XXII:1 February, 2007


                  A Journal for Linking Poets 

Jane Reichhold

Several months ago, I got an e-mail from a long-time tanka author asking me to explain "the pivot" to him. I sent off a packet of bits and pieces of published articles I had written on the the subject over the years. Then recently I read an article explaining the structure of the tanka. Nowhere in the six single-spaced pages was the pivot mentioned or acknowledged. It seemed to me the time was right to revisit the importance of the technique called the pivot and attempt to demonstrate how it works.

The pivot is a phrase, an image, or a thing that forms a bridge between two other phrases, images or things. As on any bridge, one can go only in one direction or the other, but while standing on the bridge there is the option of going in either direction. If you go one direction you will encounter a very different scene from the one at the other end of the bridge. There is some indefinable point on the bridge where you stop coming from one place and begin going to another. The bridge is securely anchored on two different places that have one thing in common – the bridge. The bridge is neither this land, nor that country, but is its own self that touches both of them.

The idea of a bridge is an easily understood horizontal explanation of a poetical phenomenon that is not often considered. The pivot, even rarer, is vertical expression of the bridge between the two parts of a tanka.

Since men have been writing their deconstructive discussions of tanka poetry, they have made clear that they saw the tanka (at that time called uta – song ) as having two parts. They called one half of it the kami no ku – god of the verse or upper stanza, and the lower portion shimo no ku – the second or bottom part of the verse. There is a valid reason for this clarity in their reason.

One of the earliest known poetical devices is the parallel. Readers of the Bible who can quote the 23rd Psalm have been saying a poem written in parallels:

The Beloved is my shepherd
I shall not want

He leadeth me beside the still waters
He maketh me lie down in green pastures

Even in the valley of death
I shall fear no evil

The use of the parallel technique spread from culture to culture circling the Mediterranean, on to India, across to China and finally to Japan. In Persia and other Arabian lands parallel poetry was given the name ghazal – and written yet today with increased refinements and accepted difficulties. Still, the two line form is still retained and easily seen.

The Chinese eagerly accepted the use of the parallel for their songs and it was the basis for much of their most beautiful poetry. The parallel technique is also evident in the sijo in Korea and yet today there is the question of whether the two parts should be printed on one line with punctuation to delineate them or to give each part of the parallel its own line.

It is often popular to give the Japanese culture a put-down by explaining how good and important ideas and practices were all borrowed from China or Korea. If for no other reason, the tanka form of poetry should be held up as an example of how they were given the parallel poem, and with a genius not often recognized, the Japanese created a masterful new poetical technique now known as the pivot.

They added a third element to the parallel that made the writing of the poem much more difficult for the writer, but added worlds of wonderment for the reader. Instead of juxtaposing one idea beside another and letting the reader make the leap between them – it is in this leap, using any technique that poetry resides. Poetry is not in the poem but in the leap the reader or listener’s mind makes when it rises up to give thought to the unthinkable.

When writing in parallels the two parts must relate closely enough so that the reader’s thinking can make the connection between them. This is fascinating until so many parallels have been made that the reader is no longer challenged enough to enjoy figuring them out.

This where the Japanese, bless them and may their tribe increase, made an important discovery. If the author added a third element – a bridge or a point on which the poem could swing – one could make the two parts of the parallel much farther apart! The pivot would act as a bit of common ground to join the two very uncommon ideas, elements, or even feelings.

By finding some rare point shared by two distinct and different images the sense of the poem could open up new vistas as does a gate that swings both ways. Following this example the easiest way to find a pivot is to see one right in the middle of the poem. In this tanka, this occurs in the middle line.

the black negligee
that I bought for your return
hangs in my closet
day by day plums ripen
and are picked clean by birds

Margaret Chula

Winner in the Tanka Splendor Awards 1997, also published in Always Filling, Always Full, 2001 and The Tanka Anthology, 2003 p 31.

