School of Tanka 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson Four
Tanka as an English-Launguage Poetry Form

Nearly everything you have learned about writing haiku applies to writing tanka. So if you have studied haiku you only need to make a few adjustments in goals and techniques. Some persons, in introducing the tanka form give the impression that one only needs to add the author's feelings to a haiku. Yes, it is possible to write a tanka by doing this but tanka is much more than an expression of a person’s feeling. It is the search for relationships between ourselves and our world.

First of all, it might be helpful for you to recall that tanka was the poetic form used, advanced and admired by the imperial court. It was the genre of professional poets, the high-born, and, like it or not, was often done best by the women. Thus that form was more lyrical, refined and more emotional.

If you have written some haiku, you have written, more or less, half a tanka. A beginning exercise in learning to write tanka is to take one of your haiku and practice adding two more lines to it. If you are counting syllables these two additional lines would consist of seven syllables each. If you are working with short-long-short line shapes, just make the additions, if you can, about as long as the second line.

If you are going to write a form genre, then make an effort to keep the form in your final product. Following a form will force you to bend your mind in ways that freely jotting the first thing that comes to mind will not. It is the exercise of making your ideas fit into a form that forces you to stay with the poem longer and to think more deeply about what you are trying to say. As it is when you learn to dance, you follow the examples until your body and mind know so well what to do you can trust your own inner being to do the poem / dance well.

The extra material in tanka has a couple of very important jobs to do. It is not as if you can just glue two haiku together to get a tanka. Within the tanka there is a switch of time, place, person, thing or voice in order to show this facet of a relationship. These factors are so important, let us look at them individually.

A change in time means that if one part of the verse is set in the past (no longer are you constrained to write only in the present tense as in haiku) the other section can be set in another time frame - either the present or the future. This allows tanka to move the reader backwards and forwards in time, which expands the possibilities so much that the haiku seems absolutely oppressive.

last day of school
we carry our shoes home
in our lunchboxes
the next day crayon containers
now a granddaughter's antique


Because tanka allows the author to play with time, it also allows one to move out of reality into fantasy, imagination and other thought processes. In tanka one is not bound by just what is, but is open to the emotional life of the author. By being able to switch times, the author can work with memories and memories are always loaded with emotion so this fits the genre perfectly.

too old for new love
the moon rises each night
as I remember
the backseats of strange cars
it's helpful light afterwards

A change in place also enlarges the scene of the poem exponentially. The above tanka also has a change of place - the moon in a woman's adult life and in the backseats of cars when she was younger.

A change in person actually means you can switch persona within the poem. Part of the poem can read as if one person does or thinks one thing and another person has another opinion or action. Even in such a short form, this fosters optimum exhilaration. If half of the tanka is framed in the cool detached language of a haiku, you can, by writing of your own opinions in the second part, make this classical move.

in seven years
the body replaces itself
how is it
I know in every cell
the hour we first met

A change in voice can be shown by a switching from one group of people to another or by having a change in verb tense or going from the singular to the plural.

pieces of people
not speaking to each other
on the beach
we find a strange pink glob
the tongue of a drowned man

A change in things that are related is a technique that works very much as do associations and comparisons of things in haiku.

as your finger
enters the sticky flap
of the envelope
how I wish my letter
to you was me

The change can be shown in parallels between situations and things. This is the most common device of tanka.

reading the will
she was so careful
yet so little left
even her houseplants
have lost their leaves

There can also be parallels between human feelings and things so in that the action of the thing is revealed the author's emotional state.

your letter
left me at sea to know
where we are going
puzzled the paper folded
a boat set adrift

There can be parallel movements between things rising and other things falling which can tie together dissimilar things or actions in the two sections.

a wet road
flowing into sky at the top
of the hill
twin lights appear to descend
a friend is coming to visit

The use of a shared adjective or verb is another way of tying together the two parts of a tanka. "Faded" describes both the shirts and features of the woman. The verb "fit" uses both senses of meaning to 'be the right size' and 'to associate.'

