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Notes on Form, Techniques, and Subject Matter in Modern English Tanka

by Michael McClintock

In form, techniques, and subject matter, the modern English-language tanka shows wide variation and invention, and appears disinclined to observe any rigid set of ‘rules’ or conventions.

As might be expected in the early stages of adaptation, English-language tanka poets first imitated the Japanese models and strictly adhered to a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure and pattern of short/long/short/long/long lines deduced from them. Generally, this resulted in poems that were too long in comparison to Japanese tanka or that were padded or chopped to meet the fixed number of syllables. Over time, most tanka poets set aside the 5-7-5-7-7 requirement and explored a more resilient free-verse approach, grappling along the way with the issues of using or not using rhyme, titles, and alternate lineation schemes. The work of the leading translators was assiduously studied. Most of these, such as Makoto Ueda, Stephen D. Carter, Sanford Goldstein, and Laurel Rasplica Rodd rendered their translations in five lines. There were other approaches, however. H. H. Honda advocated the use of the quatrain for tanka; Kenneth Rexroth occasionally used a four-line structure in his renderings of Japanese tanka. Hiroaki Sato continues to favour the one-line format for his translations.

While poets continue to experiment, the contemporary tanka in English may be described as typically an untitled free-verse short poem having anywhere from about 12 to 31 syllables arranged in words and phrases over five lines, crafted to stand alone as a unitary, aesthetic whole — a complete poem. Excepting those written in a minimalist style, a tanka is about two breaths in length when read aloud. During the last 30 years, it has emerged as a robust short form that is identifiable as a distinct verse type while being extremely variable in its details.

Other structural features and many of the techniques and subjects of English-language tanka are represented in the examples discussed below.

For every tanka set aside here for scrutiny, 10 others might have been chosen to serve the same purpose. Within the five lines, all manner of variation takes place. None of these configurations is rigidly observed; the name I have used for each is meant only to describe the structure and lineation.

Few tanka poets write consistently in a single, unvaried pattern of line arrangement. The alternation of short and long lines frequently varies. While the majority of tanka in English appear with a left-aligned or ‘flush left’ margin, many poets employ indentations, staggered lines, and other spacing variations. These arrangements emphasise certain lines, phrases, or single words, or give the poem a sense of movement or shape on the page that is intended to enhance the meaning, tone, or emotion evoked. A few variations appear simply to be matters of the poet’s (or editor’s) own taste, or purely cosmetic, such as the centering of lines the example below:

[Centred, 5-7-5-7-7 formal pattern]

Just out of earshot,
the periodic blinking
of a night airplane,
not quite far enough away
to be as close as the stars

Gerald St. Maur

Other fundamental elements of structure are also at work, creating tension and interplay of form with content. These have to do with cadence, rhythm, accents, or stresses, the use of end-stopped lines or rhetorical line breaks, caesuras within lines and phrases, enjambment, juxtaposition of images, or a pairing of distinct strophe-antistrophe components within the poem. These elements — not the number of syllables in a line — are  the decisive elements in tanka structure as written in English. In contrast to Japanese tanka, which mostly use a fixed, prescribed form with a long history of formal conventions relating to mechanics, techniques, and subject matter, tanka in English have relatively few such constraints or requirements in pattern or organisation. In English-language tanka, we find intuitive, functional, and organic approaches to form and content that result in a complex but necessary interrelationship of parts; no bodies of ‘rules’ need to be followed to achieve the desired effect of the whole. While informal syntax and the patterns and vocabulary of common speech predominate, these very broad commonalities display remarkable, polychromatic diversity in tone, mood, and expression.

As with many tanka in this set of examples, this poem by Ruby Spriggs reflects traditional tanka subject matter, involving topics of love, sorrow, personal remembrance or introspection, or nature:

[Conventional flush left, 5-7-5-7-7 formal pattern]

a sudden loud noise
all the pigeons of Venice
at once fill  the sky 
hat is how it felt when your hand
accidentally touched mine

Ruby Spriggs

Often, tanka read like notes from a diary and convey a single event that has some special significance in the poet’s life or consciousness — a realisation, personal insight, or memory. Spriggs’s poem also shows how the basic structural features of Japanese tanka have been adapted. The pattern of short/long/short/long/long lines is intact, and the use of 31 syllables in five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 parallels the pattern of 31 sound units of Japanese tanka. This is one of the formal patterns tried by many poets for English-language tanka during the early days of experimentation and adaptation; some still use it today, and in the literature it is frequently referred to as ‘traditional’. It results in a poem that is, however, almost twice as long in time duration as a Japanese tanka, with a good deal more information.

