Painting With Words

My current WIP is set in Japan – both modern day and during the late Edo period (around 1868). While I was researching, I tried to think of what *I* thought of as quintessentially Japanese, how could I start to become familiar with the images and thoughts that permeate the culture.

So, of course as an English major, I though of Haiku poetry. Except, I really didn’t know much about it. I mean yeah, I wrote haiku’s as a kid in middle school – some horrible ode to snow or moonlight or some such thing. But Haiku as art? Eh, not really my thing. I figured it would be more of the same sort of painful childhood experience. So I put it off as long as I could. But then I needed a poem for a particular section of the story, and I finally had to dive in.

Thank god for Google Books! I found an old copy of Japanese poetry called the Uta. Most of the poems in the anthology were written between 670 and 765 AD! Well, if you want real info, go to the source, right? But looking at them, I realized they didn’t much look or sound like the haiku I was used to. So, I had to dig a little deeper.

Refresher: Haiku is an un-rhymed, syllabic form adapted from the Japanese: three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables. Because it is so brief, a haiku is necessarily imagistic, capturing a single moment in a very few words. What I was looking at in the Uta was something called Tanka – an equally popular poetry form in Japan, but less well-known in the US. It has a similar structure – 5, 7, 5, but adds an additional two lines of 7 syllables. Tanka is also, but not always, used in a manner that includes nature in the expression of thought or feeling, similar to haiku, but because of its extra length, Tanka allows for deeper thought and expression of themes that would be too difficult for haiku to carry.

And then I found this:

From tanka’s long history – over 1300 years recorded in Japan- the most famous use of the poetry form of tanka was as secret messages between lovers. Arriving home in the morning, after having dallied with a lover all night, it became the custom of well-mannered persons to write an immediate thank-you note for the pleasures of the hospitality. The little poems expressing one’s feelings were sent in special paper containers, written on a fan, or knotted on a branch or stem of a single blossom. These were delivered to the lover by personal messenger who then was given something to drink along with his chance to flirt with the household staff. During this interval a responding tanka was to be written in reply to the first note which the messenger would return to his master.*

How cool is that? Real love poems. So of course I had to dig into this anthology and see what they had to say.


With a rocking
(As) of great ships
Riding at anchor
I have at last become worn out with love,
Because of a child of man.

Um….blush? Is that really saying what I think it is? What happened to that staid, reserved image of the Japanese I had in my mind?

Or this one:

To sit silent
And look wise
Is not to be compared with
Drinking sake
And making a riotous shouting

Sounds like these people like to have fun! As a westerner, this was definitely not the impression I had of the Japanese people. And, it continued through the whole book – tanka after tanka that shocked me from my sterotypes.

And then it hit me – how skilled were these people to be able to paint a picture with just a few words?

How about this one:

The wild geese returning
Through the misty sky –
Behold, they look like
A letter written
In faint ink.

Amazing, right? You can totally see that image from just a few words. As I did further research, I fell in love with the cadence and imagery of the tanka. I’m not a huge poetry fan, but it was surprisingly peaceful and satisfying to read these poems. So much said in so few words. I write novels, so I’m not exactly known for my brevity, but how much better of a writer would I be if I learned to be this concise in my descriptions, in the words I choose?

I started out wanting to learn more about the Japanese culture, but I ended up learning about myself. Because of this research, I found some pretty cool poems to use in my WIP, but I’ve also started to change the way I write. I’ m much more conscious of the words I choose, of the images I create. And how I can use them to really develop a feeling or emotion for my scene.

All because of the little haiku.

* Source: ahapoetry


  1. What a lovely post! I’m a writer, not an artist, but I love to look at the intersection of art and writing, and the influences of each on the other. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks Susan! I love the idea of painting with words, but I still need to work on that skill myself!

  2. Hi Jamie 🙂 In my elementary school-or at least in my grade three class-we learned the tanka when we learned the haiku. We never really studied it very much though; just kind of noted its existence and moved on. We certainly never read any as elegant as the examples you’ve selected. I’m rather inspired to try writing a tanka now, though I’m not much of a form poet.

    I think that western people do not pay enough attention or respect to eastern cultures, especially to Japanese culture. And I think it’s a shame that Japanese culture is westernizing.

    • That’s so cool – I had never heard of Tanka before this – I’m glad to see they’re broadening the curriculum! And yes, it’s definitley a shame so many other cultures are westernizing – there’s still so much for us to learn from them!

  3. This is lovely!

    What a well researched and well stated post! Thanks for this great info. 😀

    • Thank you, Laura – glad you enjoyed it – I know I’m really loving all the research I’ve had to do for this WIP

  4. What a great, informational post 🙂 I remember writing haiku’s back in grade school, but they never had such a profound effect as now!

    • I’m so glad this was interesting! I think after this WIP is done, I’m going to have to try my hand at some poetry 🙂

  5. That’s great to hear. Something similar happened to me recently (although not quite as poetic.) I wrote a query letter (13 version and still room for improvement), and when I went back to look at my WiP I thought about it in a different way–how I could trim words and make it tighter.

  6. Ugh-I think I rewrote my query at least 20 times! I’m so glad it helped you think about your story in a different way – love when that sort of thing happens!


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