Poem fragment: River-cut (a Choka)

One of the poetic forms I’ve been toying with lately is the chōka. This long-form Japanese poetic structure is one of the earliest forms of waka, and tanka derives from it. Which means it’s a very distant ancestor of haiku, that’s for sure!

Similarly to haiku and tanka, the chōka goes in alternating five- and seven-on lines, and–again like the tanka—is capped with a pair of seven-on lines (an on being a “sound unit”—normally translated to “syllable” but not quite the same). The main difference is that chōka can be of any length you wish. Historically the form was often used as a panegyric–public songs performed publicly in praise of the various Japanese kings, queens, and emperors.

M. Kei has a very informative post on the form if you’re interested in learning more: http://kujakupoet.blogspot.com/2006/05/origins-of-japanese-poetry-choka.html

This poem of mine, tentatively titled “River-cut,” started with an image of the lush hills of coastal Oregon rising from the foggy seas. I think it sounds more like the start of an epic than a complete poem in its own right, but here’s the opening so far:


by Stewart C Baker

once was a time
when green hills rose tree-skirted
from the mist
cast up by waves and spellcraft
all along the coast
their slopes glinting, sunlit,
until all rolling
they merged with the waves below
in all but their stillness
and the stags which danced
across their untouched meadows
skittish at man-smell
echoing earthbound the hawks
who wheeled and dove
to pick clams from the water
and drop them again
to shatter into fragments
on rock-dagger shoals
overrun with human sounds
as fresh-hewn ships
sleek and eager as terns
spilled from the rivers’ frothing

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