‘Venice’ won first prize in the traditional category in the first North American Tanka Contest held in 2001. The judge, Professor Jan Walls, author and Oriental scholar at Simon Fraser University, commented on how the poem “takes the familiar touristic image of startled pigeons simultaneously taking flight, and unexpectedly relates the cause/effect sequence to a personal romantic incident. The imagery is fresh and startling; the content is powerfully meaningful . . . at the personal level; and the craft is exquisite — it reads like a tanka, but will be immediately appreciated by any English reader who may know nothing about tanka.”

Here, Margaret Chula also uses the 5-7-5-7-7 formal pattern:

the black negligee
that I bought for your return
 hangs in my closet
      day by day plums ripen
      and are picked clean by birds

Margaret Chula

Both poems are dramatic and anecdotal, telling a story in few words but with intensity and conviction. However, here indentation is used to emphasise the poem’s two component movements. Rather than a personal comment or reflection, Margaret Chula’s final two lines offer a stark ‘objective correlative’ to the image and mood of the preceding three lines, encapsulating the poet’s thoughts in implicit metaphor. The juxtaposition is surprising, and the despairing realisation is made even more powerful by not being named — the bleak image of the ripened plums “picked clean by birds” says it all. Unlike the Spriggs poem, the two images here are not directly compared but set in sharp contrast. The effect approaches, but is not quite, surreal.

William Ramsey’s tanka  illustrates a reversal in the basic two-component structure, the couplet element coming first and bearing the poem’s single image:

a gnat’s smudge
                   on my forearm — 
                           the smallest death
                           i have known this year
                           but typical

William Ramsey

The poet’s response in the final three lines is made more acerbic by ‘falling back’ to a short, concluding line.

Consider also the movement Geraldine Clinton Little’s poem:

ah, summer, summer,
 how quickly you fade. I cut
rusted zinnias,
       place them on a glassed table-
top, as if time could double.

Also a poem of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, this tanka is more complicated, having three parts and given momentum by the use of enjambment: “ah summer, summer / how quickly you fade” functions as the strophe, “I cut / rusted zinnias, / place them on a table- / top”. is the antistrophe, and the poem’s sliding to a rest on “as if time could double” functions as a kind of epode. The enjambed strophes and abrupt shifts generate tension and underscore the poet’s wistful contemplation of time’s evanescence. The reflected double-image of the zinnias on the glass tabletop is an especially powerful image, again showing the use of an objective correlative to convey both idea and emotion while preserving aesthetic distance.

Carol Purington’s poem, below, is distinctly lyrical.

The days I did not sing
              the nights I did not dance
                     their joy
                        spiralling out of the throat
                              of a hermit thrush

The parallel construction of the opening two lines is that of a song. The strong accents on the final words in each line move the poem forward with a sense of ‘lifting’. The poem’s progression from the general “The days I did not sing” to the specific and beautiful “throat of a hermit thrush” is lilting — almost like a bird in flight. The staggered line arrangement visually assists this sense of movement. If its lines were all aligned left, how different this poem would read!

In this poem by Gerald St. Maur, also quoted above, the first three lines could stand alone as a haiku, a feature that may be found in many contemporary English tanka:

Just out of earshot,
the periodic blinking
of a night airplane,
not quite far enough away
to be as close as the stars

Such tanka combine the objective imagery of a haiku with a subjective response or personal reflection in the poem’s concluding lines; the order can also be reversed. It is the subjective element in a tanka that chiefly distinguishes it from most haiku, in addition to its greater length. Here, the concluding two-line component is a simple, personal reflection or response to the initial image, placing the silent aircraft in the context of a starry sky.  The twist in sense here — that the aircraft is the more remote, alien object — gives a postmodern slant to the traditional tanka theme of loneliness.

