Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Carpe Diem Tokubetsudesu #56 Choka (or Nagauta), Japanese "long poem"

Dear haijin, visitors and travelers,

I didn't get the job. I was first disappointed, but after hearing the reasons I was, in a way, happy that I didn't get it, because to this new job there was a study included in a city far from the city were I live. My employer has given me an opportunity to follow another study and maybe in the near future I will get the job after all. Thank you all for your love, thoughts and prayers. And now ... let's go do some haiku-ing or in the case "choka-ing".

As I promised you all few weeks ago I will do a few episodes of Tokubetsudesu about other Japanese poetry-forms. In this episode I love to tell you a little bit more about the Japanese "long poem", the Choka (or Nagauta).

The choka can be of almost any length, because its form depends on alternating phrases (or lines) containing either seven of five sound units (onji). The end of the poem is signaled by two lines of seven sounds. So the form is five/seven, five/seven, five seven, .... , seven/seven.
This was the most popular form of poetry in the 9th century as indicated by the large number of works in the celebrated anthology Man'yoshu (The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves). This anthology of anthologies contained 260 chok and 4200 tanka.

Credits: Kakinomoto no Hitomaro

The poet Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, who composed most of his work in the last decade of the 7th century, took the choka to its highest lyrical point with his finesse in the use of ritual language.
The connection to tanka is evidenced by the envoy or hanka - a tanka-like poem attached at the end of the choka. Occasionally more than one envoy will close the choka. There have been a few efforts to revivie the form over the intervening centuries, but the form has failed to gain any popularity in Japan, and even less has been accomplished in English. (Based on Jane Reichhold's "Writing and Enjoying Haiku")

Here is an example of a choka from the Man'yoshu (no. 802):

The briefest chōka documented is Man'yōshū no. 802, which is of a pattern 5-7 5-7 5-7 5-7-7. It was composed in the Nara period and goes:

When I eat melons
My children come to my mind;
When I eat chestnuts
The longing is even worse.
Where do they come from,
Flickering before my eyes.
Making me helpless
Endlessly night after night.
Not letting me sleep in peace?

(envoy or hanka)

What are they to me,
Silver, or gold, or jewels?
How could they ever
Equal the greater treasure
That is a child? They cannot.

© Yamanoue no Okura (Tr. Edwin Cranston)

Credits: Harvest Moon

I remember that Georgia of Bastet and Sekhmet's Library wrote, a while ago, an episode of our former Ghost Writer post, about the choka. She is, as far as I know, the only CDHK family member who writes choka. Here is one of her choka:

The Last Harvest Moon

as the breeze picks up,
canes rattle in harmony
red scattered leaves
fall in the river and drown
a monk bent with age
walks along the road thinking
his secular thoughts
the splendor of youth now gone
he gathers courage
to face another winter
his arthritis plain
his skin yellow and brittle
then a finch warbles
a cat rubs against his legs
he smiles down sweetly
then continues his journey

(envoy or hanka)

the last harvest moon
outlines the withered bent stalks
he walks and gazes
gathering the cold omens
whispered in the winter wind

 ©  Georgia (2014)

I love this "long poem", but it's not really my "cup of tea". I remeber that I had a while ago the iidea to create a weblog about choka, but I never did that and maybe that's something not to worry about, because recently we decided as Haiku Kai to make it possible to respond with other Japanese poetry forms than haiku or tanka. So ... choka ... is also part of that decision.

This episode is NOW OPEN for your submissions and will remain open until August 14th at noon (CET). I will try to publish our new episode, a cd special with the third haiku by Lolly, later on.


  1. I agree, and every no is an opportunity for what you really want.

  2. I'm sorry that you didn't get the position, but as you wisely said, one never knows what the future will bring. Thank you very much indeed for showcasing my choka today in this great feature introducing this ancient form ... a form I enjoy very much. Namaste, Bastet.

  3. I'm so sorry, Kristjaan - but here's hoping that the future study brings a wonderful new opportunity for you.

    A beautiful choka, Bastet --

  4. I have not been here in a long time.. I'm sorry for you not getting the job.. I have been in that situation, but there is always good and bad things with a new job.. I like the form.. just as I have started to appreciate the longer poems more and more... :-)

  5. is the [envoy ot hanka] another poem form like the waka or tanka perhaps or is the [envoy ot hanka] a part of the choka, like a closing stanza? Please clarify this for me

    much love...

  6. Thank you for such a great challenge. This group keeps me on my toes and I have learned so much from following the wonderful pieces posted here by top notch poets. This is a wonderful platform and I am grateful that you find the time to do it. I know your personal life has had a lot of upheaval lately. I am glad your father is doing better. As for the interview, you have a very Buddhist attitude about the whole thing. Who know what is good and what is bad? I am sure there is a better opportunityfor you around the corner. Many thanks again for all you do.