Poetry Form - The Tanka
The Tanka Verse Form
by J. Zimmerman.
Hyakushu-uta (the 100-tanka form).
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
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)
Rexroth reminds his readers that the opening lines of a
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
"In a Station of the Metro,"
which most resembles, not classical
or even the best
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.
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.
express many emotions including heartache, longing, and loss.
Modern Japanese Tanka
(edited by Makoto Ueda) is a good place to begin reading
It it is the first collection that makes modern Japanese
available in English.
The simplicity and elegance of the
is beautifully translated and presented in this anthology,
with biographies of the poets.
Historically, many of the most beautiful
are the love poems by the Japanese women poets:
- Ono No Komachi (834[?]-?), who served in the start of the Heian court in present-day Kyoto, and
- Izumi Shikibu (974-1034), who wrote poetry ranging from the religious to the erotic, at
the zenith of the Heian court. (At the same time, Murasaki Shikibu
wrote and presented the world's first novel,
The Tale of Genji.)
Some of the best translations of their tanka
The Ink Dark Moon
translated by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani.
In English, the
is usually written as five short lines.
- Traditionally in Japanese, the tanka
is five groups of sounds, each of 5 or 7 sound units.
The first and third units have 5 sound units (as in a
while the other units have 7 sound units. This can be represented by:
In English, some poets consider an English syllable to be a suitable approximation to
a Japanese sound unit.
In English, we usually place each syllabic group on a separate line:
- Many writers in English use fewer syllables in a
in recognition that English syllable are longer than Japanese sound units.
As a result, a
could use fewer syllables such as, perhaps:
- Your Composition.
Of course, there is much more to the tanka
than the number and length of its lines. To a first approximation:
- 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.
- 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.
- Pay special attention to the part of the
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.
- 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.
- 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
tends to be lyrical, while a haiku can be comparatively fragmented.
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:
- "It is not as if you can just glue two haiku together to get a
Within the tanka
there is a switch of time, place, person, thing, or voice
in order to create a leap or define a new relationship."
For further information, see:
- Check list.
Before submitting a
tanka for possible publication, check whether it:
- Invokes a strong feeling in the reader.
- Flows like poetry, particularly when read aloud.
- Includes clear images.
- Includes some kind of shift.
- Shows immediacy and intensity of a particular moment, juxtaposing
nature (the outer world)
and human nature (the inner world)
in a new way.
- Shows freshness unobscured with excessive complexity or vagueness.
- Shows emotional honesty and authenticity.
- Recognizes its connection to the
tradition, perhaps even back to the ancestors of uta and waka,
while using language as currently spoken.
- Does not sound like an awkward translation of Japanese.
- Does, like all poems, exclude anything self-consciously "poetical" or other false notes.
- Has the tanka
form, at least in a general sense of five shortish lines, with the 1st and 3rd being shorter than
the 2nd, 4th, and 5th.
- Frames its theme.
- Avoids cliché or sentimentality.
- Progresses to a strong yet surprising final line.
- Includes a caesura (which some judges 'find to be effective').
- Includes consonance and assonance if desired.
- Includes inner rhyme if wanted; avoids or is very careful about end rhyme.
- Is indented as wished: do the last two (or three or one or four) lines (for example) need additional indentation?
- Is punctuated as wished: perhaps lightly; perhaps with a closing period and perhaps not.
Different editors and judges adopt different guidelines.
You might chose to not submit, for example, to
Ribbons (Tanka Society of America)
as they abhor punctuation, giving the
tanka an alien appearance.
In complete contrast, Jane Hirshfield
punctuates her landmark translations of Japanese
The Ink Dark Moon
as normal poems.
- A Last Word.
Just because you start with the intention of writing a
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
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:
- Spring: 20 poems
- Summer: 15 poems
- Autumn: 20 poems
- Winter: 15 poems
- Love: 10 poems
- Miscellaneous: 20 poems
Books on 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: 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
- 100 tanka compiled by Fujiwara no Sadaie (1162-1241 C.E.),
a tutor to the Imperial Japanese family.
- Each poem by a different Japanese poet.
- This version translated by Tom Galt.
- 2-page introduction by Tom Galt.
- "Today many Japanese know this whole collection by heart
because it is the basis of a popular card game for young people."
- Each poem has its own page, with:
- The name of the author, the first being Emperor Tenchi (626-671) and the last being
Emperor Juntoku (1197-1242).
- A hand-written copy of the poem in Japanese characters.
- A version of the poem written in English syllabics.
- The English translation.
- A short paragraph of comments, usually giving
some cultural background that would be familiar to Japanese readers.
- Mostly the poems are about desire and love.
A Long Rainy Season: Haiku and Tanka (1994)
- Translated and edited Leza Lowitz, Miyuki Aoyama, and Akemi Tomioka.
by six modern Japanese women and
by eight modern Japanese women.
Sounds from the Unknown (1963)
- Translated and edited Lucille M. Nixon and Tomoe Tana.
- 8-page introduction by Nixon gives interesting background on the tanka and its writing by Japanese-Americans
in the mid-20th-century. Japanese heritage includes:
- the strong presence of tanka by 759 A.D.,
when it had supplanted the more ancient katauta
(5-7-7 or 5-7-5) form;
- the subsequent thousand-year-old tradition of the
(Japanese) Emperor's Annual New Year's Poetry Contest.
- 133 Japanese-American tanka poets represented, each by a single tanka.
- The represented poets are ordinary working folks.
- Each tanka occupies its own page and is shown in three versions:
and an English and fairly literal translation.
- Favorites include:
- [p. 23] Fuyô Nakano's
"Though the small pond / Is black from / The sunken pine needles,
Really it is lighted / By the floating water lilies."
- [p. 28] Matsuru Omine's
"Passing the time inside, / I watch a white cloud; / Then wishing to touch it,
I suddenly realized how possible / That might be if snow falls today."
- [p. 113] Yaeko Kawahara's
"Though I looked over the fence, / I pretended not to see / My Caucasian neighbors.
Then this morning / I found myself speaking with them."
Eucalypt, A Tanka Journal
- Editor Beverley George.
- Submissions by email or regular mail.
- Read copies before submitting.
- Issue #3.
40 pages; 80 poets.
Favorites include work by:
Pamela A. Babusci (marvelous).
- Issue #4.
44 pages; 89 poets.
Includes work by
- Issue #5.
44 pages; 82 poets.
Includes work by
Delightful line drawings by Pim Sarti.
- Issue #6.
- Issue #7.
- Issue #9.
Includes work by
- Issue #10.
44 pages; 82 poets.
Includes work by
- Other Books.
[Thanks for visiting.]