Tanka Article Published in
FEELINGS - A Journal of Poetic Thought and Verse
Jane Reichhold

As a writer, you have surely heard of haiku. However, your chances of knowing about haiku's grandmother form -- tanka -- are less likely. Before you stop reading this article because you are not interested in these short poetry forms, please give me a chance to expand on some of the techniques of tanka which can be incorporated into other genres -- basic maneuvers which can help evolve some of the weaknesses in our Western literary inheritance. These principles have stood the test of time, as no other poetry form has endured like the tanka.

When Japanese history was first being committed to writing -- the middle of the 7th century AD -- there already was a long oral history of the uta [song] in the waka. The waka then and the tanka today consisted of five phrases. Then as now, the Japanese language composed phrases most naturally into either short ones --consisting of five onji [a sound syllable consisting usually of a consonant and a vowel] -- or a longer unit consisting of seven onji. Instead of punctuation, the Japanese use small words consisting of one or two onji to indicate the line breaks and give them a 'tone' as in asking a question or indicating exclamation. Because of the familiarity of the natural syntax of the phrases -- in Japanese poetry this was highly regulated so that only certain phrases expressed with time-honored wording -- the reader knew exactly where these non-breaking line breaks occurred. Thus their tanka were written in one or (mostly) two vertical lines. Lacking these natural indicators in English, tanka, are written in translation in (usually) five lines to indicate the breaks and to allow the reader the same feeling for pause and change.

Some early translators, either ignoring these elements, or not understanding their purpose, have translated tanka into quatrains -- the form they as non-poets knew. However, as the tanka form takes its place in English-language poetry, one of its signaling factors is the five-line form.

Because English is so different from Japanese, we cannot follow their methods to arrive with the same poem/product. If we write the five lines with 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, our tanka will end up being about 1/3 longer than one written by the same method in Japanese. Thus, in English, we have three distinct forms.

First is the method of writing five lines consisting of 5-7-5-7-7 English syllables which is considered 'traditional' and is claimed by some Japanese to be the only 'real' tanka, even if the poem turns out too long. Some authors have adopted this method naturally and have no interest in writing a shorter Japanese equivalent. One is Gerard John Conforti, of New York City. In his book, Now That the Night Ends (1996), he never varies from this pattern:

This cold winter night
the snow clings to the tree boughs
in the pale moonlight
the kisses of your soft lips
warm this aching heart of mine

Can you feel how he has tempered his phrases so there is a melodic rhythm that is complete in each line? Another author followed the approximate 5-7-5-7-7 formula but allows her speech to form in its own natural rhythm. For this use of enjambment, Geraldine C. Little of New Jersey employs the complete range of punctuation. From her book, More Light, Larger Vision (1992), we can read Geraldine C. Little's tanka:

caught in my mirror
a photograph of you, man
I love, mean to have,
I'm a witch, didn't you know?
now you'll never escape me!

The other accepted English style is to write the five lines composed of short-long-short-long-long phrases so the end result shows this shape on the page. Some poets, such as Anna Holley of Texas is, are attuned to writing in the style Japanese tanka would be if written in English. Notice how very short and succinct these lines are, but yet you will see that each poem fulfills most of the requirements for a tanka.

it's lonely too --
that young pine
leaning toward
the hilltop moon

if only
because it might
still visit you,
must I now envy
even autumn wind?

The last and still accepted way is the 'experimental' in which the poet follows his/her own speech and makes no effort to rewrite or rephrase the lines to make them fit to any pattern. As result of his translations of 20th century Japanese tanka writers, (mainly Tokuboku), Sanford Goldstein, now living in Japan, opts for this method. An example from the English tanka anthology, Wind Five Folded (1994) contains his sequence "Buddha: a tanka string" which begins with:

pour me a cup of poetry
from your warm mouth
this empty

Here, you can see where what he calls 'tanka' is blurring the line to haiku or even... In some of Goldstein's more recent works he is writing longer tanka, but he was not alone in his former style so you may see other authors' very short tanka written in this style.

Because tanka in English is new, I am doing what I can to keep the form as open as possible by not setting definite rules and boundaries, by saying that for a poem to be a 'real' tanka it must conform to this or that rule. However, I do encourage new writers (we are all new now!) to form their own inner rules so their poetry contains the challenge of word-smithing. Make up your rules out of the many possible variations. Experiment until you find what suits you and your way of speaking and writing. Make it your own. Stick with it as long as it works for you.

Since the history of Japanese tanka is so long -- thirteen hundred years -- and the rules have changed so much, there are many various styles now which allow the poet to follow any and still be within one of the realm of tanka.

Before moving away from the form of tanka, and getting to the techniques, I would like to offer some thoughts on why this genre has been so endearing and enduring. And it is that. Though the form, surely an adaptation of the Chinese quatrains, which were themselves an adaptation of the even earlier ghazal from the Middle East, the tanka is still very popular in Japan. In 1987, a young woman, Machi Tawara, just beginning her teaching career wrote a book of tanka, Sarada kinebi [Salad Anniversary]. In Japan alone, this book sold over 11 million copies. Each year, on New Year's Day celebration, the Emperor of Japan and his family join millions of the commoners in writing tanka on designated topics. In an impressive ceremony a selection of these tanka are chanted in a time-honored ceremony before the Royal Court and are then preserved as national treasures.

Okay, you are saying, what makes tanka different from our own poetry genres? And what can it do for my writing?

First, Japanese writers use metaphor in a way that is 'new' for us Westerners. We are used to stating our metaphors and similes with the words 'like' and 'as' -- "my love is like a red, red rose." The Japanese are much more subtle. By using juxtaposition (placing two images side by side) the reader has to form the equation, the comparison or the association in his/her own mind. I know this sounds too simple, but by not stating the relationship, by expertly placing concrete images together, one forces the reader to form a picture or image in his/her mind and then to seek out alone the meaningful information.

We all know that we learn best when we have to figure something out for ourselves rather than be told facts which we must memorize. This same philosophy works in poetry. When the reader is presented with images -- and they have to be concrete images, not the abstractions on which so much Western poetry depends --these pictures in the mind call forth emotions from the non-intellectual level of the reader. If these pictures are at first incongruous, the reader is forced (will want to) make a leap from one to the other and in doing this, come to see the two in a new relationship. By demanding the participation of the reader in making an association, you have engaged his/her attention, at least, and if you have used images that are meaningful in an emotional way, you have also engaged the reader's heart.

Let us try this out. Here is a poem from the Japanese Imperial anthology, The Kokinshu, published in 905 AD, written by Anonymous, meaning it was probably a woman:

if there is a seed
the pine will sprout
even among boulders
if I love and keep on loving
will we not meet someday?

I show you this poem because it is a clear example of the way the Japanese will speak of something from the natural-nature world in such a way that the one line can be applied to both scenes. The phrase "among boulders" is descriptive of the land on which a seed can fall and also stands as metaphor for the 'stones' in the path of the lovers. Such a phrase is called a 'pivot' because it is on this point the poem turns from referring to one subject to change to another. Try reading the first three lines. Then read the last three lines. See how each unit is complete? Aim for this. Not every poem achieves this, but the superior ones will. And you will bump your nose on those three-line haiku again!

There is another important aspect of tanka which Western poets have largely ignored. And rightfully so, because the technique demands a degree of sensitivity and decorum to which most of us have not reached. All Japanese poetry delights in word play. Having four alphabets gives their language a wider range of homonyms, synonyms and word associations. The only one we have in English which they also share is "pine". There is the pine tree as a noun and as a verb, to pine means to long for. We also have 'leaves' and ' he / she / it leaves' and surely more which are waiting to be found and developed.

This word play is also used with place names and thing-names. We have some of these opportunities when we look closely at accepted names for places. Oxford is the shallow place in the stream where the oxen were forded across. Even your town, or places nearby will reveal their name origins. I have Anchor Bay, Greenwood, Hot Springs. And you? One word of caution. Very often when English poets use word play they put the emphasis on 'play' -- using it to be cute or cutting. The Japanese use the technique gently and seriously to add depth and meaning -- not to show off or joke around or appear clever.

It is customary in tanka to 'break' the poem into two parts -- the upper (first three lines) and the lower (two last longer lines). Now you see where the haiku came from! It is the top of the tanka which has been liberated. If you are already writing haiku, you might begin your first efforts in tanka by taking one of your haiku and adding what one might call a postscript -- two more lines of yourself.

One test of "is the poem really a tanka?" is to ask if there is a change in either time, place, mood or speaker. Above, you see the anonymous author first has the reader out in the stony landscape and then after the pivot in the middle line, has taken you, the reader, into her heart. Conforti's poem moves from the snow-covered tree boughs to his feelings while being kissed in a clear and absolutely perfect tanka method. Often this movement or change is even more subtle. And sometimes the pivot (if it is there at all) is even more cleverly hidden. Lady Ise, in the 10th century wrote:

if only my body
were these winter-seared fields
though I burned
I could look forward
to the spring to come

Here both the author's body and the winter fields 'burn', but that is not her real issue. She is lamenting her lack of hope for spring / love / fruition which is so dismal that even the burned over stubble fields are preferable. Still she is moving from the area of fields to that of her own body.

Though many people, in their excitement of writing a tanka, forget or ignore this technique, it is a very important aspect as it is the way a tanka gains inner space so it does not remain a "small poem". The pivot also expands the meaning of the few words so the writer and reader get doubled images from a few words. When these conjunctions are startling (as with burned over fields and a woman's body) the reader cannot let go of the feelings which arise from this configuration.

In this way, you also see, the Japanese are adept in taking an image from the natural world and letting it stand in the place of abstract concepts. We do this in English also, but we are not aware of what we are doing except by feeling good when the sun shines or crying when it rains. By reading and studying Japanese genre poetry we become sensitized to a facet of our own poetry. When we are aware of it, we can use it and when we can use it deftly, the impact on the reader can be intensified and seems new.

One aspect of a poem that makes it seem 'boring' is predictability. If your poem follows the same patterns and thought processes which have all been read a thousand times in other poems, the reader will skim over it, maybe not even read it to the end because s/he feels s/he knows what is coming. Ho-hum.

However, if you present an unconventional image, the reader cannot help but to let a picture form in his/her mind. If you immediately present another unusual or surprising image, the reader's natural curiosity will kick in and in that instant you 'have your reader'. If with your final words you can show the reader a new way of thinking about these images -- one he or she had not seen before, you will force him/her to think anew and then, if the whole poem works, transport your feelings heart-to-heart instead of heart-head.

Because the form is short, it is easy to work out a tanka in one's head. This practice encourages one to 'think in tanka'. When one does this, one adopts a way of thinking -- of organizing one's impressions. Tanka, unlike haiku, is emotional. Instead of denying one's feelings or hiding them behind concrete images, tanka is openly the form for expressing emotional states. Yet it is most often based on natural world phenomenon.

As in European poetry forms, grief and sadness are two emotions which most often move one to write poetry. Thus, there are many, many tanka expressing sadness. Also, since the Japanese ideal method of viewing love was the unrequited love, most of their love poetry involves unfulfilled longing. More sadness. Today, though some authors specialize in laments, (which can degenerate into whining) many writers preserve tanka for writing of special moments of insight or inspiration or an overwhelming sense of rapture or mystery. This relates back to the earlier history of tanka.

In Japan, tanka is a vital part of the Noh theater plays. There tanka is used as the form of prayers or 'talking with the gods'. If we surmise that the earliest poetry came from songs or prayers to gods, to tanka which was then addressed to rulers as proof of fidelity, we can follow how it came to be the poetry between lovers. Personally, I prefer to see tanka expressing one's deepest feelings no matter what they are. Because from your poems, people can see your soul. Tanka allows the depths of your inner person to shine though.

So you can meet me, I include one of my tanka from my book, A Gift of Tanka:

desert leaving
one of my dream souls
in the lizard
patterns on his back
passport to change

May the study of tanka renew your own enthusiasm for poetry.


In Japanese, nouns can be singular or plural (as sheep or deer are in English), so we do not use an English plural to make tankas or haikus but let the verb determine the number.

You can request a listing of the above English tanka books which are available from AHA Books, POB 767, Gualala, CA 95445 by sending an SASE.

Since 1989 AHA Books has sponsored a contest now known as Tanka Splendor. Rules are on the website or you may request them or order copies of the winning poems from previous years in booklet form with an SASE to AHA Books.

Copyright © Jane Reichhold 1997.

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