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Like China, Japan has a long tradition of poetry, but it was in the Heian era when this art form rose to new heights as a multifaceted form of social interaction.

In modern times, we usually think of poetry as being a literary art form, one which most people do once in a while as a hobby, if at all. As a result, people do not realize the extent of poetry’s importance in the everyday life, especially court life, of medieval Japan. In Japan, generally poetry was a spoken medium, written down not to preserve for the future, but, like letters, to send to particular recipients as communication or gifts. Especially for women, who did not travel much, this was primarily a way to communicate their poems to people who were not present and would not otherwise hear them. Thus, poetry was primarily a spontaneous, verbal art form as opposed to a careful written form as we know it.

The Heian Era (794-1185) has the best illustrations of the many ways that poetry was used from first-hand accounts of Heian court life around the turn of the eleventh century from the diary of a court woman herself, a woman known as Murasaki Shikibu. She was also the author of one of the earliest Japanese novels, “The Tale of Genji,” which itself contains a number of poems composed by Murasaki for the characters to use in their interactions. Murasaki was one of the few people to create a compilation of poems that she either composed herself or received from other people. This document, now called the “Poetic Memoirs,” includes over 100 poems, many with brief descriptions of their context. Near the end of the Heian era, the Japanese court compiled collections of poems, many of which were composed at poetry competitions.

Most of the poems composed at court were in the form of waka, thirty-one syllables arranged in lines of 5-7-5-7-7. Waka were the base from which related poetic forms such as renga and haiku formed. Renga were multi-verse poems composed, usually by multiple people in a social gathering, by creating a base waka from which to start, then adding three more lines of another waka pattern that could form an independent poem with the last two lines of the first waka, then adding two more lines to form another waka, and so on. These linked poems could extend to many verses, depending on how much free time the participants had to sit around and create them. The word “haiku” came from “hokku”, which referred to the first three lines of a waka. This pattern, 5-7-5, eventually became a standalone pattern in its own right.

Despite having only five short lines, poems were used by men and women alike for various kinds of communication, including greetings, gifts, letters, and general socializing. As a result, they had to be concisely composed to convey the intended meaning, and often people would include puns, double meanings, or references to common knowledge. A talent for today’s poetry usually means being able to write with a consistent meter, but in Japan, the imagery and adherence to the rules of form were of primary importance. Because Japanese has very little stress, if the syllables fit, the meter will fit also.

One common use of poetry occurred when a man wanted to visit a woman. (The reverse generally did not happen.) He would often send her a poem in greeting, either by messenger or by standing outside her window and speaking to her.

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