An Introduction to Tanka Poetry
Tanka is a quintain (five-lined poem) that has its roots in Japanese poetry. It is a form of writing poetry with as few words as possible, yet describing a wealth of information. Its most notable aspect is its lyrical construction. Yes, great tanka are lyrical to read and very poetic. Tanka are untitled and unrhymed.
(This page has been edited as per suggestions by Michael Dylan Welch, with specific reference mentioned as MDW)
The origin of tanka is first uta (which means 'song', originally written in Chinese, then in Japan, as Japan was first developing its own language), then waka (which means 'Japanese song', to differentiate it from uta, which was essentially Chinese), and then tanka ('short song') - (MDW)
Waka, was the predominant form for writing poetry in Japan way back in the 7th century AD. The earliest collections of waka was the anthology of poems ‘Man’yōshū’ (Collection of Myriad Leaves) which consisted of 4173 waka poems out of a total of 4496 poems in the anthology.
Although it's not really accurate to call waka a 'short song', these poems were all meant to be chanted, and this is still done today in the annual Imperial waka contest held each January. (MDW)
Tanka means ‘short song’ that goes to say that such poems are written with a lyrical twist. Tanka are unrhymed poetry. In traditional Japanese, waka consist of thirty-one sound units or morae (5-7-5-7-7). The usual themes that tanka are centered around are love, passion, courting, nature, natural beauty, life and death, and the affairs of ordinary men and women. However, tanka may be written with almost any theme in mind.
Tanka went through different stages and minor changes; however, its form was retained although a part of it branched off as hokku (introductory three-lined verse to other writing)and haiku (independent 3-lined verse), both consisting of 17 syllables in the order 5-7-5.
By the nineteenth century, (in the late 1800s, after the Meiji Restoration) the West started blending with the East and translations from Japanese to English took place. Prior to this time, the shoguns kept Japan cut off from the Western world for more than 300 years. The first translations of tanka and haiku into English didn't start until very late in the 1800s, mostly the early 1900s. (MDW) During that time, the tradition of waka was in fact, fading, but with the impact of the West’s interest in waka, tanka took a new form. Poets started writing waka in English and adopted the word ‘Tanka’ for such poems. Today, many cultures adopt the use of tanka to speak their mind and tanka has been added to the list of poetry genres.
In Japanese, tanka consist of five lines of unrhymed poetry with thirty-one sound units in the order 5-7-5-7-7 for each line respectively. However, with the translation into and the start of Tanka construction in English, the form has taken a unique twist although it might seem to be modified with use.
Michael Dylan Welch, poet and pioneer in tanka awareness says: "I'm not sure I would say the 5-7-5-7-7 form has been 'modified' for English. That pattern simply doesn't have an equivalent in English, since they're not counting syllables. So what we do isn't willfully 'modified'. It simply has to be 'different'. What you think of as 'thirty-one syllables', I'd change that to say 'thirty-one sounds', since they don't count syllables in Japanese haiku or tanka (the word 'haiku', for example, is two syllables in English but THREE sounds in Japanese). I would say "thirty-one sounds (not to be confused with syllables)."
Since Japanese, as a rule, consist of more sound units per word, when compared to English, when written in English, each line of the tanka invariably ends up with fewer sound units. In order to maintain the lyrical and poetic aspect of the English version, the English tanka thus results with fewer syllables. Thus, contemporary and modern English Tanka DOES NOT necessarily follow the strict Japanese format of thirty-one sound units (although permitted) and can range from as few as 19 syllables up to 31. The syllable schemata for modern tanka are thus short/long/short/long/long or s/l/s/l/l although poets write equal-length tanka lines too.
Quoting Michael again, he says, "I've seen plenty of English-language tanka that are shorter than 19 syllables, AND plenty that are longer than 31. Sanford Goldstein, for example, writes lots of tanka at both extremes. Kozue Uzaka (with Gusts magazine) and the Tanka Journal in Japan both advocate for about 21 syllables in English, with a short-long-short-long-long rhythm."
For an easy understanding of tanka, read 'How to Write a Tanka'.
Elements of Tanka
- Imagery: Tanka is heavily infused with lyrical intensity. It is also full of strong imagery which consist of two parts. As a rule, the first consists of three lines and makes up the first part of the imagery or theme.