A feature of many tanka in English is the employment of one of several conceptually related devices or methods that are used to change the direction of the tanka between the first and second components. This transition is often called the ‘pivot’. Sometimes it is achieved simply by juxtaposing two images, or an image and a response, or by the movement from strophe to antistrophe. At other times the pivot functions like the volta, or turn, in a sonnet, where the sense of the poem is momentarily suspended and a new idea introduced — this is what occurs in the line “their joy” in Carol Purington’s poem, and in the line “not quite far enough away” in Gerald St. Maur’s tanka. Ruby Spriggs accomplishes her pivot with a hemistich or half line: “that is how I felt . . .” Sometimes, too, the pivot in a tanka is achieved by a line that completes the thought or image of the first component, or strophe, and can be read also as the first line of the second component, or antistrophe. In other words, the sense of the line is shared by both components, but changes in meaning or significance from one to the other. The term for this technique is ‘zeugma’. Francine Porad is especially adept in using pivots of this kind. Here is an example, in which “as the train passes” is the shared line:

a woman
holds the waving child high
as the train passes
where . . . when . . .
did summer disappear

In such tanka, the strophe and antistrophe are the key units of composition. Some critics appear to think that the presence of a pivot in tanka is essential, taking the Duke Ellington view of rhythm and jazz: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Must all tanka have such a pivot point?  Most tanka in English seem to, though it frequently can be so subtle as to go unnoticed. At other times, the pivot is emphatic and surprising.  There is, in fact, no requirement for the use of this technique, in English-language or Japanese practice. Its absence does not mean the poem is not a tanka.

Robert Kusch writes a tanka in a more minimalist style:

Lightning on
the horizon
my child
takes a huge
ite from a pear

Kusch uses a syntactic pivot: two images are simply juxtaposed, or abutted, without transition or even punctuation. No subjective element or stated interpretation appears; we assume only a temporal contiguity between the two images. The immediacy and effect are very haiku-like and defy paraphrase or elaboration. Such force holds the combined images together so that they fuse into a third image that is stunning, magical, wordless, yet utterly mysterious in meaning or significance. The Japanese have a word for it, ‘yugen’, meaning sublimity, or mysterious depth.

Another minimalist poem is LeRoy Gorman’s droll “at the funeral”, a mere 14 syllables:

at the funeral of
one who said
God is dead
God is

The structure is Skeltonic, tumbling from six syllables to one, ending emphatically on the word “dead”. It is a one breath in length, like a haiku, a trait shared by most minimalist tanka. Unlike haiku, it contains no image. For these reasons, and because of its content, some might argue that the poem is more akin to senryu, haiku’s satirical cousin. Many minimalist tanka present this same quandary of classification — would they not be haiku or senryu if written in the conventional three lines of those genres?  It is not a problem that will be resolved here; like most minimalist poems, Gorman’s poem seems to take an insurgent posture toward any comfortable definition. It represents a crossover tanka, of which there are many in this anthology, most notably by ai li, Fay Aoyagi, Sanford Goldstein, Philip Rowland, Alexis Rotella, and others. They are so numerous, in fact, that perhaps they represent a subgenre of tanka in English.

Many English-language tanka might in fact be regarded by most Japanese as being a subgenre of tanka, known as kyoka, or ‘mad poems’, containing satire, sometimes even crudity, with little or no attempt to be lyrical. These poems are sometimes like an epigram, humorous and opinionated, occasionally acerbic and biting. At the other end of the spectrum, they may be playful or light in mood or, like Gorman’s, gently mocking in tone. The kyoka is to the tanka what senryu is to the haiku. Like senryu, they can be rather sharp, penetrating observations of human faults, foibles, and failings. A confessional quality is present in those where the poet is both observer and observed.

Some of the finest English-language tankaists frequently write in kyoka style. Here is one by Laura Maffei:

energy waning
as the afternoon wears on
a grim coworker
leans into my cubicle
whispering conspiracy

Such comic portrayals of modern life, often containing social or political commentary, are very much the substance, voice, and character of tanka in English, and represent its departure from the traditional subject matter of Japanese tanka. Leatrice Lifshitz’s encounter with a green pepper, below, is a further illustration:

             who am not really
                  a cook
             poke gently into
                 a green pepper

At present, there seems little practical reason to separate these seemingly kyoka-like poems and make them a subgenre, or to place them in a class by themselves and call them something else; they are too much a part of what tanka is in English. Values are based on inclusions as much as exclusions.

Anne Mckay’s tanka represents still another approach to structure, introducing the dimension of space:

               by north light
the potter’s wheel
                            small dreams
                            within the curve of her hands

The words appear to float on the page, invested with light, eddying toward the final image of the potter’s hands.  This tanka is one of a series by Mckay appearing in The Tanka Anthology (see editor’s note at end) that deal with the subject of light, invoked as both physical phenomenon and metaphysical presence. The poem’s form accords perfectly with its content and delicate lyricism.