I love
my T-shirts faded
they fit
my graying hair
dimming eyesight

How you make these moves between the two sections of a tanka becomes pivotal. Literally. The most tanka-like aspect of a tanka is creating and using a pivot. When you have mastered this technique you can do almost anything in the form and still legally call it a tanka. So how to pivot?

If you will, remember again that the very oldest poetical technique is parallelism. Tanka takes the simple device of parallels and stretches the two parts of it so far apart that the reader needs a bridge to get from one idea to the other. The bridge the author creates is the phrase called the pivot.

Look at the middle line of each of the example tanka above. In all of these the pivot comes in the middle line in the classical manner. Notice how sharing a similar aspect, as stated in the middle allows the sense to shift back and forth between the two parts. One test of the effectiveness of this technique is to cover the bottom two lines to see if the top three read as a unit with one meaning. If you then cover the top two lines, reusing the third line, this unit gives the pivot phrase another meaning. Do you see how haiku-like the top three lines read and how the mood changes in the bottom half, and yet both share one aspect?

It is considered an advancement to integrate the pivot in the sense of the lines instead of positioning it in the obvious place.

only shopping
school clothes for the kids
yet the desire
to meet him in the mall
just one glance above the goods

If one had to indicate the pivot of the above, it would be in the first line: the woman is shopping for clothes for her children and wants to be at the same time shopping around for a lover.

By using parallelism the tanka poet is able to write about things which do not yet have names. Poetry is the act of giving names to the nameless. Your first thought may be that there is a word for every thing, but think again. Look inside yourself at your own feelings. Is there any word that exactly explains how you feel at this moment? You may be able to think of a general term but does that alone adequately express you and your individual expression of an emotion? How could you tell someone else exactly how you are feeling when there is no precise word that describes it? This has been the challenge of poets through the ages since humans learned to speak. The answer is parallelism. You find some aspect of the world of nature that looks or seems like your feeling. Even non-poets use this technique so easily that you may not even be aware that it is a poetic process.

Another term for parallel thinking is a simile. Similes are so common, yet so exact that they have come to be an integral part of the folks' knowledge of any culture's language. The technique is to reveal, through a comparison of two dissimilar things, how one unnamable thing can be defined through the image of the known. Like a hit on the head, the idea is as clear as glass.

A metaphor is much like a simile with the signposts of "like" and "as" removed. Thus, it is one step up in difficulty in creating and in understanding. Metaphors are also called tropes or figurative expression or speech. Metaphor is the most basic tool of the poet and deserves your deeper study of it than is given here.

Ah, you wish an example of a metaphor? Homer's phrases are perhaps the most famous: "the wine-dark sea" and "rosy-fingered dawn." You see how he simply took the idea that “the sea was as dark as wine” and "the dawn sky looked as if it has rosy fingers reaching upward," compacted the words to let the recipient of his words untangle and find the transaction he has made between words and things. As you can image, any poetic tool still around since Homer"s age is pretty well-worn around the edges. This is why Westerners are so excited about the new-to-them way metaphor is handled in the Orient.

Instead of mashing the two dissimilar elements together in the quickness of a hyphenated phrase, we find that the Japanese simply set each image quietly in its own element but place them side by side (or as poetic critics call it - in juxtaposition). To discover the metaphor in Japanese poetry it takes a bit more thinking, knowledge of the culture and pure joy in discovery - often a reason Westerners find tanka translations 'flat.' The Japanese are, if nothing else, subtle and their poetry works with this aspect to a most refined degree. But because they leave more space between the images, both in actual space on a line and in the distance between the relationships of the images, there is much more room for the readers' minds to explore.

In such short poetry forms, the author and the reader need all the help they can get to enlarge the meanings and associations. The Japanese use a technique they call honkadori (HONK-A-DOOR-EE) which we still need to develop in our English tanka. Honkadori can be defined as literary association. Because the success of its use implies a knowledge of the literary heritage it can be used as a secret language, especially when shared between lovers. It is also used as a flaunting of education. The device can be a bridge between a famous poet and a not-yet or hope-to-be famous poet or as an act of homage. An honest use of the technique comes when one truly admires the words of another and finds them so outstanding that they should be preserved again in the newest poem. In English poetry it is the practice to place such a quote beneath the poem's title and before the first line but the Japanese offer an example of how to integrate such a homage in the poem itself.