The word that bridges the first two lines and the last two is "hangs" – both the negligee and the plums share the activity of hanging. If you could read the first two lines as:

the black negligee that I bought for your return
day by day plums ripen and are picked clean by birds

Without the pivot the two ideas are too distant for the reader to make the leap from one line to the other. By adding "hangs" the reader can see the negligee is hanging in a closet the same way a plum hangs on a tree. Now the parallel becomes clearer as the plums ripen to take on the color of the black gown. This step allows the author then to show, by the birds nipping away at the plums, her hopes of sharing the gown with her lover are diminished in a painful way as if the birds were tearing out, not only chunks of plum, but bits of her own body.

For the painful ideas and emotions in the poem, the pivot of "hangs" is perfect because the author is also hanging – suspended in her waiting and as defenseless as a ripe plum. She herself becomes the lovely gown awaiting a lover and the ripe plum torn by birds. It is no wonder this poem has been so often published.

If this were all one could do with the tanka pivot, it could fascinate readers and writers for years to come. However, experienced tanka writers, those who write many, many poems in the form, discovered how easy it is to learn this technique and they have gone on to explore other ways of disguise the pivot by placing it in other lines rather than in the middle.

If Thelma Mariano had written only:

it glides towards me as I sit at the harbor
in our time apart trying not to think of you –

the reader would feel that something is missing. The pivot that bridges the leap from a scene in a harbor to a woman missing someone she loves absolutely needs "the sailboat without a sail" which she wisely saves to be the last line. Thelma Mariano’s complete poem is:

it glides towards me
as I sit at the harbor
in our time apart
trying not to think of you –
the sailboat without a sail

Thelma Mariano in Fire Pearls: Short Masterpieces of the Human Heart, p 83.

By saving her pivot until the end, Mariano forces the reader to reread the poem to establish the two parallel portions and to see how they are joined by the sailboat. Both the thoughts about the lover and the sailboat arrive in the harbor without visible means of locomotion and volition.

A sailboat without a sail not only satisfies the connection between the two parts of the poem, but stands, in the end, as metaphor for the writer. This conjures up ideas that both she and the boat are not functioning at their very best, with "the wind in their sails," but passing through life with just a motor.

It is possible to place the pivot in any of the five lines and a small group of English writers are currently engaged in this exploration. At the same time they are taking the tanka to another level of difficulty. There the pivot is not contained in a line between two other sets of lines, but is hidden within the lines at several points.

a simple meal
earth boiled in potatoes
taken from the salmon’s spine
buttery grass of the cow

Jane Reichhold

 Jane Reichhold, Geography Lens, p 24.

Here you can see that the tanka qualities have been absorbed so completely that the author is able to control and define the pivot in a new way. This is still a tanka because it contains the all-important pivot in every image.

In fact, if anyone asked what makes a tanka a tanka, I would have to say that it must have a pivot. The other defining factor is the requirement that the poem makes, with the pivot, a change in voice, time, or place. It is fairly easy to understand moving the poem from a closet to a plum tree or from the past to the present or future, but it is something else to use a change of voice – which means the author is no longer the one who is speaking. This was fairly easily to accomplish in Japanese by quoting a famous poem or saying. In English we lack the treasure and examples of this, so very few modern tanka employ the technique. It is one worthy of more exploration.

If when reading a tanka you feel it is not "working" or not "right," check to see if there is a change in time, place or voice, as well as a showing pivot between the two main images. Usually you will find one or the other or both are not there and the poem is simply a sentence broken up by arbitrary line breaks to follow the form. There are enough examples of this, but to protect the innocent, I have made up this one.

dog days' morning
the puppies spraddle out
on the grassy lawn
raising not even an eyebrow
to a neighbor’s passing cat

It is somewhat cruel to say, "that is not a real tanka," but one can say, "that is not a tanka I want to use as an example for my work."

