The Poet’s Almanac ❧ The Artful Shape

The Poet’s Almanac: 365 Days of Poetry
Week One: The Artful Shape

The earliest collections of poetry all seem to share a common ground – the song lyric. And for many centuries the earliest poems seem either to have been written to the tune of a given song, or seem to have been written as though a melody could be found. In a sense, one could say that the song lyric is the earliest form of poetry. On

The MAN’YŌSHŪ (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) The oldest existing anthology of Japanese poetry

the other hand, if a distinction is to be made between song and poetry, then the first poem was the first lyric written to be read (not sung).

Since he is so young,
He will not know the road to take:
I will pay your fee —
O courier from the realms below,
Bear him there upon your back.  Yamanoe Okura (?660-?733 AD)

Written on the death of Okura’s son.

Most sources assert that the epic is the oldest form of poetry. In some ways that’s true. But what all epics have in common is not what all Sonnets have in common. All sonnets are essentially alike in the number of their lines, their meter and their rhyme schemes. Others point to Hebrew poetry, which ranks among the oldest, but (to my knowledge) no poetic form, comparable to a sonnet, survives. For this reason some assert that the Sonnet is the oldest poetic form in continuous existence, having originated in 13th Century Italy. Others assert that the Ghazal, common in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Uzbek, Pashto and Urdu literature predates the sonnet, having more or less established its canonical shape in the 11th and 12th centuries. But perhaps the oldest poetic form in continual existence (if not the oldest poetic form in all of poetry) is the Japanese Tanka, dating back to the 6th Century.

Although my feet
Never cease running to you
On the path of dreams,
Such nights of love are never worth
One glimpse of you in your reality. Ki no Tsurayuki (868-945 AD) (A female poet.)

Tanka means “short song”. It’s syllable count (understood in the sense of the Japanese symbol) is 5-7-5-7-7. Interestingly, the Japanese historically considered the Tanka a feminine form. The later Haiku, which sprang from the Tanka, was considered a more masculine form. Part of the reason Tanka were considered a feminine poetry may be because many of the form’s most famous practitioners were women – poets of the gentry, nobility and court.


unable to be seen
through these clouded windows
on this spring day
of endless rain,
my yellow yamabuki blooms. Shiki Masaoka (1867-1902)

Further Reading:

An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry
Songs from a Bamboo Village: Selected Tanka from Takenosato Uta by Shiki Masaoka
Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology