Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Sedoka - Examples

Sedoka is an obscure form of Japanese poetry that occassionally occurred the Man'yoshu but was pretty much extinct after that. It occassionally crops up but doesn't warrant more than a really short footnote when it does. Be that as it may, I find myself occassionally writing it. Usually by accident when tanka cannot quite contain all that I want to do.

Sedoka were composed of two katauta, or half-poems. Each katauta was three lines and complete in itself and could stand alone; they followed a pattern of 5-7-7 syllables. Two of them combined together to make a complete whole, for 5-7-7-5-7-7. As is usual, English does not conform to the Japanese syllable pattern so considerable leeway is given regarding line length. Since few people are writing even fewer sedoka, there are no English-language standards. This makes it rather attractive since whoever writes one gets to do as they please and nobody will argue with them. If sedoka catch on, which seems unlikely, perhaps some consensus will emerge.

Having written a few myself I have started to develop an opinion of how an English-language sedoka should be written. In particular, I believe that the two halves should be autonomous, but create a gestalt when combined together. If they are not discrete, then it is not a sedoka but a really short choka. (See the previous a post on choka.)

Here are two examples. The first is an attractive poem, but technically defective as a sedoka; the lower verse does not stand alone.

the heavy beauty
of a Mexican saddle
filled my child’s eye:
black tapaderos
mother-of-pearl pommel
and hand-tooled roses.
~M. Kei

a shallow sky
leaves my heart
no room to stand;
I bow my head
and carry heaven
on my back
~M. Kei

In the second poem, the two katauta can be split apart: "a shallow sky / leaves my heart / no room to stand" AND "I bow my head / and carry heaven / on my back". The two katauta are perfectly decent senryu and can stand alone quite comfortably. (Senryu, because the emphasis is on the human element.) However, when placed together, they make up a coherent whole that amplifies each.

Had the two katauta been written by different poets, the work would be a mondo. Mondo frequently fell into the pattern of a male suitor approaching a woman in the first katauta and the woman's response in the second katauta, but there is no reason why modern mondo should adhere to this convention. On the other hand, renku and other forms of linked verse are highly popular, including haiku sequences, so there is no reason to resurrect mondo; it's already been done under a different name.

It should be noted that the kataura are NOT haiku -- they predate haiku by at least a thousand years and were often folksongs or even things approaching free verse. Often the last line of the two katauta was the same; in other words, it served as a short refrain in a short folk song. That pattern would look like:

line one
line two
line three
line four
line five
line three

While repetition was often used in the Man'yoshu which included many folk songs and songs of humble origin, later poets eschewed repetition as simplistic. The poets of the courtly tradition of waka (see previous posts) want to pack as much meaning as possible into their short poems. Redundancy was eliminated.

Sedoka, with its 38 syllables, offers more room than tanka with 31 and haiku with 17, yet it is an extremely short poem by Western standards. As has been made clear in previous posts, English-language tanka that adhere to the 5-7-5-7-7 form for tanka provide too much information compared to the Japanese tanka; poets who want longer, lusher opportunities in a Japanese form should consider sedoka because a Japanese sedoka carries about the same amount of information as an English-language tanka.

The lack of calcified rules governing the form also provides an attractive opportunity for experimentation, while those poets who are intent on producing pseudo-Japanese verse in English, can, if they wish, adopt the Japanese convention of short-long-long-short-long-long lines, strictly divided into upper and lower verses.


  1. Excellent post! I am a poet who writes mostly speculative poetry. I had a sedoka appear in the magazine Scifaikuest in Nov '08. The magazine focuses on minimalist speculative poetry.

    Enjoyed the post!

  2. Nice! I too am a science-fictional poet published in Scifaikuest; I have never written sedoka, though. That ought to be the next genre to conquer...