How To Write Tanka by Miriam Sagan

For those of you who are interested in experimenting with the form, but aren’t sure how to get started, I’m re-blogging this article.

Tanka: How to Write An Ancient Japanese Poetic Form in Contemporary English

The short Japanese forms are some of the best ways to capture image, feeling, and a sense of what is fleeting in human life. The tanka is the original Japanese poetry form, older than the haiku. Like all poetic forms that migrate from one culture and language to others, tanka has changed in its history. The tanka written in contemporary English certainly isn’t identical to the classical Japanese, but as poets we are lucky to have access to this pure and lyrical short form. Here is the basic grid for the tanka:

TANKA Form

Line 1–5 syllables or less
Line 2–7 or less
Line 3–5 or less
Line 4–7 or less
Line 5–7 or less

You can see how it developed into the haiku, which is essentially the first three lines. But the five line form gives you more time to paint a picture. The subject matter for tanka is less restrictive than haiku, and is often about love. It is the basic form in traditional Japanese poetry. In the following tanka, translated by William Higginson, the first two lines are emotional, and the last three move into a view of nature.

thoughts of her
unendurable, I go there…
the winter’s night’s
river-wind is chill
and plovers are crying
Ki no Tsurayuki

History of Tanka

Tanka is over a thousand years old. It flourished during Japan’s Heian period (794-1185 A.C. E.) Any educated or cultured person could–and did–write tanka as a kind of appreciation–whether of cherry blossom viewing or a romantic night. Tanka wasn’t the province of poets–any literate person could be a poet. Writers often choose a paper and ink that matched the mood of the tanka and sent it with a flower. Tanka was revitalized in the early 20th century–and made more personal and emotionally direct–by Yosano Akiko. She was an early feminist who at first shocked her readers by the direct eroticism in her tanka collected in Tangled Hair. Here three of her tanka:

Disregarding right and wrong,
The next world,
Fame,
We face each other
Loving and loved.

***

You young men!
Don’t you think about love,
Want love
Are you blind
To these red lips?

***

After my bath
At the hot spring,
These clothes
As rough to my skin
As the world!

(From TANGLED HAIR by Akiko Yosano– published in l901. Translated by Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda, Cheng & Tsui 2002.)

Tanka does not have to be about love, however. The Japanese poet Shiki was bedridden the last years of his life, and wrote directly from the experience:

not knowing in the least
when this illness of mine
will fade, will heal,
and still I have had these autumn flower seeds
garden-sown

(From Shiki Masaoka, SONGS FROM A BAMBOO VILLAGE,
published posthumously in l904, translated by Sanford
Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda, Tuttle, l998. These
poems cover a period from 1882 to 1902.)

Today, tanka is still widely written in Japan. Young writers continue the form and often send it as a text message–the poetic equivalent of a snapshot.

Tanka in English
Today, tanka is written widely in English. Haiku probably has more followers, but tanka is catching up. The poet Elizabeth Searle Lamb, called the “first lady of haiku” also wrote tanka. Two examples from her, written when she was in her eighties, exemplify the tanka spirit.

I walk and walk
through the house to find
the light I must have left on
~oh, July’s
full moon!

In this one, there is the charming contrast between the writer’s idea of what is happening and the actuality of the full moon–which comes as a kind of surprise at the end. The tanka is divided into a three line phrase and a two line cap–typical of traditional tanka. And then there is the following tanka, both humorous and sad:

too many hours–
she calls Emergency Response
just to hear
someone’s voice
speak her name

While the first tanka hinges on both perception and an image of light, the second is more in the social sphere. Yet it also uses the senses–in this case, sound.
Michael McClintock is a well-known practitioner of tanka in English. Although tanka are written individually, they can be grouped together for a a good effect. The following are part of a selection published in “Santa Fe Poetry Broadside.” (sfpoetry.org)

just over
the ridge
that world
that goes on
forever

three days I’ve waited
for you to cross the bridge
to my house;
at night, hearing hard rain
and a distant torrent

one flash
and it was gone —
a meteor,
at the time of sunset,
seen through honeysuckle vines

There is obvious motion, and association, from one tanka to the next here. McClintock explains: “The poems were not written as a sequence, but individually. In grouping my poems, I try to arrange them as movements within a single piece, as here. The resulting sequence is more related to how a symphony or sonata is constructed …. But I make sure that every poem also stands alone. That was also the method used in my book Letters in Time: Sixty Short Poems (Hermitage West, 2005).”

Tanka Exercises
To get started writing your own tanka, the best approach is to begin spontaneously. Try writing the tanka with a loose hand–both metaphorically and actually. That is, don’t strain for effect, capture the moment, image, or feeling, and then revise later. In Japanese, this technique is called “following the brush.”
Here are some tanka writing exercises.
1. Get a special tanka notebook, small in size, that you can carry around with you. Write a tanka a day for a week or a month–then write a tanka per week for a year. When you revise, consider discarding the ones that don’t work, and only gently fidgeting with those you like. The end result will have vitality.
2. Keep a tanka diary. In your usual journal, add a tanka to a prose entry any time you write. Does it further the prose? Contrast to it? This is a variation on the Japanese form the haibun–which combines prose and haiku.

3. Take a tanka field trip. Go someplace you find inspirational–the woods, a garden, museum, cafe, pocket park–and write a tanka sequence. See if you can write 5-10 in an hour. Respond to the scene around you–and use your senses. Again, keep the ones you like best and arrange them together. Individual tanka do not have titles–but a sequence may.

An excellent example of a group of tanka all written on one subject, and interspersed with prose, is Renee Gregorio’s collection Watershed, subtitled “Akido Tanka.” (Tres Chicas Press). Gregorio, a poet and martial arts practitioner, writes directly about akido:

he charges me
fist furled and uncoiling
timing’s everything
as I make my way around
what would otherwise floor me

and also about the influence of the art in her life:

after all of this
I make a pie and catch myself
using effort
as I sift white flour
into the green bowl

Tanka Resources

1. The Tanka Society of America is a terrific resource for tanka writers–whether advanced or just beginning. They have an excellent publication, “Ribbons,” which is open to submissions to both TSA members and nonmembers alike. The magazine includes a generous sampling of tanka, essays and reviews, and noteworthy news. It also has a special section called “Tanka Cafe.” Here a prompt is given on a theme to inspire your tanka writing. More information can be found at http://www.tankasocietyofamerica.com/. TSA’s editorial philosophy is stated as: “The TSA is seeking fresh material of the highest tanka standard to present to our readers. Any tanka with a sensibility that distinguishes the form will be considered. Therefore, we welcome different syllable counts, varying individual styles and techniques, plus we’re open as well to diverse yet appropriate subject material.”
2. Knowledgeable editor Jane Reichhold runs the excellent AHA site that covers Japanese forms. The site provides definition, examples, and links. For tanka specifics, look athttp://www.ahapoetry.com/tanka.htm
3. American Tanka is a U.S. publication dedicated solely to the form. Their editorial policy emphasizes the contemporary approach. “Many writers of English-language tanka use less than 31 syllables to achieve the form in English. American Tanka publishes tanka of five lines that are concise and evocative, are true to the purpose and spirit of tanka, and echo the original Japanese rhythm and structure.” http://www.americantanka.com/

ALL TANKA USED WITH PERMISSION OF THE AUTHORS/TRANSLATORS

This article first appeared in “Writer’s Digest” and is copyrighted to Miriam Sagan.

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