An example of how sensitively this facet can be starts with a tanka written by the priest-poet Saigyo in the 12th century. While on a journey to northern Japan he stopped to rest and wrote this poem:

Beside the roadway
a flowing of clear water
in a willow's shade
I thought for just a short while
to linger and take a rest.

When Basho visited the same place, and supposedly the same tree, he wrote:

A flooded rice field
now its planting is done I leave -
the willow tree.

When, fifty years later, Buson visited the same spot, now even more famous than before, he wrote this poem:

The willow leaves fall
and the clear water has gone
stones lie everywhere.

From these three samples you can see how subjective the original tanka was, how Basho's haiku makes a step away in being a bit cooler and remote - only the willow tree is shared by both poems. Then see how Buson's poem, which even though it holds a great deal of sadness, is even more objective and closely connected to Saigyoo's poem. 

For some persons, the opportunity of being able to express emotions or opinions in tanka is a distinct advantage over the cooler objective style of haiku. Our literary heritage is much closer to tanka than to the haiku. And therein lies a problem.

Learning of haiku was like a sip of clean, cold water after the rich meals of European poetry. To now offer a haiku-related form that again allows us to wallow in our feelings could invite us to fall back into previous excesses. As a culture that "wears its heart on its sleeve" and is sometimes referred to as "the me generation" there is a danger that our tanka could become marginalized if they are simply a lament or bitching genre of "oh poor me - no body loves me - how hard my life is."

However, if we adopt the use of tanka as a gift to our loves, the genre can carry, and carry beautifully, heartfelt sentiment. Tanka, in history, was used as a form of communication between lovers and it seems that this use asks us to continue it. This does not mean that in order to write tanka, the writer needs to start an affair. One can simply rediscover and re-experience the many loves which already surrounding you. Again, assuming the tanka writer is also working on his or her spiritual advancement, what higher goal is there than to learn to love?

What are the rules? At this point there aren't many which have been given to us in English. We've seen the syllable and line count. Over the centuries there have been changes in styles regarding where the line breaks should be. For a while it was after the second line, later after the third line. With the decline in tanka writing in this century and the Japanese practice of copying European poetry fads, line breaks have become a purely individual decision.

Capitalization and punctuation have been at the mercy of translators; so the rules one follows with haiku are a possible starting point.

For nearly a thousand years there has been very little written about the use of the "pivotal image." Formerly the idea was that somewhere in the third line would be an image that could relate - or link - to both the upper two lines, which were to be on one subject (usually nature) and to the lower two lines written on another subject or feeelings of the author.

Haiku writers will recognize this linking concept and be able to use it to add the two last lines. Haiku writers will also probably find in their notebooks verses which were not haiku-like enough to be published as such, but which could make a beginning for a tanka. By linking the images in the lower two lines with the first two by the associations fostered by the middle line, it is possible to find a new way of thinking of all three, or more, images.

We have a translation of Fujiwara no Teika's admonishment believed to have been prepared for a prince in 1222, "In emotion, newness is foremost: look for sentiments others have yet to sing, and sing them." It is tempting to read the masters' works and to be so impressed (even with the translations) that one's own wet ink makes sounds just like the ancient songs of old Japan. We have an obligation to be true to ourselves, to our own emotions.

In English the poem is written (most often) in five lines to show, and validate, these five parts, and because English syllables do not equate with the Japanese sound units, which are much shorter - often only one vowel, many writers use less words than one would use if counting out 31 syllables. Nowadays many try to respect this basic form by making their lines short, long, short, long, long, so the poem retains a certain distinctive shape.

Due to its long history, written since 700 CE, many styles and objectives have been attached to the tanka. But there are a few basic characteristics that separate the tanka from other poetry forms.

