can develop the skill to quickly find the perfect combination of words and imagery. As a poet’s skills improve, the Waka become more concise and meaningful.

Waka Poetry Through History

Waka poetry has been around for centuries, and was the most popular literary form in Japan during the Heian period. A celebrated poet from this time was Ono no Komachi. One of her famous works is ‘Futatsu-me no tsuki’ (The Two Moons), in which she tells the story of how two moons follow each other in the night sky.

The 14th century was a golden age of Waka poetry in Japan. Famous writers included the priest Jakuren and the courtier Saigyo. The 16th century saw a decline in the form as popular tastes changed. By the Meiji period, Waka poetry was practically extinct. However, it experienced a revival in the 20th century, when interest in traditional Japanese culture increased.

Waka poetry has managed to survive and flourish through the centuries, despite shifts in culture and changing tastes. While today the form is often seen as a nostalgic throwback to a bygone era, it still holds a special place in the hearts of many.

The Impact of Waka Poetry

The impact of Waka poetry on the literary landscape has been profound. The form has been adapted in various countries, and is still widely studied in Japan as part of literature classes in schools. Not only is it used as an artistic form, but also as an educational tool. Waka poetry offers insights into different cultures and different ways of life, and encourages students to appreciate the links between literature, art, and life.

The importance of Waka poetry can also be seen in its continued influence in the modern world. Through its brief, intense expressions it continues to speak to our deepest feelings and emotions. In a time when attention spans are ever-shortening and our sense of connection is fractured, Waka poetry serves as a reminder of our shared humanity.

Modern Trends in Waka Poetry

Modern Waka poetry has continued to evolve and adapt over the years. While traditional Waka poetry is still widely appreciated, many modern poets are finding new and innovative ways to express themselves. New developments in the form include incorporating different languages, experimenting with the syllabic count, and expanding the subject matter to include more contemporary topics.

One recent development is the use of English in Waka poems, which has been popularized by contemporary poets like Yuka Yamaguchi and Matt Bryne. This has allowed Waka poetry to reach a whole new audience, and has made it easier for people to access and to appreciate.

Waka poetry has a long and storied history and remains an important part of the literary landscape. It is a form that has endured and evolved, a testament to its enduring power. Its universal themes and emotion remain potent today, and it continues to be a source of inspiration for many.


Waka poetry is a form of Japanese literature that has been around for centuries and continues to exercise a powerful influence in the modern world. It is characterized by its brevity, emotion, and its ability to stimulate the imagination. Through its meditation on emotions, thoughts, and ideas it offers a unique window into the human experience. As Waka continues to evolve, it remains a powerful source of inspiration, hope, and emotion.

Dannah Hannah is an established poet and author who loves to write about the beauty and power of poetry. She has published several collections of her own works, as well as articles and reviews on poets she admires. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a specialization in poetics, from the University of Toronto. Hannah was also a panelist for the 2017 Futurepoem book Poetry + Social Justice, which aimed to bring attention to activism through poetry. She lives in Toronto, Canada, where she continues to write and explore the depths of poetry and its influence on our lives.

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