Crafting Haiku, Tanka, Calligrams, Acrostic, and Persona Poems
By Molly Anderson | Posted 6/26/06 | Updated 4/4/21
Are you ready to write? Today, I’ll help you understand some of the more technical aspects of poetry and introduce you to some new ways to play with words!
Haikus, calligrams, and acrostic poems may be a mystery to you, so put your thinking cap on, and grab your magnifying glass. We're going to become Poetic Detectives, tracking down elusive rhymes, and collecting clues to better poetry. I'll be your guide as we move through this amazing, amusing, and often confusing realm.
A haiku is a short unrhymed poem, with just three lines. Haiku originated in Japan. Japanese poets of old counted the number of sounds in each line; American poets of today commonly count the syllables in each line. The first and last lines have five syllables; the second line has seven. Haiku usually focus on one strong, clear image from the natural world.
Tanka, another Japanese poetic form, is similar to the haiku. The tanka is short and sweet: just five lines! No need to worry — if you’re in a hurry, don’t take time to rhyme. Traditionally, the tanka is an unrhymed poem; the first and third lines have five syllables each, and the second, fourth, and fifth lines have seven syllables. The tanka was usually written to express love or sadness, and to exalt in the joys of nature, the seasons, and travel to faraway places. You can use the traditional subjects for your tanka and haiku masterpieces, or branch out and use your own fabulous ideas to create 21st century versions of the Japanese classics.
Like most people, you have never heard of calligrams. Calligrams are poems that are shaped like their subject. For instance, a poem about soccer might be crafted in the shape of a soccer-ball, or a pair of cleats. You can use different colors, shapes, and lettering styles to create a calligram that is truly a work of art. My calligram above titled The River is artfully crafted to illustrate the shape of the subject in a poetically-flowing way!
These fun poems are like a puzzle to solve. In an acrostic poem, a series of letters vertically spells out a word, name, or phrase; when writing an acrostic poem, you can even hide a secret message “between the lines.”
First, start with your name. Write one letter on each line of your paper, so that your name is spelled out vertically along the left or right hand margin of the page. Each letter will be used to begin (left margin) or end (right margin) a line in your poem.
Here is my acrostic poem:
Marvelous Molly, a poetess grand
O! Beauty, walking fair by night
Little girl gone wild…
Yes! Yes! Yes!
To create a secret message, embed a word or phrase in your poem in a more subtle way. One cool trick, used since the days of Edgar Allan Poe, is to use the first letter of a name to begin a line. The second letter of the name should be the second letter of the second line; the third letter of your name should be the third letter of the third line, and so on. This way, the name appears hidden on a diagonal, and cannot usually be detected by a casual reader.
A persona poem is an interesting way to experiment with different poetic styles and voices. Persona poems allow your imagination to run wild! You can create a poem from the perspective of another person, an animal, an inanimate object, or even your favorite cartoon character.
Try this: Close your eyes. Imagine you are a tiger. Every detail is important: What do you see, smell, taste, feel, and hear? When you have formed a clear picture in your mind, write about it. I’m guessing you’ll find a poem hidden somewhere!
Sometimes I lose a poem. This is sad, but when your house is full to bursting with journals and notebooks, it happens more often than I’d like to admit. I’m willing to bet that the same thing happens to all poets once in awhile, no matter how careful they are. Poems are tiny, slippery creatures, prone to disappearing at the first opportunity.
And sometimes, if I’m extremely lucky and observant, I can find a poem out in the world, just waiting for me to discover it. What is a found poem? Good question! I don’t mean copying someone else’s work — that’s plagiarism, and no self-respecting writer does it. No, I’m talking about finding poetry hidden in the random words you see every day. Grocery stores, coffee-shops, newspaper ads, dictionaries, phone books, and junk mail contain tiny bits of poems for the Poetic Detective who is willing to dig a little deeper to solve this tricky case.
Look around and find some interesting words, phrases and names. Re-arrange them, throw some out, add a few favorites from your Word-Pool, and soon a found poem will emerge like magic!
Earlier we explored book-making as a way to combine poetry and visual art and share your work with others. Here's a few more ideas to try. There's great satisfaction in knowing that your poems are out there in the wide world, having adventures of their own and giving the reader unexpected gifts.
©2006 Molly Anderson. All rights reserved.
Creative inspiration, food for thought, prompts, and ideas for dipping deeply into your imagination and turning words and images into poetic words of art.