First of all the poem is composed of phrases and fragments; it is not a sentence from beginning to end. Whether the phrase portion continues over one, two or even three of the lines, is still an open option. The placing of the fragments is also completely open to the author. What is important is the relationship between the parts of the poem. It is here the poetry occurs.

The subject matter for a tanka is unlimited, though traditionally the poem has always had a lyrical quality (missing in haiku), and has striven to be refined, gentle, and heart-felt. Tanka are associated with love and most often thought of as the love poems between lovers, but they are also used to express the love for someone who is absent through circumstances or death. It has been the custom at various times to use images of the natural world interfacing with human emotions as in the relationship of tears and rain to the point that these have become cliches.

The search is on for new ideas of how we relate to each and the natural world around us - how we are all one reflecting each other.


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Author's Notes from
Taking Tanka Home

It was from a study of haiku, and then renga, in the early 1980s that brought me to tanka. Then in Earl Miner and Robert Bower's book, The Monkey's Straw Raincoat, that I saw the relationship between renga and tanka and realized that when writing the links in a solo renga I was almost writing tanka. I say 'almost' because, among all the greatly useful information in the book was the comment "Others are led. . . to think they can, as Westerners, compose a real tanka. . .[there are] techniques which demand our attention and a respect that should freeze the anxious poetaster’s hand." Being new to Japanese literature and culture, I took the commandment seriously because I saw no tanka being published in English.

It was only in 1988 that Jack Stamm came to visit his friend in Mendocino and came to stay a few days with us. He told us about translating the tanka of Machi Tawara and how exciting it was to work with her contemporary style of the form. It was Jack, between concerts on his harmonica, who convinced me that it was possible to write a tanka in English and he left me Atsuo Nakagawa's book Tanka in English. It seemed a curtain had been drawn aside for not only me, but suddenly it became known that others were writing tanka.

In my research for the book, Those Women Writing Haiku, I discovered that in Holland more of the women considered themselves tanka poets than haiku writers. They were writing tanka even though almost no one was publishing it.

At the time I was publishing an unusual magazine called Mirrors. It was founded and based on the idea that its pages should reflect the being of the author. Each subscriber was entitled to one 8 x 11 inch page per issue. However and whatever the person chose to publish on that page was in the magazine. It was the perfect place to bring the tanka that editors of haiku magazines were afraid to accept. From issue to issue the amount of tanka grew along with the Americanized version devised by Adelaide Crapsey in 1911 called cinquains.

By the later part of 1989 I had published my book of my poems called A Gift of Tanka and Alexis Rotella had her chapbook, The Lace Curtain. With the tanka pages in Mirrors by Anna Holley, Pat Shelley, and George Ralph there was enough interest in tanka that I wanted to see and share the best tanka others were writing. I started the contest Tanka Splendor Awards hoping this would a rallying point for tanka. I was not interested in ranking the poems with first, second and third places, but wanted to present the tanka in a book that could be passed around. So the first judges were instructed to pick 31 winning poems. The contest remained the only one to publish winners in a booklet, and by that feature to offer such wide range of excellent tanka for the twenty years the contest ran until it ended in 2009.

In this time the number of cinquains being published in Mirrors steadily decreased and ceased under the overwhelming number of tanka.

In 1992 Terri Grell asked Werner and I to take on the publication of the magazine she had named, Lynx. In 1986 Tundra Wind - Jim Wilson - had started a magazine called APA-Renga, on the same basic idea that the subscriber could and should determine what to publish without and editor between. It was from Jim that I got the idea for Mirrors. Jim's idea went in another direction. He expanded the concept of doing renga with many people at once with his 'participation renga.' When he had to pass APA-Renga on to Terri in 1989, she renamed the magazine Lynx and added stories, haiku; longer poems and lit pieces.

When Werner and I became co-editors we wanted to return to the original intent of Lynx being a renga magazine. However by then the popularity of tanka was demanding a tanka magazine so we extended the content to all Japanese poetry genre when we later added haibun and haiga to the renga and tanka.

