The Art of Writing Tanka


Tanka barcaTanka poetry, a variant of the Japanese Waka, is a recent popular trend in the poetic world.  It is a quintain, or a five-lined poem that is untitled and unrhymed. Many have attempted to write tanka, while following the schemata and style of the Japanese versions. Although not wrong, the English Tanka has a few unique features of its own.  Read ‘An Introduction to Tanka Poetry for more insight into what a tanka is and how it originated.

To begin with, Tanka means ‘short song’.  Therefore, keep this in mind when you begin to write your tanka.


How to write a tanka:



Tanka may or may not follow specific schemata. They can be isometrical (all lines of different length) as well as heterometrical (all five lines of same length).  While many poets stick to the rigid  5-7-5-7-7 format, the popular opinion among professional poets is to deviate from this form when writing tanka in English .  Sometimes the syllable count may even be less than half of the strict count.  Maintain more stress on the theme and imagery, rather than the count.  In English, each line of the tanka may be equal to or less than the Japanese form.



Each line of the tanka is more of a phrase rather than a sentence.  Do not begin the lines with uppercase letters, nor end the lines with a period.  Restrict your use of punctuations as far as possible.  Avoid ending each line with an article (an, an and the) or a preposition.  Articles and prepositions tend to weaken the quality of the tanka.  When you read the tanka aloud, the five lines should connect as one poem rather than detracted phrases.  Therefore rather than trying to describe the theme in five different ways, stick to a specific imagery.


Imagery and Contrast: 

The first three lines of the tanka make up the first part of the imagery. The lines should read through without distraction.  The third line acts as a pivot, which gives shape and form to the lyrical aspect of the tanka.  In addition, it allows the reader to read the poem in the reverse order. The last two lines complement the first three.  They can be metaphors, similes or oxymoron juxtaposed in place to bring the poem to life.


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.  



Make use of the five main senses when writing tanka.  Rather than telling the reader that a mountain is tall and high, it might be better for you to describe it by its smell or sound.  Perhaps explain how the perfume of the fresh, lofty air beckons you climb to the top.  On the other hand, describe how the sound of the twigs crackling under your feet brings life to the mountain forests. Descriptions of sound, smell, taste, hearing and touch bring life and song to a tanka.


Write many versions of your poem before you hit upon the perfect finish for your tanka. Delete unwanted words, repetitions or fillers that might make your poem heavy to read.  In addition, do not be afraid to experiment with images.  Your poem may be fantastic or real; it all depends on what you want the reader to gather from your tanka. 


Related Topics

Tanka Poetry: An Introduction 


Image Credit: Tanka barca by Michel bcn  at Wikimedia Commons