A Definition of the Ideal Form of Traditional Tanka Written in English

by Amelia Fielden, Denis Garrison, and Robert D. Wilson


by Robert D. Wilson,  owner and managing editor of Simply Haiku

For a long time, I’ve read English tanka poetry in journals, workshops, newsletters, and anthologies that didn’t resemble the genre as I understood it. The S-L-S-L-L was missing; some of the poems contained fewer syllables than the average traditional English-language haiku. It was as if the genre was becoming an anything-goes-in-five-lines free verse poetic form without rules. Is traditional English-language tanka changing into its own entity?

My definition of traditional English-language tanka has been:

A 5-lined poem that makes use of breaks (cutting words: i.e., punctuation or ellipsis, whenever necessary), uses a meter similar to that found in Japanese tanka, makes use of Japanese aesthetics, follows as much as possible the S-L-S-L-L schemata, makes use of juxtaposition as needed, and is not a haiku or senryu masquerading as a tanka such as a five-lined poem using one or two words per line.

When I look at a traditional Japanese tanka, I hear a definite meter delineated by cutting words laid out in one line, which most English-language poets express in five lines to delineate, with the aid of punctuation, the five sections of a given tanka. As an English speaker, I realise it is almost impossible to duplicate the 5-7-5-7-7 metrical division the Japanese use as the intonations of Japanese syllabic structure are shorter than its English-language counterparts. The meaning of the word tanka is: short song. It’s called that for a specific reason. A tanka is song-like in its short metrical structure. Therefore, when an English poet composes a traditional tanka, the poet should, in my estimation, be cognisant of meter, and fashion the tanka to fall within a metrical structure that approximates Japanese tanka. To do this successfully requires English-language poets to use a S-L-S-L-L schemata using fewer syllables.

I have seen these principles uses in English tanka successfully.

through my childhood . . .
until I wake
to forgive and kiss
my dying father goodbye

Carole MacRury, In the Company of Crows

you snarl,
past bars on the cage
and my view
on preservation,
all the way down my spine

Kathy Kituai,  In Two Minds

I began to question the authenticity of the alternative forms I was reading originally with members of the online Tanka Fields Roundtable which I moderate and later with members of the online Tanka Roundtable moderated by Denis Garrison. Discussing my questions and theories with others was an education and a journey which by no means has ended. Some questions asked:

1. Can an English-language five line poem with 31 syllables or less be called a tanka?

2. Must an English-language tanka include a metrical beat that is “song-like” and similar in its visual presentation?

3. Should the S-L-S-L-L schemata indigenous to Japanese tanka be uses in English tanka?

In discussing what is and isn’t a traditional tanka in English with Denis Garrison, the publisher of Modern English Tanka, and the award-winning translator Amelia Fielden, over a period of several months, the three of us made the decision to define the gist of traditional English tanka. During this period we discussed our individual theories, which differed in many areas, shared these theories with colleagues, who in turn offered feedback and areas of disagreement, and began the tedious process of writing drafts based on said discussions and feedback, until we formed a definition of traditional English-language tanka upon which we could collectively agree.

We are not saying this is the end all and be all regarding the defining of traditional tanka. But it’s a start and hopefully, will serve as a guide for those new to writing tanka. We are in no way denigrating or invalidating experimental and avant garde tanka; nor have we attempted to define the “new” tanka. That’s for some other group to do.

Although Simply Haiku will be the first to publish our definition of traditional English-language tanka, followed by Modern English Tanka, every publication has the express permission of Denis Garrison, Amelia Fielden, and myself to reprint this definition accompanied by an attribution to the three of us.

