Poetry Form - The Tanka


The Tanka Verse Form
by J. Zimmerman.

* History. * Form. * Hyakushu-uta (the 100-tanka form). * Your Composition. * References.
* Tanka surveys: Voice (I, you, etc) in tanka. Emotions in tanka. Punctuation in tanka.

The Tanka is a Japanese verse form, and its name is generally translated as "short poem" or "short song." It is an ancient form of syllabic Japanese poetry, popular in Japan since the 7th century (C.E.) or earlier.

Sam Hamill (in his Editor's Introduction to Love Poems from the Japanese) writes:
Rexroth reminds his readers that the opening lines of a tanka ... often serve only to "create a setting" for the closure, and as a kind of preface "have only an emotional or metaphoric relevance, and introduce a poem of only thirty-one syllable an element of dissociation."

...

Rexroth offers this warning for readers of poetry in translation: "If Japanese ... poetry is translated into Western syntax and all the spark gaps of meaning are filled up, what results is a series of logically expressed epigrams, usually sentimental, with a vulgar little moral interpretation attached, or at the best a metaphorical epigram of a moment of sensibility like [Ezra] Pound's "In a Station of the Metro," which most resembles, not classical tanka or even the best haiku but the more sentimental work of the late Yeddo [Edo] period. It is this compulsion to fill up the gaps and interpret the poem for Western readers which vitiates the work of so many translators, both Western and Japanese.

History.

The tanka developed during Japan's Heian period (794-1185 A.D.) as a poem to recognize an occasion (especially romantic).

Woman and men composed tanka. Often they wrote and sent the tanka to an actual or desired lover.

Each line (or sound group) of a tanka can be a different one image or idea, with the resulting five lines flowing together as a greater whole.

Modern tanka express many emotions including heartache, longing, and loss.

Examples.

Buy Modern Japanese Tanka Modern Japanese Tanka (edited by Makoto Ueda) is a good place to begin reading tanka. It it is the first collection that makes modern Japanese tanka available in English. The simplicity and elegance of the tanka is beautifully translated and presented in this anthology, with biographies of the poets.

Historically, many of the most beautiful tanka are the love poems by the Japanese women poets:

Some of the best translations of their tanka are in The Ink Dark Moon translated by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani.

Form.

Buy 'The Ink Dark Moon' The Ink Dark Moon
translated by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani.

In English, the tanka is usually written as five short lines.

Your Composition.

Of course, there is much more to the tanka than the number and length of its lines. To a first approximation:

  1. Writes something brief, two or three lines depicting nature. If you have written haiku then you might find it helpful to begin with a haiku and the haiku sensibility.

  2. Then add the rest (usually two or three more lines) to create a new relationship, perhaps adding information about the internal, emotional state of the poet, to show what the opening lines signify to her. This lets the poet link nature and a feeling or emotion.

  3. Pay special attention to the part of the tanka that connect and leads from the image of nature to the emotion. This is where the poem turns or pivots between the physical outer world and the non-physical inner world. Most commonly, tanka pivot just before or after or during the third line.

  4. Optionally, at the pivot point, you add a third image that is related both to the preceding lines (usually on an exterior subject) and the lines that follow the pivot and that are written on another (usually interior) subject. Thus two images (one outer, one inner) could be connected by a third image.

  5. Like a haiku, make your tanka concise and a reflection of nature. Both have the appearance of simplicity, but with underlying layers and resonances. However, the tanka tends to be more lyrical, flowing, and emotive than most haiku.

A tanka tends to be lyrical, while a haiku can be comparatively fragmented.

A tanka was historically written for emotional purposes, to redirect someone's heart, whereas a Haiku is more subtle in its evocation of emotion.

Jane Reichhold in Writing and Enjoying Haiku gives many important pointers, including:

For further information, see:

Writing and Enjoying Haiku Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-On Guide by Jane Reichhold. Reichhold's many skills include a keen sense for the writing and appreciation of tanka as well as haiku. This book includes useful guidelines on writing tanka (as well as haiku and related forms).

Check list.

Before submitting a tanka for possible publication, check whether it:

A Last Word.

Just because you start with the intention of writing a tanka, you do not have to keep your poem in that form if it does not work for you. Your attempt to write a formal poem may help you find words that you would not have found otherwise. And you may decide that you choose to end up with a poem in a different form, perhaps even a prose poem.

The hyakushu-uta (the 100-tanka formats)

In particular, see: String of Beads: Complete Poems of Princess Shikishi (1993) translated and with an introduction by Hiroaki Sato. We have three hyakushu-uta (the 100-tanka format) written by this 12th-century Japanese princess.

Traditionally the hyakushu-uta contains six categories of tanka in six sections:

Books on Tanka

Buy Modern Japanese Tanka Modern Japanese Tanka edited by Makoto Ueda. This book is the first collection to make modern Japanese tanka available in English. A delightful and comprehensive presentation of poetry that shows the development of the tanka form. Each poet is introduced with a biography.
Writing and Enjoying Haiku Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-On Guide by Jane Reichhold. Reichhold's many skills include a keen sense for the writing and appreciation of tanka as well as haiku. This book includes useful guidelines on writing tanka (as well as haiku and related forms).
The Ink Dark Moon, translated by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani, tanka of Ono No Komachi and Izumi Shikibu of the Heian court.

The little treasury of one hundred people, one poem each

A Long Rainy Season: Haiku and Tanka (1994)

Sounds from the Unknown (1963)

Eucalypt, A Tanka Journal

Other Books.

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