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.


Ruined by a Fondness for Beer—Part III

In Part II of ‘On Being Ruined by a Fondness for Beer’, I left Derwent Moultrie Coleridge languishing in Sydney’s Darlinghurst Gaol. Having had the misfortune to find employment at two schools that then closed down (Geelong Grammar School in Victoria and St Mark’s Collegiate School in Macquarie Fields west of Sydney), Coleridge had resorted to the companionship of an old friend—alcohol.

An Elegiac Mood

But all is not yet lost for the banished son of a distinguished British educator and author. Coleridge combines his drinking with the family trade—writing. The rhythms of 19th century English poetry would have been second nature to Coleridge. He had grown up under the influence of his grandfather (Samuel Taylor Coleridge), his uncle (Hartley Coleridge), and his family’s friends and acquaintances (including William Wordsworth and John Moultrie).

Coleridge’s first published poem (as discovered to date via Trove Australia) appeared in the Empire newspaper on 29 May 1866. The poem is a lament for the death in Sydney of the 20-year-old Louis d’Orléans, Prince of Condé (the first member of a European royal family to visit Australia). Louis had been part-way through a world tour when he arrived at Port Jackson in April 1866, but he was not in good health and news of the death of his grandmother, Maria Amalia, ‘was so severe as to cause a fatal relapse’. His funeral procession took place before a ‘multitude of spectators’ who voiced frequent ‘exclamations of sorrow’ (Empire 29 May 1866: 5)—a sentiment echoed in Coleridge’s ‘plaintiff requiem’.

Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, 1868. National Library of Australia MS51. http://nla.gov.au/nla.ms-ms51-12-1283-s1

Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, 1868. National Library of Australia MS51.

Oddly enough, Coleridge’s next poem could have had a similarly mournful theme. In March 1868, Sydney’s newspapers published horrified reports of the assassination attempt on Queen Victoria’s 21-year-old son, Prince Alfred. (Alfred was the second European royal to attempt an Antipodean tour—one wonders whether his nephew, the future King George V, felt some trepidation when he set foot in Sydney in 1881 as the third royal visitor). Alfred survived his gunshot wound, and Coleridge was able to write a hymn of thanksgiving rather than another requiem. The hymn (set to music by William Cordner) opened a promenade concert in Hyde Park to celebrate the prince’s continued recovery.

Coleridge’s thanksgiving poem was published first in the Sydney Morning Herald (21 March 1868: 6) and then in newspapers across New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. It also found its way into a poetry collection titled Prince Alfred’s Wreath. The book’s proceeds were directed to a public subscription fund (established no doubt with pangs of loyalist relief) that resulted in the building of a new Sydney hospital named in the prince’s honour—the Royal Prince Alfred.

Coleridge’s melancholic march continued some years later with a poem for the funeral of the famous explorer and prominent landowner William Charles Wentworth. (Wentworth had died in England in 1872 but, in accordance with his wishes, his body was returned to Sydney and a state funeral conducted in May 1873.) Coleridge’s maudlin theme flowed on into 1874. In March, he published a short poem honouring the recently deceased comic actor Charles Young and, in May, he took up the cause, on the widow’s behalf, of Emmanuel Jacinto (aka Jesson), a Portuguese man who had drowned in a boating accident on Watsons Bay.

Punch Staff Papers (1872). Frontispiece.

Punch Staff Papers (1872). Frontispiece.

Between the 1868 assassination attempt and the 1874 death of Jacinto, Coleridge’s poems appeared sporadically in colonial newspapers and he found some employment on the staff of Sydney’s Punch magazine. Despite his modest success, he remained financially dependent on his parents. The preface to the 1872 Punch Staff Papers (which included four of Coleridge’s poems) makes the situation plain: the ‘literary man’ in Australia is ‘comparatively underpaid’, ‘despised for his poverty’, and his talent is ‘unappreciated’ (iv).

A ‘Most Particularly Short Man’

'Mr. Justice Stareleigh.' Players Cigarettes.

‘Mr. Justice Stareleigh.’ Players Cigarettes.

Perhaps seeking another string to his impecunious bow, Coleridge tried his hand on the stage. At Sydney’s School of Arts in 1876, he joined the company presenting Pickwick, a play based on Charles Dickens’ novel The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Coleridge played the role of Mr Justice Stareleigh. In Dickens’ novel, Stareleigh is ‘a most particularly short man, and so fat, that he seemed all face and waistcoat’. He had ‘two queer little eyes’ and ‘one broad pink face’.