* * *

Definition of the Ideal Form of Traditional Tanka Written in English

Parameters of Definition

Ideal form — We are not attempting in this paper to define a strict prosody to be followed formulaically, viz., for the production of tanka in accordance with a slavishly followed rule or style. Rather, we seek to describe the prosody of tanka that may be confidently used, by learners of tanka writing, as an exemplar faithful to tradition, albeit adapted for English, and that may be considered a baseline from which to begin writing tanka. Such a form is “ideal” inasmuch as a poem that complies with such prosody would meet the formal definition of traditional tanka written in English. On the other hand, we consider that, if the fundamentals of traditional tanka prosody are ignored, discarded, or subverted by any poet, the resultant quintain cannot fit the definition of a “traditional tanka written in English”.

Traditional tanka written in English — Our concern in this paper is with poems written first in English which are intended to be in the form of traditional Japanese tanka. While there are linguistic and orthographic differences between Japanese and English that cannot be fully resolved, we believe that it is possible to follow the centuries-old waka/tanka formal poetic tradition to a substantial and meaningful degree. We do not seek to define nor deal with avant-garde innovations based on tanka in this paper, nor do we seek to restrain poetic experimentation by any poet. The definition we offer should be taken for what it is intended to be, no more and no less.

Seven Essential Guidelines for “Traditional Tanka in English”

1. Five lines. The form for English tanka (which is both singular and plural) is an untitled
and unrhymed quintain.

2. Set syllable count. From 19 to 31 English syllables are permissible.

3. The syllabic length of lines is set, which creates the traditional rhythm:

  • A short-long-short-long-long syllabic pattern is ideal.
  • Syllable counts may vary from a maximum of 5-7-5-7-7 to a minimum of 3-5-3-5-5, ideally; but some flexibility within the s-l-s-l-l pattern is acceptable, e.g., 4-6-3-5-6 or 3-5-4-5-7, etc.

4. Diction: Use natural English phrasing on each line with no (or very minimal) enjambment. Do not end a line with ‘a’ or ‘the’; avoid ending a line with a preposition. Ideally, each line is one poetic utterance ending with a caesura; this is often referred to as “five phrases on five lines”.

5. Japanese tanka build and build. They do not fall away like some English poetic utterances. The 5th line of a traditional tanka is the most important and significant line. Therefore that 5th line should ideally be at least as long as the 2nd and/or 4th lines. Sometimes the 5th line can be syllabically a little shorter than line 2 or 4, providing it is a strong line in meaning and/or utterance, or continues in the reader’s mind, e.g., with an ellipsis (e.g., “so she waited …” might be okay, in the context of the rest of the tanka). A one- or two-syllable 5th line not permissible.

6. A certain amount of ambiguity/dreaming room/ma can be a desirable quality but complete obscurity is not desirable.

7. The content/theme/subject is wide-open, but tanka is lyric verse and should not be didactic. For example, a “polemic tanka” is self-contradictory.


Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Simply Haiku, summer 2009 and appears here with the authors’ permission. This definition is Copyright © 2009 by Amelia Fielden (Australia), Denis M. Garrison (USA), and Robert D. Wilson (The Philippines). Reprinting and publication of this definition, with proper attribution, is expressly permitted by the copyright-holders. Further permission requests are not required.

Amelia Fielden is an Australian professional translator of Japanese literature, an enthusiastic writer of Japanese short form poetry, and an editor. She divides her time between Canberra, the coast north of Sydney, family in Seattle, and the ‘country of her passion’, Japan. Amelia has published numerous books, including her translations, her own poetry and responsive tanka written with other Australian poets.

Denis M. Garrison was born in rural northern Iowa but has lived all over the United States. He received his early schooling in Japan and later served in Okinawa and Taiwan while in the US Air Force, and in Vietnam and North Korea while in the Navy. A lifelong photographer, Denis has lived in Maryland since 1960. After retiring from government, he became a fulltime writer, editor and publisher (Modern English Tanka Press / MET Press) from 2005 until 2014. As well as poetry and fiction, Denis also writes religious texts and has a PhD in theology from a Swedish institute.

Robert D. Wilson is the owner/managing editor of Simply Haiku, an online literary journal that showcases Japanese short form poetry. Before retirement he was the director of a community day school for troubled teenagers. Now living in the Philippines, Robert, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, served in the Vietnam War.