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:

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
of a 40-year marriage
keyed to completion

and travel and displacement:

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.


Women, Beauty and Art in Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns

Beauty in Thorns_Cover image

Beauty in Thorns cover image. Courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns begins with an exchange between two of the novel’s major characters – Georgiana (Georgie) Macdonald and the man she will later marry, Edward (Ned) Burne-Jones. Their conversation centres on the tale of Sleeping Beauty.

The fairy story is key to Forsyth’s narrative. As the novel unfolds, Ned paints the beautiful princess over and over again. First, it is Georgie who poses as the sleeping beauty; then, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal. Later still, Ned’s mistress Maria Zambaco plays the part; and, finally, his daughter Margot poses for Ned’s Briar Rose series.

Women. Beauty. Art. Motifs that repeat in the novel like a William Morris wallpaper.

The Women – Georgie, Lizzie and Janey

Let’s begin with the early years of the women. Throughout their youth, three of the four main female characters in Beauty in Thorns are surrounded by privation and ugliness – in one form or another.

Georgie Macdonald is raised in an austere Methodist parsonage in Birmingham with ‘pyramids of slag on every corner’, where ‘even the snow felt dirty’; Lizzie Siddal comes from ‘the crowded slums of Southwark, breathing in the stench of the tanning yards every day’; Jane (Janey) Burden is a product of Oxford’s Holywell Street and St Helen’s Passage, a place that ‘oozed foul-smelling slime … so awful it was hard to walk past without gagging’.

The physical environment is bad enough, but the women lack comfort in other ways.

Georgiana Burne-Jones, c. 1860. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In Georgie’s home, Shakespeare – a corrupting influence – is banned, and Georgie and her sisters rarely leave the house unless it is to attend chapel or a temperance meeting or bible class. The Methodist policy of moving ministers every three years virtually assures Georgie’s social isolation. Her reverend father is wont to demand: ‘Is it too much to ask that we sacrifice our own comfort in the godly harvest of souls?’

Elizabeth Siddal, c. 1854. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

For Lizzie, providing money for her family’s survival comes at the price of working 12 hours a day, six days a week. Lizzie’s mother thinks her daughter’s notions of writing poetry and drawing pictures a waste of time and that she would be better occupied working on the state of her soul.

Jane Burden, 1857. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Janey’s family support is practically non-existent. She has been a beggar on the streets from childhood, and her drunken mother is physically and verbally abusive. Janey’s prospects in adult life seem confined to earning ‘twopence for a quick screw in the alley’.


But despite these unpromising beginnings, the three women come to the attention of the artists and designers involved with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Why? Because, particularly in the case of Lizzie and Janey, they are physically beautiful. In the parlance of the day, they are ‘stunners’. The men want models for their paintings. They crave beauty.

For Georgie, her ‘beauty’ in Ned’s eyes is also bound up with her youth – the pair are engaged when Georgie is 15 and Ned is in his early 20s. In Forsyth’s novel, Ned resists women growing to maturity. He is saddened when Georgie’s younger sisters pass through girlhood, and he will come to resent signs of womanhood in his daughter Margot (the fourth member of Beauty in Thorns’ female quartet).

The beauty of the women translates itself into the art of the men. And, perhaps because the men saw no distinction between art and life, the women become wives. In close succession, Janey marries textile designer William Morris (26 April 1859), Lizzie weds a reluctant Dante Gabriel Rossetti (23 May 1860), and Georgie pledges her troth to Ned Burne-Jones (9 June 1860) – a promise not faithfully reciprocated.

The Burne-Jones and Morris Families, 1874. Photographer: Frederick Hollyer. National Portrait Gallery, London

Beauty lies at the philosophical heart of these three husbands. In the latter years of her life, Georgie Burne-Jones reflected on the trio: ‘Their love of beauty did not seem to me unbalanced, but as if it included the whole world and raised the point from which they regarded everything.’ (Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, vol. 1, p. 169)

Art and Artists

My sense, formed from reading Forsyth’s richly researched work of fiction, is that Gabriel’s love of beauty is based in the physicality and sensuousness of the female form. He is captive to it. When he first meets Janey in Oxford, he says: ‘You are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. I must paint you.’ And he tells Lizzie: ‘I almost afraid of trying to paint you … How can I catch all this beauty?’ His series of affairs with his models suggests he was not so afraid as to stop trying.

Ned’s love affair with beauty is more altruistic. ‘Beauty is not frivolous’, Ned tells a frugal Georgie when she baulks at buying a new bonnet. He continues:

I intend to spend the rest of my life loving beauty with all my heart … I like beauty … I want to make things beautiful. I have no politics, and no party, and no particular hope. I only know that beauty is very beautiful, and softens and comforts and inspires and rouses and lifts up and never fails.

For William Morris, known to his friends as Topsy, life is about creating beauty, not only appreciating and replicating it. Topsy commissions his architect friend Philip Webb to work with him on the design of the Red House, home to the Morris family in the early years of Topsy and Janey’s marriage. When Topsy shows Janey around the house for the first time, she is overcome by its beauty. ‘It’s like a church’, she says. Topsy casts her ‘a quick look of approval. “That’s it! That’s what we wanted. Houses for people can be just as beautiful as houses for God.”’

Original design for ‘Trellis’ wallpaper, 1862. William Morris. ‘Trellis’ was Morris’s first wallpaper design. It was inspired by the garden at the Red House.

On Reflection

As I read Beauty in Thorns, I began to wonder whether the male artists were seeking to transfer beauty into a static form, while the women – seeking beauty in equal measure – wanted to be awakened to it. It’s the difference between fixing and releasing. Did the painterly princes merely want to awaken beauty in order to claim it for themselves? Did their princesses, instead, want to cease being an object in another’s life and become the subject of their own?

Those are questions to ponder further…


Except for the extract from Georgie Burne-Jones’s Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, all quotes in this post are from Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns. The words attributed to the Reverend George Browne Macdonald, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ned Burne-Jones and William Morris are Forsyth’s creation. I have based my own opinions of the men’s characters and perspectives on her interpretations.

Details of names, marriages, and the construction of the Red House are factual.

Links and Sources

  • Forsyth, Kate. Beauty in Thorns. North Sydney, NSW: Penguin Random House. Australia, 2017. Penguin Random House’s website has several resources relating to Beauty in Thorns including an extract and book club notes.
    Kate Forsyth’s website and blog provide ample further reading for those wanting to explore the stories behind the novel. On YouTube and Pinterest, you can see Forsyth’s creative process for the novel unfold.
  • Burne-Jones, Georgiana. Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones. London: Macmillan, 1904.
  • William Morris’s Red House in Bexleyheath is now a National Trust property. Details here.
  • To discover more about the women mentioned in this post, visit The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood website.
  • A useful source of information for Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti is Art UK, and for William Morris, visit the Victoria and Albert Museum website.
    There are wonderful examples of Burne-Jones’sRossetti’sMorris’s art on the Tate website. You will see Janey Burden, as in Prosperpine (below), re-created in the work of each artist.

Proserpine, 1874. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Photo © Tate. CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05064