26. Poetic Forms Part 1: Little Poems That Say a Lot

Author: Nola Published: over 2 years ago.
Tags: shorts, haiku, tanka, cinqku, poetry Category: Writing tips

In my Poetry Essentials series, I looked at some of the building blocks of traditional poetry: rhyme, syllables and stress, and metre. Those building blocks can be used to construct different types of poems. In this post, I want to focus on some short forms that distil a topic to its essence.


A haiku is a Japanese poem that consists of three lines with a set number of syllables per line – 5, 7, 5. They typically have an environmental and/or philosophical theme, though any topic can be used. Ideally the concluding line should provide a conclusion or punchline to the rest of the poem, as in the following example from Australian poet Andrew Lansdown:

Slightly off-centre—
the bullseye in the target
hung by the spider.

If you just saw the first two lines, you wouldn’t know the poet was talking about a spider’s web. That only becomes apparent when you read the third line. You will sometimes see poems labelled as haiku that have fewer syllables than the standard 5, 7, 5. One reason for this is that 17 syllables in English convey more information than the equivalent number in Japanese, so fewer syllables sometimes work better. You can read more about that here. In any case, the key is to convey an idea in a succinct way so that you are getting at the crux of the information.


A tanka is similar to a haiku but longer. It consists of five lines with syllable counts of 5, 7, 5, 7 , 7. Here’s another great example from Andrew Lansdown.

It wouldn’t matter
whether I’m merely matter
but for this matter
of the achings that matter
to the part that’s not matter.


A cinqku is a variation of a tanka. It has 17 syllables altogether with a syllable count per line of 2, 3, 4, 6, 2. Here’s one I wrote based on an actual experience I had in Newfoundland.

coasting near
sprays seawater
over new camera.
Best day!

Note that the last line gives a conclusion and perhaps a twist in that you might not expect seawater over a new camera to be a great experience.

There are dozens of other short forms of poetry. You can even invent your own or combine the different forms. For example, I was once given a poetry assignment in which I had to write a haiku and a tanka that related to each other in some way. You can find the result here. I’ve modified that poem so that it has the right syllable count, though I think it would read better with one less syllable in one of the lines. Which line do you think I mean?

Even if you don’t usually write poetry, why not try your hand at one or more of these poems? You might be surprised how much you can say in a few words.

(Sources for Andrew Lansdown’s poems: The haiku is the first stanza of the poem Target from the book Birds in Mind: Australian Nature Poems, published by Wombat Books, Capalaba, 2009, p. 102. The tanka Matter appears in the book Far From Home: Poems of Faith, Grief and Gladness, published by Wombat Books, Capalaba, 2010, p. 145. Both poems used by permission of the publisher.)

Comments read 2 comments so far

Comments for this post have closed.