- Metaphors / Similes (Juxtaposition): The last two lines are more like metaphors or similes complementing the first three lines. The third line acts as a pivot that gives direction to the tanka and can be applied to lines 1 and 2 as well as to lines 3 and 4 in a sensible manner.Great tanka can be figuratively read both, forward and backward. Although the pivot most popularly turns up in the third line, it can happen almost anywhere in the poem, or this element in fact can be omitted altogether.
- Senses: In addition to strong imagery, lyrical impact and metaphors, tanka makes use of the five senses. Rather than describing what the theme is, expressing it with the help of adjectives or exclamations of sound, smell, taste, hearing and sight adds more depth to tanka.
- Diction and Phrasing: Use natural English. Tanka is known for its simple, yet lyrical construction. Avoid ending each line with articles and prepositions. Each line should be independent phrases; the punch line at the end.
- Form: Tanka may or may not follow specific schemata. They can be isometrical (all lines of different length) as well as heterometrical. While many adhere to the 5-7-5-7-7 format there is no rule that insists that tanka be written to this structure. Sometimes the syllable count may even be less than half of the strict count. According to Denis M. Garrison, one should not adhere to a strict formula; its touch is poisonous to writing poetry.
- Punctuation: Tanka does not require each line to start with a capital. Neither does it require a period at the end. Tanka are basically fragments and phrases that requires little to no punctuation.
"Most definitions of tanka oddly seem to apply equally well to HAIKU. Replace the word 'tanka' with 'haiku' and practically everything is still true. This is an ongoing conundrum for tanka. To me, tanka are much more subjective, whereas haiku are usually more objective. More poetic devices, including simile and metaphor can be used freely in tanka, but not necessarily so in haiku." (MDW)
Some examples of published English tanka:
takes a huge
bite from a pear
- Robert Kusch
holds the waving child high
as the train passes
where . . . when . . .
did summer disappear
- Francine Porad
wondering for years
what would be
my life’s defining moment
an egret staring at me
me staring back
- Jeanne Emrich
dozens of exotic lilies
in the bulb catalog.
- Pamela Miller Ness
tapped his Moses on the knee
arise and walk!
I kiss the cherry-red mouth
on the canvas
- Francine Porad
(first prize, The Poetry Society of Japan,
Third International Tanka Contest, 199
a Moreton Bay Fig tree
towers over me
spreading its arthritic limbs –
how I miss my father
- David Terelinck
hisakata no hikari nodokeki harunohi ni shizugokoro naku hana no chiruran
Ki no Tomonori (c.850–c.904)
the light filling the air
is so mild this spring day
only the cherry blossoms
keep falling in haste—
why is that so?
Translated by Emiko Miyashita and Michael Dylan Welch
Here are a coupe of questions I asked Michael about the tanka form. His replies are posted below.
1. Do tanka consist of only five lines or can they have four lines too? I know I heard someone mention before that as long as there are 'five elements' in tanka it does not matter how many lines there are. Some are comfortable with just four lines.
MDW: I would advocate for tanka always having five lines in English. For haiku, there are people who do them in one, three, and four lines, occasionally two lines. I've seen some tanka (in translation from Japanese) presented in three lines. But generally nearly every tanka writer presents their tanka in five lines. Because any variation of that is so extremely rare, I would just stick to five lines. In Japanese, of course, waka and tanka are usually presented in one long vertical line (like haiku), although occasionally they appear in multiple lines when presented graphically on a shikishi or with a painted illustration -- but the norm is one line in Japanese.
I'm not sure what might have been meant by the "five elements" -- the word "elements" seems too vague. The Japanese has the rhythm of 5-7-5-7-7, and perhaps those five parts are what is meant, but I do still think five lines are essential and standard in English.
2. So then, would it be safe to describe a tanka as a quintain, considering it has five lines?
MDW: Calling tanka a quintain seems fine to me.
Sensing Tanka: A Life Beyond the Ordinary - by David Terelinck
Description of Image: A stone monument at the Sasaya-toge mountain pass (Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures, Japan). A Tanka,(a Japanese traditinal form of song and poetry) by SAITO Mokichi is inscribed on its surface and roughly translates in English as "Matters of livings in two lands have met and crossed at this pass, where I love.