In the foregoing examples, punctuation either is absent or kept to the bare minimum. This is typical of most tanka in English. Only a few poets — Alexis Rotella and Pamela Miller Ness are two — consistently use periods [full stops] at the end of lineated sentences or at the end of a poem; they also use initial capitals. These features give their tanka a very slight, relative formality. Other poets, such as George Swede and Karina Young, capitalise only the first word of a tanka. Many have used different approaches over the years.

Metrical patterns, or accented metric feet, are certainly possible in the English-language tanka. Such patterns would be meaningless in Japanese, which places a uniform stress on the last syllable of each word. English syllables do not equate to the Japanese sound unit; converting English syllables to Japanese sound units, or vice versa, is not a one-for-one exchange. Some tanka in this collection do, in fact, show deliberate use of accentual meter in their lines, adding to the poem’s other dimensions of rhythm, sound, and fluidity when read silently or aloud. In the following tanka by Cherie Hunter Day, the basic metric unit is the iambic foot, one short or unstressed syllable followed by a stressed or long syllable (lines one to four):

through patterned glass
see how the water bends
the flower stems
my heart and many other
optical illusions

The iambic rhythm breaks in the fifth line, where a dactyl foot (OP-ti-cal) is followed by an amphibrach foot (il-LU-sions), playfully emphasising the sense and meaning of the words.

While set rhyme schemes have never been used in tanka, traditional end rhyme and internal rhyme do occasionally occur. Slant and half-rhyme, involving assonance and consonance, appear with greater frequency. These uses of rhyme work in conjunction with alliteration, caesura, and line breaks to emphasise certain words or phrases, to control the pace or cadence in a tanka, to build or release tension, and to help make one movement in a poem distinct from another. Assonance in the last two lines of this tanka by John Barlow conveys a subtle and unusual musicality:

and you open
your deep-green eyes —
blackbirds stir
somewhere in the conifers

Almost all issues continue to be argued and debated by poets, scholars, and critics. James Kirkup in Andorra argues in favour of a strict adherence to a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic measure in English. Gerald St. Maur has advocated the use of titles for individual tanka, while others argue that in a poem so brief this is tantamount to adding a sixth line. A compromise might be the occasional use of a simple headnote; in Japan, a headnote often appears with a tanka to provide information pertinent to the poem’s composition, such as where it was written, on what occasion or event, or some other detail. However, these headnotes do not function as titles do. Of course, titles are used for tanka collections, sequences or ‘strings’, and other groupings. A tanka sequence by Ruby Spriggs, “After Chemo”, is included in this anthology as an example.

While the method and craft of tanka in English varies considerably from the conventional rigours of Japanese practice, clearly both approaches result in verses that manifest and share similar poetic mood and temper. In each, the powers of compression, nuance, implication, and understatement are orchestrated to evoke emotion or describe an image or experience. Variations that do exist reflect differences in culture and language. We can speak of ‘the tanka spirit’ as a quality in the poems that is held broadly in common, in much the same way as haiku poets throughout the world today speak of ‘the haiku spirit’. The tanka of Japan appear to embody intrinsic values of expression and understanding that are robust enough to not only survive but also thrive when transferred to another culture and language.

It may be argued that the differences between Japanese tanka and its English-language counterpart are less important than the intrinsic similarities. They indeed have much in common, but beyond a certain undefined point — one that is perhaps intuited only — differences are certainly to be expected and even encouraged, so that each may take full advantage of the resources of its own language and culture. Tanka in English may deviate within the tanka tradition in order to create their own distinct flavour and build their own integrity, while at the same time preserving the formal and mechanical techniques that are fundamental to all tanka.

Editor’s note: This article has been adapted by the author from the “Introduction” he wrote to The Tanka Anthology edited by Michael McClintock, Pamela Miller Ness, and Jim Kacian (Red Moon Press, 2003). It appears here with his kind permission and is also available on the Tanka Online website.

Michael McClintock lives in California in the United States. Until his retirement in 2001, he was principal librarian and administrator for the County of Los Angeles Public Library. Michael has a new book coming out in 2018 from Snapshot Press (UK). Coyote Meadows is a collection of haiku and tanka and won the Snapshot Press Book Award for 2017).