Haiku, Senryū & Tanka

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For the first few weeks as we study the structure and formalism of Sequential art, we’re also going to start keeping diary comics. And to keep focused on short narratives, while also forcing students to think about how to express their ideas in a limited format. There’s a strong tradition of poetry in comics, so we’ll be utilizing that to these ends.


reddressjoanAs I mention in my post about short stories, it’s common for students to come to class wanting to write a graphic novel, to build epic worlds and grand tales.

However learning to write in any form begins best with small steps.

Poetry–one of the most refined forms of literature–offers a very compatible way to think about symbols, meter, and using an economy of words. All things that are often critical to creating great comics.

Art Spiegelman among others is often quoted as saying
‘Comics are the art of compression’.

While you CAN draw out time, and decompression is popular in manga and western superheros.

Still it’s far more important I believe, to know what NOT to say or show, and what to leave embedded in a moment of closure in the reader’s mind, to best utilize your reader’s imagination and keep them engaged.

Drawing out the moment should be reserved for intense moments, or when you want to overtly slow time. If you show every second that ticks by, your readers will get board watching the paint dry!

So to that end, our dairy strips will follow one of three traditional Japanese forms that require us to do as much as we can, with as little as we can..

Haiku, Senryū & Tanka!

Many are familiar with Haiku, and this exercise is inspired by Matt Madden’s Haiku Comics exercises. Go check out that link for some really strong examples of this exercise.

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There are two constraints in Haiku: The poem is three lines long; The first and last are five syllables long, the second middle line is seven syllables long: And traditionally, Haiku are about the environment, and nature. Rather than feelings or personal experience. Here’s an example.

Whitecaps on the bay:
A broken signboard banging
In the April wind.

–Richard Wright © 1998

For subjects regarding human foibles, the same 5-7-5 syllable count is used for Senryū poems. Here’s an example.

Brilliant words flowing
From those never knowing, how
many lives they touch….

–Connie Marcum Wong © 2001

 A good structure guide for beginning Haiku poets is: Setting; Subject; Action. Or Setting; Action; Subject. I’ve noticed in my research that Senryū don’t always follow the strict 5-7-5 pattern, the examples on wikipedia for example read 3-2-3 instead. And modern Haiku also don’t always keep to it. The pattern of x-y-x is the key recurring feature. But to get started lets try to stick to 5-7-5 for the first week at least.

For our comic exercise this will translate to three panel comic strips, with just ONE line of text for each panel.

And building on this forms tradition of juxtaposing directly observed everyday objects or occurrences, we’ll be looking whenever possible, to add an image, that adds meaning rather than simply repeating/illustrating the text.

So three panels of comics art and three lines of text to go with them. A challenging idea still simple enough to sketch in your notebook and do anywhere.


  • The first weeks assignment will be to attempt to draw one Haiku or Senryū style diary comic a day for seven days!

  • Week two, is to compose one or more Dream Diary comic in the form of a one page Tanka poem!

  • Week three will be to use the Tanka constraint to compose a one page character introduction!

Here’s some examples of Haiku/Senryū style diary comics strips done by students in the course.


Second week mod to the exercise: After a week of doing three panel strip format comics following the 5-7-5 constraint, I’d like my students to start thinking about page structure and flow, and how that can be used to impact tempo and meter in the reading. To accommodate that we’ll start using Tanka and other Waka forms of poetry. And if students would like, also start experimenting with changing the values for the x-y-x pattern of Haiku and the other forms.

Tanka consist of five units or lines. Following a pattern of 5-7-5-7-7. The first 5-7-5 is called the “upper phrase”, and the 7-7 is called the “lower phrase”. This gives us 5 panels to work with, enough to draw a classic one pager comic. There is also Sedōka: 5-7-7-5-7-7; Bussokusekika: 5-7-5-7-7-7; among others. But for week two I think sticking to a Tanka is the best bet.

Here’s some past examples of students Tankas. Both served as the introductions to major characters in their subsequent short story assignments.

You don’t have to use them, but if you like you can use these templates to draw your Haiku/Senryū diary comics strips.
I encourage you to try out your own ideas, but consider these all good jumping off points:


And these as suggestions for how to layout week two and three’s Tanka: All these page layout suggestions have five panels, for the five beats of 5-7-5-7-7 native to a Tanka poem.

If you find this kind of pattern driven, poetic short form comics poetry compelling, I recommend students try other poetry forms for their writing, like Sonnets, Sestina, or Pantoum. There is a whole subculture of comics to dive into here called Oubapo comics [link to Madden blog post about the form], which is strongly connected to the patternicity/math approach. And there are many other forms of constraint based comics. There’s a great FB group here dedicated to all of those. Good place to share your attempts to get feed back and find out about more experiments others have tried.