We had barely gotten the tan pages with brown ink going well when a guy from San Francisco approached me about helping with an Internet site he was developing for a coffee importer. It turned out he wanted a place for Ezra Pound & T.S. Eliot poetry and was not interested in the 'Japanese stuff.'

It took over a year but by the end of 1995 I was able to go online with While there were several other sites touting haiku, AHApoetry was large enough in concept to be able to accept tanka and renga as part of its educational activities which considerably broadened its base audience. 

During this time both Werner and I were writing tanka in addition to haiku and renga. It was only later that we found out that in Japan one was supposed to chose one poetry form and stick to it. Because tanka came through the door that haiku had opened, the majority of the tanka writers were interested in all the Japanese poetry forms.

Perhaps because of this, it was natural and easy for us to mix the forms in our books. We recognized that some material was more fitting to be stated in haiku, but some definitely needed to be expressed in tanka. Through this we received an education that a study of purely tanka could not have given us. Werner was more adventurous than I with his books, Layers of Content, Tidalwave, and  Bridge of Voices.

When we were invited by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko to attend The New Year Poetry Party in the Palace in January, 1998, we were told it would be good if we could present the Imperial Family with a book of our work. So we combined the now out of print Gift of Tanka, with my online book, Bowls I Buy, and added tanka sequences from Werner's books to make the book In the Presence with its elegant white pearl cover.
While in Japan we were able to meet Hatsue Kawamura, then editor of The Tanka Journal and her husband, Yasuhiro Kawamura for a duck dinner at the Palace Garden Hotel.

Hatsue and I had been writing for several months but we were unprepared for the rush of acquaintance that surrounded our first meeting face to face. It was if we were long-parted sisters who had found each other. Hatsue was very interested in getting the tanka of Japanese women poets into the hands of English readers. With my publishing company of AHA Books we were able to do this. We loved working together. Since we both were at home on computers our comments and work flew back and forth.

By 1999 we had one hundred tanka by Fumi Saito ready for the book White Letter Poems. A year later we had another hundred from Akiko Baba in Heavenly Maiden Tanka. We would barely catch our breath from one project and Hatsue had another woman's poems she just had to get into English. In between I got the project I wanted to do – translate into five lines the tanka in Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji which in Edward Seidensticker's translation had been presented as couplets.

Hatsue was much more interested in contemporary tanka so we also worked on Breasts of Snow: Tanka by Fumiko Nakajo. A String of Flowers, Untied only contained 450, or about half of the tanka in The Tale of Genji and we had planned to do the rest but Hatsue suffered a stroke and went into a coma in which she remains yet today.

It is one thing to learn a new poetry form from reading about it, another to read translations of the poems but I feel one only gets to understand the bones of a poetry form by translating it. Translating with Hatsue took my tanka education to a completely new level. She was a teacher at heart and always had the time and patience to explain to me how the poem was worked, how the images collaborated to advance the vision, what the poet saw, and how this was expressed in words. The fact that we worked on both ancient and contemporary tanka exposed me to the idea of how tanka has remained the same over the centuries and how it accepted changes.

This knowledge gave me the courage and the inspiration to try innovative methods of combining my Western literary education within the tanka form. The result was the book, Geography Lens in 1999 and then Scarlet Scissors Fire in 2009. At the same time I was pushing tanka forward in those books I combined prose and tanka, harking back to the poetical journals of Heien women with the online books Journal Journeys and Her Alone.

The tanka in Taking Tanka Home are again a combination of these two directions. While visiting my daughter, Heidi, we were able to go to Yosemite Park several times. Poems piled on poems and combined both old and new ways of writing tanka. I wanted to bring these back to the people of Japan as a way of saying "thank you" for sharing your marvelous gift of tanka with us. Thank you for preserving the form for 1400 years and thank you for noticing how we attempt to speak the seeds of our hearts with your form.

My thanks to the Japanese people and to the spirits that guide us all is deeper and wider than a few pages of poems. I hope you can accept them in the gratitude I feel.

Jane Reichhold
August 2010



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