In 12th century Japan, poets, individually or in teams, participated in poetry contests held in the royal courts. Prizes
were at times elegant and valuable, so hundreds of poets often competed. The verse they wrote was called Tanka (tän´ka,
or "short poem"; also called Waka). A very old form even then, it was based on still more-ancient uta, songs
of Japanese mythology. Treasured collections of tanka exist from as far back as the 7th century.
The classical tanka contains 31 onji (sound-symbols, the smallest linguistic unit in Japanese poetry). Early translators,
assuming that onji correspond to English syllables (they do not), decided that the English equivalent would be a poem of 31
syllables divided into 5 lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. This syllable requirement is still very popular in English tanka,
although frequent variations occur. Since we tend to think in accentual-syllabic terms, 5 lines containing 2-3-2-3-3 beats,
respectively (regardless of the number of unaccented syllables), is probably closer to the original Japanese intent. However,
for teaching purposes, the 31 syllable format is a reliable benchmark, so it is convenient to employ it to begin.
Since I have loved you
I compare my former thoughts
To those I have now,
And realize that I then
Had no ideas at all.
...Atsutada, 10th century,
tr. Frances Stillman
Tanka, like the blues, often deal with intensely personal feelings. In the preface to Kokinshu (Collection of Ancient
and Modern Poems),
completed in 905 A.D., Ki no Tsurayuki indicated the tone of the poetry and listed some of the circumstances
under which poets such as Atsutada expressed themselves:
When they looked at the scattered blossoms of a spring morning; when they listened of an autumn evening to the falling of
the leaves; when they sighed over the snow and waves reflected with each passing year by their looking glasses; when they
were startled into thoughts on the brevity of life by seeing the dew on the grass or the foam on the water; when yesterday
all proud and splendid, they have fallen from fortune into loneliness; or when, having been dearly loved, are neglected.
Though such incentives to poetry often proved exceedingly melancholy, they served as models for tanka composition for more
than 1000 years. It is no wonder, then, that Atsutada's verse reveals subjective emotions so strong that the rest of the
world is excluded.
His poem relies almost totally on the contrast between former and present thoughts for its effect. Most early tanka, however,
compare or contrast the speaker's emotion to a seasonal phenomenon:
Although I am sure
That he will not be coming,
In the evening light
When the locusts shrilly call
I go to the door and wait.
...anon., from Kokinshu, 905 A.D. Translator unknown.
Writers of tanka quite often report emotions and make use of metaphor, symbol and other figurative devices. The subjective
nature of tanka tolerated such devices; later, writers of haiku would rebel against such subjectivity and demand a higher
degree of objectivity for their verses. Masaoka Shiki, a 19th century tanka/haiku poet, pointed out that distinction: "Any
word which can express beauty is a proper word for tanka; ...all words that can be used literally may be considered to belong
to the vocabulary of the tanka."
Don't ignore the sounds of your tanka. Though tanka and similar ku seldom rhyme except when a rhyme happens naturally, they
do employ other devices of sound such as alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia and occasional repetition.
Tanka developed as a social function--a lover writing a verse to his beloved after meeting the previous evening,
and she in return pledging continued devotion or lamenting his absence. As the tanka's popularity spread, so did its application.
Contests became methods for poets to gain fame and financial rewards. Today the Emperor still sponsors an annual tanka contest
in which millions compete for the privilege of reading the winning entry in a special ceremony before the royal court.
Forms like tanka and renga allow much more freedom to explore and express emotions than haiku usually do, so we should not
be surprised to find a "hidden agenda" in such verses. Lovers in ancient Japan were forced to find metaphors to express what
they could not say openly. In fact, the Japanese word for metaphor means "pillow word," signifying the secretiveness behind
what is written.
Traditional tanka and other Japanese-inspired patterns are governed, or at least guided, by an abundance of rules. Jane Reichhold,
in her Narrow Road to Renga, reminds us that serious writers of tanka need continually to "review once again the many
rules about linking, use of season-identifying words, relationships of images, taboos and always, the welter of old masters'
examples." In other words, poetry is not different from other segments of life: The more you know about it, the more you
can appreciate it and use it effectively.
Lest you think that all this is simple stuff, let me remind you that we are indeed simplifying here. For the serious poet,
the study and writing of tanka and similar ku can be a lifetime dedication. As Western writers we can borrow from the long
Japanese tradition and adapt it to our needs fairly easily. But deeper understanding and appreciation require reading in
Japanese culture, history, mythology, religion and literature.
But don't let those words discourage you. We start writing from where we are, so dive into tanka and write. Just remember
that there is always more to learn, more to challenge you, more to satisfy and amaze you.
© 1994, 2006 Larry Gross. Based on material
in his How To Write and Publish Poetry