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Autumn 2005, vol 3 no 3

Tagalog and English Haiku
by Victor P. Gendrano

(Excerpted with slight revisions from the author's forthcoming book, "Rustle of Bamboo Leaves: Selected Haiku and Other Poems".)

When the first wave of Spanish colonizers arrived in the Philippines in 1521, they found a self-sufficient people with a primitive form of government who were highly literate and rich in oral tradition. The early Filipinos had a spoken as well as incipient written language of their own. They used an ancient Tagalog syllabary called baybayin, which they wrote on palm leaves, bamboo or hard surface with a knife or stylus.

Unfortunately, the people did not use baybayin to write their important history and tradition but instead used it for daily communication and writing poetry. With the advent of the Latin alphabet the ancient Tagalog script gradually became extinct from disuse, although the first book using baybayin was published in the Philippines in 1593, predating that of the U S.

The early Filipinos used oral and folk literature in their daily activities such as in songs, hymns, chants, riddles, proverbs, and maxims which were handed down from generation to generation. Close to nature - many are animists - the natives had poetry coursing in their veins. Early on, their verses follow some kind of rhythm and lines usually have end rhyme.

Here are some examples in Tagalog:


Ulong ulo't paa lamang, walang pagod ng pagsayaw.

(Just head and foot yet never tires of dancing.)
[Answer: Spinning top]


Ang tunay na kaibigan sa gipit nasusubukan.

(A true friend is tested in time of need).


Magtanim hindi biro, maghapong nakayuko.

(Planting [rice] is no fun, stooped the whole day).

Tagalog language

Tagalog is one of the major languages in the Philippines. There are over 70 languages and dialects, but Tagalog is spoken and understood all over the archipelago, in effect becoming the nation's lingua franca. Filipino, based mainly on Tagalog, and English are the official languages. Meanwhile, Taglish (combination of Tagalog and English) is widely used everywhere from the media, government, to the streets. It may eventually supplant Filipino or Tagalog.

A brief history

The Philippines became a colony of Spain from the 1500s to 1898 and, with the provision of the Treaty of Paris, the country was sold/ceded to the United States, another colonizer, for 20 million dollars. The US governed the Philippines from 1899 following the Filipino American War up to 1946 when independence was rightly returned to the nation.

As is true with any subjugated people, they learned and imbibed the language of their masters. Whereas Spain brought Christianity and a semblance of education to the elite, the United States gave the people public education for all. Each era produced many writers and poets writing in either their language or English, but not necessarily neglecting their own dialects.

After the Second World War, young talented Filipinos started going abroad for graduate studies and some stayed behind to work, unknowingly starting the brain drain phenomenon. Now, Filipinos can be found all over the world mastering the local language, embracing a new culture, and becoming universal men and women, world citizens.


If Japan has its short verses like haiku and tanka and Korea has its sijo, the Philippines has likewise a short poetic form called tanaga which dates back to 1500.

Tanaga has four lines with seven syllables each. Usually it has no title. In its traditional form, all lines are rhymed at the end, although the modern form ranges from six to eight syllables per line and also tends to be written in free verse. It is in deep hiatus now but efforts to revive it are gathering momentum, thanks to government efforts, nationalistic Filipino poets, and the Internet.

Here are examples of my tanaga:

Traditional version:


ang hating-gabing kulay
tulad ng aking buhay
kaylan masisilayan
ang liwanag ng araw

English version

my life is like the color
of midnight, gloomy and dark
when will the morning arrive
to warm the coldness of my heart

Modern version:


panibugho ang lumason
sa puso mo't iyong diwa
nanaig sa katuwiran
ahas na verde ang kulay

English version

jealousy has poisoned
your heart and your mind
it overwhelmed reason
like a green colored serpent

Haiku, Philippine style

As of July 2005, there are at least two Yahoo groups on the Internet on the writing and discussion of haiku, Philippine style. The first and original forum is called Brown Song, literally Kayumangging awit in Tagalog. It was founded in October 4, 2004 by Robert Wilson, a prolific haiku poet and the owner/managing editor of Simply Haiku, the online literary journal showcasing Japanese shortform poetry.

According to its description, "Brown Song is a forum of Filipino poets and their friends in the Philippines and abroad who write haiku."

The other group is called Bahag-hari, meaning rainbow, organized March 30, 2005. Its pre-occupation at its early stage is translating the English-translated haiku of Japanese masters to Tagalog. Haiku is spelled hayku in Tagalog.

Samples of my English-Tagalog haiku:


sa tabi ng bakanting kama
ang kanyang lumang tungkod

English version

autumn twilight
near the empty bed
her worn-out cane

World Haiku Review
Vol. 3, Issue 2, Dec. 2003


nakawalang isda
palaki nang palaki
sa tungga ng alak

English version

one that got away
the fish grows bigger
with every sip of beer

World Haiku Review
Vol. 4, 2004


maalinsangang gabi
gumalaw and kurtina
sa bango ng rosal

English version

sultry evening
the curtain sways slightly
scent of gardenia

World Haiku Review
Vol. 1, Issue 2, August 2001

Victor Gendrana is a retired librarian from the Los Angeles (California) County Public Library. From 1987 to 1999, he published and edited Heritage magazine, an English-language quarterly dealing with Filipino culture, arts and letters, and the Filipino American experience. After 13 years of continuous publication, he stopped publishing the magazine to fully attend to the needs of his wife whose health started to worsen.

Heritage magazine served as an outlet for his poems and other literary works and he takes pride in publishing both established and fledgling Filipino writers. He writes in both English and Tagalog, his native Philippine language. Aside from haiku, he also writes senryu, tanka, haiga, haibun, Korean Sijo and American cinquain. Since high school days, he has been writing Tagalog poems, some of which were published locally in the Philippines. While still working, he wrote book reviews for Library Journal.
Gendrano is a member of the Haiku Society of America, the World Haiku Club, World Haiku Association, Tanka Society of America, and the Anglo-Japanese Tanka Society. His poems have been published in numerous print and online magazines with some included in anthologies like World Haiku Association’s World Haiku 2005 and World Haiku Club’s Wild Flowers, New Leaves. Most of them are published in World Haiku Review, but some also appeared in Lynx, Stylus Poetry Journal, The Heron’s Nest, Mainichi Daily News, Catholic Planet, Haijinx, Our Own Voice, and others.

Born and raised in the Philippines, Gendrano took his master’s degree at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York from 1963 to 1965. Earlier, he earned his Bachelor’s degree from the University of the Philippines at Los Baños. Just before Martial Law was declared in the Philippines in 1971 and worried about an uncertain future of the country, he returned to the United States and settled in southern California for good. His family joined him afterwards.

Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku