As Lynx readers well know, the number of poets writing English language tanka has increased significantly in recent years. The annual Tanka Splendor Award now receives 700-plus entries. Two English language tanka journals have started in this decade (American Tanka and Tangled Hair). Lynx now publishes more tanka than it did five years ago.
In 1995, the Tanka Splendor Award began to include three sequences (defined as 4-7 tanka links). I assume the decision to add sequences to the award reflected, in part, the fact that English language poets had begun writing sequences, some of which were already being published in Lynx. The desire of English language poets to write sequences must come from our wish to say more, at times, than we can say in one 31-syllable tanka.
Donald Keene, discussing the history of Japanese tanka, has written about the difficulties early Japanese poets had in writing long poems, due to the characteristics of the Japanese language. According to Keene, - I do not speak or write Japanese - Japanese lacks stress accents and rhyming is too easy to keep the rhymes interesting in a long poem. Keene writes, "Faced with the difficulties in writing long poems ..., the Japanese had another choice, and they took it, though it was one that would have chilled most European poets. It was simply not to write long poems, but to confine themselves to short forms, especially to the waka." He continues, "Of course, many things could not be stated in the 31 syllables of the waka, no matter how skillfully composed: narrative cannot be related with such brevity, intellectual matters in which the mind as well as the heart is involved can seldom be treated adequately, events of national importance... or the poet's reaction to some social or religious issue are almost impossible to squeeze into a waka." (Donald Keene, The Pleasures of Japanese Literature, 1988, p.31, 33.) Japanese literary tradition also includes diaries, which do address these more complex issues, and diary authors often punctuated their prose passages with tanka - or later, haiku, but the diary, though a wonderful form, is not a poem. (See Donald Keene, Travelers of a Hundred Ages, 1989.) However, modern Japanese poets (responding I am sure to the same desire to say more than can be said in 31 syllables) have been writing tanka sequences for approximately 100 years.
(For early examples available in English, see poets translated by Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda: Mokichi Saito, Red Lights, 1989, and Shiki Masaoka, Songs from a Bamboo Village, 1998. For more current examples, see, of course, Machi Tawara, Salad Anniversary, or issues of The Tanka Journal (Nihon Kajin Club, The Japan Tanka Poets' Club.)
To my reading, the sequences published in Lynx and Tanka Splendor, and in recent books by Jane and Werner Reichhold (In the Presence, 1998), Tom Clausen (A Work of Love, 1997), myself (In Each Other's Footsteps, 1996), Geraldine Clinton Little (More Light, Larger Vision, 1992), and Sanford Goldstein (At the Hut of the Small Mind, 1992) - to name only those on my bookshelf; there are surely more - are attempts to solve this problem of the limitations of the tanka form. (See also Randy Brooks's tanka sequence, Black Ant's Journey to Japan - Tanka Sequence, 1998 AHA Books Online - ahapoetry.com). Such sequences take the strengths of an individual tanka (its emotional force, the shift and non-linear connection between its two parts, its elusive
spirit) and use them to build a longer poem that can address more complex subjects. Most of us English language poets bring a background in Euro-American poetry to whatever we write. It is natural, it seems to me, that many of us would want to write tanka sequences to try to get at some of the topics Keene mentions as almost impossible to treat in 31 syllables.
Our desire to write tanka sequences does not come solely from our Euro-American poetry background, though, since modern Japanese poets, as mentioned, have arrived at the same conclusion and solution. Maybe it is human to always want to do more!
In "Some Developments in the House of Tanka" (Lynx Vol. XIV: NO. 2), Werner Reichhold says "... after writing ... many different tanka ..., (the poet) can put (them) together, partly adapted, building a longer poem." He adds, "There seems to be a lot of territory open to writers willing to explore a narrative interwoven with tanka." I agree that we have only begun to explore the possibilities of tanka sequences. One of those possibilities is writing linked tanka sequences.
We know that in the Heian period of Japan (A.D. 794-1185), lovers exchanged tanka; perhaps these were considered short linked tanka sequences. (See the Tale of Genji.) Of course, in Japanese poetry, renga became the form of linked verse most widely written. I am not aware of any long tanka sequences in the history of Japanese literature, with the obvious exception of the court anthologies (i.e. the Kokinshu), and these were compiled after the tanka were written and did not involve poets linking verses with each other. (However, my knowledge of Japanese literature is limited.) English language haiku poets have written renga for years and, recently, rengay. In my opinion, the extra two lines of a tanka allow the poem to become emotionally deeper. Tanka also reflect more directly an individual's poetic voice than do most of the renga and rengay I have read. At times, it seems to me, a tanka almost asks for the response of another tanka. Like tanka sequences written by one person, linked verse tanka sequences can address complex and narrative issues. They have the added benefit of another poet's point of view to make the shifts more varied and surprising.
The poetic interaction between the two poets can also add an element of welcome tension to the poem.
To my knowledge, the first English language linked tanka sequences appeared in the mid- 1990's. Sanford Goldstein and Kenneth Tanemura published a linked tanka verse, which they called "double tanka strings", in Lynx (Vol.IX: #2, 1994). Mirrors (Summer 1994), and This Tanka World of Strings,1995). As Solstice greeting 1994 Jane and Werner sent the 12 link poem -"A Touch of Ink". When I learned of this form, I was hooked. I love tanka and I love writing with people. In the past four years, I have written tanka sequences with ten different poets. All the sequences were enjoyable, challenging, and ultimately wonderful to write; some are even good poems! (See Lynx Vol. XII: #2; Vol. XIII:#3; Vol. XIV: #3; and Tanka Splendor 1997, for examples.) Lynx also has published linked tanka sequences which Nasira Alma wrote with Alexis K. Rotella, Sanford Goldstein, and Jane Reichhold. (See Lynx Vol. XI: #3, 1996; Vol. XII: #2, 1997; and Vol. XIII: #1, 1998.)
My partners and I have used a 6 link format, with each poet alternating links. After having written about fifty of these tanka sequences, I believe I have only begun to understand and explore this form. For instance, the poem can emphasize shifting or linking and, thus, can focus fairly tightly on one theme or can have a more kaleidoscope approach. The poem can be more or less explicitly personal, depending on how willing and/or interested the poets are in expressing direct personal feelings about their own lives, or the other poet's life. The poets can choose to write explicitly about their relationship. The poem itself can build to a climactic waterfall at the last link, can meander like a late summer stream, or start with a spring snow melt and gradually evaporate.
I believe that linked verse will be an increasingly meaningful poetic form in the future for English language poets. (Aren't we trying to learn to get along with each other better?) I believe that Euro-American poetry, mirroring the culture in general, has over-emphasized the glory of the individual (although each of us individuals is surely glorious) at the expense of shared experiences and has, often, overemphasized thoughts relative to feelings. I believe linked tanka verse, in particular, has a tremendous amount to offer at the present time. If you haven't already written linked tanka verse, try it! I'd like to read your poems.
Article Copyright © David Rice 1999.
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