Introduction to Tanka

by Patricia Prime

Short songs is the direct translation for tanka, the designation by the Japanese, in modern times, to their oldest traditional form of poetry.  Originally called waka, meaning ‘songs of Japan,’ and composed for chanting aloud to musical accompaniment, the form has a history of more than1,300 years.

Amelia Fielden, Short Songs, 2003

Tanka was the poetic form used by the Japanese imperial court, the highborn, and was the form used especially by women in order to write notes to their lovers. Tanka is a form of lyric poetry and expresses the intense spontaneous feeling of the poet. Many English-language tanka attempt to retain this musical element through the careful choice of words to create a flowing quality.  In the West we have a long tradition of lyric poetry, so tanka is in many ways much easier for the Western mind to relate to than haiku.

You may start by reading tanka. Maybe just read a few and think, “I don’t get it”. But something intrigues you so you read a few more. And then you find one that works for you and suddenly see the appeal. What has happened is that you are looking at things more closely. You have set aside some of the time you used to use for other activities and you are just appreciating more, looking more deeply into your surroundings.  The new way of seeing is about the meaning that is in things that are always seen but seldom noticed.

When writing tanka in English, it is usually in the form of five lines of about 31 syllables in a sequence 5-7-5-7-7 or short-long-short-long-long; although many poets ignore this pattern and compose their tanka more freely. Compared to haiku, more words can be used in tanka and emotions and feelings can be expressed freely.

Amelia Fielden says in her book, Short Songs, “As tanka are intentionally fragmentary, they are unpunctuated in Japanese, which has no upper-case/lower-case lettering”.  So it is entirely up to the individual poet as to whether to punctuate, use an initial capital letter, end with a full stop, or use minimal punctuation for clarity and understanding.

In tanka the writer turns to direct perception of his or her emotions and surroundings. They link the importance of the moment with their feelings, emotions and perceptions about those moments and become aware of the wonder in simple events.

What I enjoy is the connection one feels to the poet, as in this poem:

the day sinks
into a shadowed sea –
a board-rider
his hand almost touching
a blood red sun

– ron moss
Commended, Yellow Moon 17, winter, 2005

Most of us have witnessed the moments when the sun sets over the sea, and can feel close to this poem because of our shared joy in the experience.

But tanka can go beyond this simple connection. Within tanka there can be a movement of time, place, person, thing, or voice to create a leap or define a new relationship. A change in time means that if one part of the verse is set in the past, the other section can be set in another time frame. This movement in time allows the poet to move out of reality and into the realms of fantasy or imagination:

come with me
in cherry blossom time,
then surely
you will start to share
my passion for Japan

– Amelia Fielden
Short Songs, 2003

A change of place can also occur in the tanka, and a change in persona enables the poet to write one part of the tanka as if one person is thinking or doing something and in the second part another person can have a different opinion or action. The voice, too, can be shown to change from singular to plural or from plural to singular:

by the warm sun
the fog
I will write all day
thinking of you

– Patricia Prime
Mohammed H. Siddiqui, Newsletter, summer, 2005

Comparisons and associations that are an integral part of a haiku are also seen in tanka. There can be parallels between situations and things and also parallels drawn between human feelings and things.  The use of a shared adjective or verb is another way of tying the two halves of a tanka together to make a complete poem:

Dressing to meet you
after this long absence
my narrow bed
piled high
with clothes

– Beverley George
Ribbons, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2005

The most tanka-like aspect of tanka is creating and using this pivot. Tanka stretches the two parts so that they form tension, and the pivot is the bridge that draws the two images together:

now that you’ve gone
the rose
that you planted
in the window box
has flowered at last

– Martin Lucas
Rose Haiku, Ed. Angela Leuck, 2005

Modern tanka is unlimited in its range of topic or emotion, unlike the traditional Japanese waka. The natural world can be interwoven with human emotion and themes can range from the erotic to the political. This wide range of subject matter should still, however, primarily convey human emotion.

Tanka allows one a feeling for a subject. Realising that we all have feelings about almost everything, and the way in which our environment affects us, is a valuable lesson. This is the value of writing tanka for oneself, even if they are never shared or published. And in the end the day is made better because what one has chosen to record in this very specific way is not only personal, but potentially universal.


Editor’s note: This article has been specially written for this webpage. Patricia Prime, a well-known writer of haiku, tanka, haibun and renga, is co-editor of Kokako magazine and a widely published interviewer and reviewer. Patricia lives in Auckland, New Zealand.