Before leaving the discussion of the pivot in  tanka, perhaps it would be helpful to see how the pivot was, and still is, used in renga writing. As you probably know, renga writing developed out of expertise with the tanka form. Where in tanka, both the upper and lower portions of the poem were written by one person, the Japanese also had the genius idea of collaborating so that one person wrote one part of the poem and someone else finished it. This divided version became so fascinating that the popularity of writing renga overtook the tanka around 1100 and remained so until the 1800s when Shiki declared that it was NOT literature. It was during Bashō’s lifetime, 1644 – 1694) renga poem form was shorted from being 100 – 10,000 verses long, to the briefer kasen renga or 36-link version. This was again truncated so that only the first three portions of the beginning poem remained in what was to be later called the haiku.

This brings us to the idea that pivots are also employed in haiku. Remember the Japanese who pioneered the haiku form were either tanka masters or renga masters first and thus were thoroughly familiar with both linking and pivoting.

In a renga the pivot would often appear as the third line in a 5,7,5 verse which was used by the following verse. An example would be in the beginning "A Farewell Gift to Sora" as written by Bashō, his friend and traveling companion Sora, and Hokushi – a poet they stayed with on their travels to the Far North. Hokushi starts with uma karate / tsubame oiyuku /wakare kana

renting a horse
you follow the swallows
as we part

Sora adds: hanano midaruru / yama no magarime

a field of flowers disturbed
the turn of the mountain

However if one "reuses" the third line of the previous verse, one gets:

as we part
a field of flowers disturbed
the turn of the mountain

Trans. by Jane Reichhold

Here you can see how the pivot is used to create the "twist" so popular in haiku. If one begins with the last line of the previous link the reader is given the idea that the parting of two people is so upsetting that the flowers in the field are disturbed, and then the sense twists around to say, no, it is bigger than that – it is the curvature of the mountain that divides the field of flowers. Notice how there is a change of voice in the combined two links so that in the beginning the author is addressing a person and in the second link there is a description of a scene.

Because our terms pivot and twist are similar, it is too easy to confuse the pivot in the tanka with the twist in a haiku. Perhaps it is easier to see the pivot as an image capable bending up and down, as in the exercise where one reaches as high as possible with the hands and then bends over to touch one’s toes, and the twist as a spinning around. The pivot lends its information to the making of two separate ideas about an image.

The twist happens when the reader is being led to think about an image in a certain way, and them Bam! with additional information in the next line, the reader’s thinking must do a complete turn around. This technique was used, explored, and exploited by the maekuzuki. Here, most often the reader was led to think the author was saying something risqué so that thoughts wandered in that direction.

By making an about face, the author could almost laugh at the reader by saying "you thought I was writing about homosexuals, but the poem is only about cats." An example would be Bashō’s:

his wife too
has whiskers
cats in love

Trans. by Jane Reichhold

The image of "whiskers" could be thought of as the pivot but you can see how it is used to make a twist. The pivot is joining the two parts of the poem, but in haiku it is given an additional, and important, movement to twist the thinking of the reader. One rarely finds this technique used in contemporary tanka, but it certainly has possibilities.

This is another example of how studying, and practicing techniques of one Japanese poetry form, can inform and enrich the author’s facility with another.

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May 1, 2007.

  Article  Copyright © by Designated Authors 2007.
Page Copyright ©Jane Reichhold 2007.

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Check out the previous issues of:

LYNX XXI:3,October, 2006
XXI:2, June, 2006

XXI:1,February, 2006

XX:3 October, 2005

XX:2 June, 2005

XX:1,February, 2005

XIX:3 October, 2004

LYNX XIX:2 June, 2004

XIX:1 February, 2004

XVIII:3 October, 2003

 LYNX XVIII:2 June, 2003

XVIII:1 February, 2003

LYNX XVII:3 October, 2002

LYNX XVII:2 June, 2002

XVII:1 February, 2002
LYNX XVI:3 October, 2001
LYNX XVI:2 June, 2001
LYNX XVI:1 February, 2001
XV:3 October, 2000
LYNX XV:2 June, 2000