Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What is Tanka?

Tanka are a five line, short lyric poem originally from Japan. The ancient Japanese were composing them even before they were literate (7th century AD); they sang them as songs. For more than a thousand years tanka was the dominant form of Japanese poetry. It lost its pre-eminent place when haiku was invented in the 17th century, but it continues to be written to this day. Famous tanka poets in Japan sell millions of copies of their books are celebrity writers with tv shows and newspaper columns. 

Tanka were adopted into English at the end of the 19th century. However, the Japanese form of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables did not adapt very well to English; due to differences in the structure of the languages, an English poem is able to pack about twice as much information into the same number of syllables. Thus writers in English abandoned syllable-counting and instead strove for the lightness, suppleness, and flexibility of the tanka form. The aesthetics are considered more important than the syllable count. Writing in 1922, Jun Fujita, a Japanese-American tanka poet, remarked that poets who count syllables have adopted the "carcass" but not the "essence" of Japanese poetry.

Amateur poets often write tanka in the 5-7-5-7-7 form because they have not been exposed to the more than one hundred years of tanka literature written and published in English, and most short descriptions of tanka merely note the syllable requirements in Japanese with no discussion of aesthetics. A number of mistaken ideas are forwarded about tanka poems: that they are the love poems of courtiers, that they are a question and response composed by two people, that they are always about nature, etc. Historically speaking, good taste ruled the works of courtiers, but in the modern era no subject or approach is taboo. 

While love and nature continue to be popular topics for tanka (as indeed they are popular in most genres of poetry), tanka may be written about anything and everything. Humorous, satiric, or just plain oddball tanka are called 'kyoka.' Most journals and anthologies publish tanka and kyoka together without distinction, but there is one journal, Prune Juice : A Journal of Kyoka and Senryu, that specifically publishes kyoka. 

Tanka Central, the megasite of tanka poetry in English, is hosted at, and has many links to journals and resources. MET Press also publishes The Tanka Teachers Guide as well as Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka, the anthology series. Volume One has an excellent introduction to the topic, and the approximately 300 tanka in the anthology are a digest of the best work being done in English today. 

In addition, the website offers lessons to novice poets and exhibitions by well-known tanka poets from around the world. The Tanka Society of America, Tanka Canada, and the Anglo-Japanese Tanka Society all provide resources and publish journals. 

An international resource guide appears in issue 7 of Atlas Poetica : A Journal of Poetry of Place in Contemporary Tanka. ATPO 7 is devoted to tanka in translation, and features work in Innu, French, Spanish, Romanian, Lithuanian, Hebrew, German, Dutch, Flemish, Afrikaans, Japanese, Chinese, Luganda, Fante, Ewe and Twi (Akuapem). 

The following tanka appear in the Introduction to Take Five, Vol 1, Baltimore, MD: MET Press, 2008: 

the old woman
with a walking stick
bent over
her daughter's grave
like a question mark

André Surridge

I could tell
from the look in her eyes
the cancer had spread
from her lungs to her liver
and into both our lives

Barbara Robidoux

only a one sentence
to my kid
and all day
the lousy after-taste

Sanford Goldstein

I am
I am not
I am
as I walk in & out
of mist

A. A. Marcoff

and when
the sand runs out?
the stillness
of the hourglass
and I are one

Denis M. Garrison

this past August,
all at once, the abuse of a decade
condensed into a bullet-
there's a house for sale
in our neighborhood

Larry Kimmel

a rooster on a leg string
stands at the end of his world
daring traffic-
even a chicken feels
the pinch of a tethered life

William Hart

blood-soaked the bodies
littering the marketplace
this hot afternoon
one melon and a small child
not hit by flying shrapnel

C. W. Hawes


Jim Kacian

still held
by the sound
of a shakuhachi flute
I walk out into the wind
with holes in my bones

Peter Yovu

in the deep silence
of scorching midday heat,
my mother's spine
our wartime defeat

Mariko Kitakubo

hot august 
an open fire hydrant
flushes out
the whole under-ten

Art Stein

As you can see, a wide variety of forms, subjects, and approaches are typical of tanka in English in the 21st century.