Tanka: A Brief Introduction

What do you know about tanka? Possibly not much. You might have heard of haiku, the three-line Japanese poems with the 5‒7‒5 syllable count, but tanka—another form of Japanese poetry—is less well known.

Tanka (pronounced ‘tongue-ca’, ‘ca’ as in ‘cut’) has its roots in the ancient Japanese Heian era (794‒1185). It literally means ‘short song’.

Here’s an example:

at 92
and short of days
my neighbour
hands his garden’s fruit
across our common fence

I wrote this tanka about my elderly Dutch neighbour. It’s true that he shared the produce of his garden with me (along with stories of his childhood in Friesland), but it’s also true that these simple acts of communion marked an understanding between us that our sharing, like the garden produce itself, would not continue indefinitely. Our days of chatting across the fence were numbered. One of tanka’s gifts is that it can both capture and extend a moment in time.

 

Where’s the punctuation?

Japanese tanka (the same word is used for both singular and plural form) have a 5‒7‒5‒7‒7 syllable count, but because consonant clusters in English are longer than in Japanese, English tanka often have shorter syllable counts; somewhere between 19 and 31 is common. ‘at 92’ has 22 syllables. Here’s one with just 17:

sloughed
at water’s edge
on turning tide
these charcoal rocks
shine sealskin bright

You’ll notice that there is no capitalisation and no punctuation in these tanka. Each word has a job to do, and it generally needs to do it without relying on visual cues to add meaning. In Japanese, tanka are written vertically in one continuous line. In English, at least the line breaks help a little.

 

Pivot points

Tanka sometimes use a device known as a ‘pivot’. It’s the point in the poem where the meaning shifts unexpectedly. The reader is caught off balance—what was anticipated does not materialise:

a red cherry
on a summer’s day
plump and round
sweet in the centre
of the cricketer’s bat

Initially, the reader of this tanka might be salivating at the thought of fresh fruit from Young’s cherry harvest, but then the imagination shifts to the thwack of leather on willow. The poem plays on cricketing slang—‘cherry’ refers to the marks left on a bat by a red ball.

 

Tanka themes

The three tanka above, to varying degrees, connect with nature. Seasons and landscapes are common tanka subjects.

Other regular themes are love and death:

her typewriter
still on the table
memories
of a 40-year marriage
keyed to completion

and travel and displacement:

standing
under chalky cliffs
on Dover’s cloudy coast
my errant voicemail
welcomes me to France

 

‘Sketches from life’ and ‘poetry of the self’

‘at 92’ and ‘her typewriter’ are a type of tanka known as ‘shasei’ or a ‘sketch from life’. A second category is ‘jiga no shi’, meaning ‘poetry of the self’. In the latter type, a first-person pronoun can provide the clue.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a4/Strings_gallery.jpg By Tanya Ursova on behalf of the Royal Academy of Music (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commonsalready
I am strung too tight
pegged tensive
all day long
I’ll be playing sharp

 

Re-reading and reading aloud

Most tanka offer meaning on the first reading, but successive readings (especially aloud) can enhance the experience. If you go back to the tanka ‘sloughed’ and read it out loud, the repeated use of the ‘s’ sound might evoke the sloshing/sucking sound of waves at the turning of the tide. Or look again at ‘her typewriter’—does ‘still’ refer to the typewriter remaining in place or being silent, or both?

Sometimes, a tanka’s meaning is veiled—even to its author. The very first tanka I wrote came to me unbidden during an early morning walk. I ponder it still:

o my soul
tender me gently
enfold me
as the cloud on the hill
and I shall be well

 

Links and Sources

  • All tanka quoted in this post are the copyright of the author, Tessa Wooldridge. Some have been previously published (and sometimes later revised): ‘already’, Eucalypt (no. 2, 2007); ‘her typewriter’, Stylus Poetry Journal (2008); ‘a red cherry’ Eucalypt (no. 6, 2009); ‘at 92’ Eucalypt and Take Five: Best Contemporary Tanka  (2011); and ‘sloughed’ LTP Anthology (2012).
  • Photo credits: ‘Strings Gallery’ by Tanya Ursova on behalf of the Royal Academy of Music (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
    Other photos are free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog.
  • If you want to explore tanka further, a good place to start is the Australian tanka journal Eucalypt. The journal’s website includes articles and reviews, and the ‘Scribble’ section contains award-winning Eucalypt tanka together with appraisals.
  • Image courtesy of Penguin Australia

    My favourite collections of tanka are Beverley George and David Terelinck’s Australian anthology Grevillea & Wonga (2011) and Jane Hirshfield and Aratani Mariko’s translation of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikubu’s The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems (1990). Komachi and Shikubu were each woman of the Heian court—an era in which female poets flourished.

  • If you’d like to learn more about tanka, these two articles are by English-language tanka exponents: Jeanne Emrich’s ‘Between Us: An Interview with Beverley George’, Tanka Online. (2013) and Jane Reichold’s ‘Teika’s Ten Tanka Techniques’, AHA Poetry (2010).
  • And if you want to start writing tanka yourself, there are excellent guides and expert tips and exquisite examples on the Tanka Online website.

 

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