Did Coleridge’s own physique match that of the fictional character? Certainly he was a short man, standing at a height of only 5’ 3” (160 cm).  This fact is recorded plainly in one of Darlinghurst Gaol’s entry books.

A Further Fall from Grace

While the name ‘Derwent Moultrie Coleridge’ crops up in 19th century newspapers as a ship’s passenger or when letters from home await his collection, and when he finds employment or attends social engagements, it unfortunately also appears in court reports and prison logs.

Water Police Court. 11 June 1868.

Water Police Court. 11 June 1868.

The first court appearance is in 1868 when Coleridge is brought before the water police magistrate on a charge of drunkenness and is faced with the choice of a five-shilling fine or two-days’  imprisonment (The Sydney Morning Herald 11 June 1868: 2). The following year, he is charged with riotous behaviour; this crime escalates his choice of punishment to 20 shillings or seven days in prison. Sadly, the publication of Coleridge’s name in the literary pages seems to coincide with its appearance in the lists for the magistrate’s court.

Family Notices

Eventually, Coleridge’s name finds its way into one further section of the newspapers— the ‘Family Notices’ (i.e. Births, Deaths and Marriages)—but not before one final twist in the tale. In 1875, now aged in his late forties, Coleridge is again brought before the water police court. He is fined for drunkenness and ‘bound over to keep the peace for six months’ (The Sydney Morning Herald 1 Nov 1875: 5)—a sentence inferring some resort to violence on Coleridge’s part. The charge itself is not unusual, but the person laying it is cause for interest. The complainant is a woman named ‘Emma Taylor’. Now, fast forward four years. Coleridge pops up once more in the Herald‘s pages, this time under the ‘Marriages’ heading. And who does he wed? … a widow by the name of Emma Taylor.

Extract from Derwent Moultrie Coleridge's death certificate.

Extract. DMC’s death certificate.

Was she the same woman who laid the complaint against him? Very probably. (As ever, further research is required to establish this.) In any case, the marriage was short-lived. Less than two years later, Coleridge was dead from a ‘diseased liver’ (unsurprising for someone addicted to alcohol) and the medically vague ‘effusion on the brain’.

One Last Journey

On the 7th of December 1880, at 8.15 in the morning, Coleridge’s funeral procession left his residence in Cleveland St, Redfern. The cortege, destined for Mortuary Station en route to Rookwood Cemetery, would have moved along a street inhabited by blacksmiths and stonemasons, coachbuilders and compositors, ironmoulders and collarmakers. (Coleridge’s old Redfern address still reflects its era’s economic times—the University of Sydney’s School of Information Technology now stands on the site of 33 Cleveland Street.)

Derwent Moultrie Coleridge, grandson of the famed poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had been sent into exile as punishment for alcoholism, financial recklessness and moral delinquency. His 30 years in the colonies of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales ended without producing the hoped for rectitude. His death did not even yield an ode of lament from his literary acquaintances. Perhaps his father’s assessment, in an 1874 letter to John Moultrie, can stand in place of a eulogy: Coleridge was ‘an odd mixture, with some talents, no judgement, much kindliness, little principle … [and] no temperance’.

Redfern Mortuary Station. Photo by Charles Bayliss, taken between 1873 and 1880. National Library of Australia.

Redfern Mortuary Station. Photo by Charles Bayliss, taken between 1873 and 1880. National Library of Australia.

Links and Sources

Items sourced via Trove Australia’s digitised newspapers resource:

Other online sources:

People named in this post with entries in the Australian Dictionary Biography:

Print sources:

  • Yarrington, W. H. H.  Prince Alfred’s Wreath: A Collection of Australian Poems.  Sydney: A. W. Douglas, 1868.
  • Coleridge, Derwent. ‘May 6th, 1873.’ (This is Coleridge’s poem for the funeral of William Charles Wentworth. Possibly the only extant copy of the poem is held at the State Library of NSW. The library catalogue mistakenly attributes the work to Coleridge’s father, also named ‘Derwent’.)
  • Punch Staff Papers.  Sydney: Punch Office, 1872.
  • Coleridge, Derwent (Snr). ‘Letter to John Moultrie’, in Hainton, Raymonde and Godfrey Hainton. The Unknown Coleridge: The Life and Times of Derwent Coleridge 1800-1883. London: Janus, 1996, p. 240. (A biography of Derwent Moultrie Coleridge’s father.)