Sensing Tanka: Perceiving Life Beyond the Ordinary

by David Terelinck

Much excellent tanka we read today is possibly perceived to be so because of how it involves the senses. People can relate to reading poems that bring to life the senses that we use on a daily basis. We respond to visual cues, auditory tugs, and the flavour of individual tanka. We listen acutely for the sound of the tanka, and the sounds within the tanka.

But as writers, when we pen tanka, do we consciously think of how we are actively bringing the senses into our poetry? Is this an automatic response; second nature to us? Or do we carefully consider the specific aspects of how we craft the words that convey each sense in our writing. Do we consciously choose the words that best convey the sense we are evoking in our writing? Are we searching for specific sensory imagery to connect with the reader and heighten the sensual awareness of our writing?

And do we consider the second and third level senses – those that we may not initially think of when someone talks of human senses? Those that are beyond the traditional five. In considering these questions, and the importance of sensing tanka, we have to adequately understand what the senses are.

Defining the Senses

There is no firm agreement among neurologists as to the number of senses. This is due to the differing definitions of what constitutes a sense. One definition states that an exteroceptive sense is a faculty by which outside stimuli are perceived. An example of this is a sense organ such as the ear or nose that receives and responds to stimuli originating from outside the body. The limitations with this definition come when one looks further within the body on a cellular level, and how the body responds to internal stimuli (such as chemical or mechanical responses of particular organs).

Another definition categorises human senses into groups such as chemoreception, photoreception, mechanoreception and thermoception. Again, this can be seen as a self- limiting definition that is restrictive in that it does not include categories for accepted senses such as pain and sense of time.

A broadly acceptable definition of a sense would be “A system that consists of a group of sensory cell types that responds to a specific physical phenomenon, and that corresponds to a particular group of regions within the brain where the signals are received and interpreted. ” Disputes about the number of senses typically arise around the classification of the various cell types and their mapping to regions of the brain.

There are between nine and twenty-one human senses, depending on who you ask, and how they define a sense. It is generally agreed that nine is the minimum. These are touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing (known as the 5 basic senses), and thermoception, nociception, equilibrioception, and proprioception.

The Basic Five Senses

Sight

Sight or vision is the ability of the eye(s) to focus and detect images of visible light on the retina in each eye, and determine varying colours, hues, and brightness detected by each retinal receptor. There is some disagreement as to whether this constitutes one, two or three senses. Neuroanatomists generally regard it as two senses, given that different receptors are responsible for the perception of colour and brightness.

fed up with winter
I look through a marble:
red sunset,
the rings of Saturn,
bubbles under thick pack ice

– Ingrid Kunschke (GUSTS No. 12, 2010)

This tanka coveys the concept of the sense of sight in several ways. The author is initially looking for something brighter in her life (fed up with winter). This leads her to look into a marble. In doing so she sees worlds beyond her own that exist both inside the marble, and outside in the real world.

Hearing

Hearing or audition is the sense of sound perception. Since sound is vibrations propagating through a medium such as air, the detection of these vibrations, that is the sense of the hearing, is a mechanical sense because these vibrations are mechanically conducted from the eardrum through a series of tiny bones to hair-like fibres in the inner ear which detect mechanical motion of the fibres within a range of about 20 to 20,000 hertz, with substantial variation between individuals.

strumming on the roof
refrains not played during drought
am I humming
in the identical key
farmers will be singing?

– Kathy Kituai (Straggling into Winter, 2007)

Kathy gives us a feast of sound – hum, sing, key, refrain. And the considered use of 4 ing-words gives a lyrical and musical quality to the poem that makes it sound pleasant, very much like the ping of rain on a galvanized roof.

for three dawns
the faint call of tundra swans
through a drifting mist –
once more I replay your
last message on my machine

– Linda Jeannette Ward (Scent of Jasmine and Brine, 2007)

Jeanette presents two sounds that are both opposed and linked. Opposed in that one sound is alive and animated (the tundra swans’ call), and the other is mechanised (a voice recording on an answering machine). Yet at the same time these sounds are linked by their haunting quality, and the inability to see or pin down the instigator of the sound.

Taste

Taste or gustation is one of the two main “chemical” senses. There are at least four types of tastes that “buds” (receptors) on the tongue detect, and hence there are anatomists who argue that these constitute five or more different senses, given that each receptor conveys information to a slightly different region of the brain.

The four well-known receptors detect sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, although the receptors for sweet and bitter have not been conclusively identified. A fifth receptor, for a sensation called umami, was first theorised in 1908 and its existence confirmed in 2000. The umami receptor detects the amino acid glutamate, a neurotransmitter commonly found in meat and in artificial flavourings containing monosodium glutamate. Another taste sense for ginger, mild chilli, and olive oil is perceived as a peppery tickle at the back of the throat (which senses polyphenols in unprocessed olive oil).

Note: that taste is not the same as flavour; flavour includes the smell of a food as well as its taste.

into my mouth
the ruby glow
of raspberries . . .
the taste of Valentines
he picked for me

– Linda Jeannette Ward (Scent of Jasmine and Brine, 2007)

we don’t need
the Amaretto
your mouth hint of smoke
yet sweet as the water
of mountain rivers

– Claudia Coutu Radmore (Your Hands Discover Me, 2010)

LJW has effectively used the words “ruby glow” to add an extra dimension to the taste of raspberries. On their own, the reader would arrive at the standard taste expectation. However, the use of “ruby glow” elevates the taste to something beyond the ordinary. CCR has succinctly and effectively described the taste of Amaretto in terms that would leave no reader unsure, even if they had never imbibed of it, of its unique taste.

Smell

Smell or olfaction is the other “chemical” sense. Unlike taste, there are hundreds of olfactory receptors, each binding to a particular molecular feature. Odour molecules possess a variety of features and thus excite specific receptors more or less strongly. This combination of excitatory signals from different receptors makes up what we perceive as the molecule’s smell. In the brain, olfaction is processed by the olfactory system. Olfactory receptor neurons in the nose differ from most other neurons in that they die and regenerate on a regular basis. The inability to smell is called anosmia. Some neurons in the nose are specialised to detect pheromones.

autumn rain
the coat I haven’t
worn in
over a year
still smells of her 

– Dick Whyte (Twenty Years Tanka Splendor, 2009)

you gaze at blooms
of black-boughed cherry trees
I am entranced
by the smoke of cooking-fires
drifting up through sturdy pines 

– Beverley George (Empty Garden, 2006)

Dick Whyte’s tanka speaks of smells from the past, from memory. Yet there are smells of the present-day in this – the autumn rain, and a coat that is likely infused with its own slightly musty smell from not being used. The suggestion of these scents adds a deeper level of meaning to this tanka. Beverley George’s poem is highly suggestive of smell without the direct mention of specific scents. But anyone who has sat around an outdoor campfire used for cooking would easily recall the scents this evokes. Similarly the smell of sap and bark from towering pines.

the scent
of frankincense and myrrh –
you would have liked
the highly polished timber
and admired the workmanship

– David Terelinck

The very specific use of scent in this poem is used to effectively anchor this tanka in place and setting.

Touch

Touch, also called tactition or mechanoreception, is a perception resulting from activation of neural receptors, generally in the skin including hair follicles, but also in the tongue, throat, and mucosa. A variety of pressure receptors respond to variations in pressure (firm, brushing, sustained, etc.). The touch sense of itching caused by insect bites or allergies involves special itch-specific neurons in the skin and spinal cord. The loss or impairment of the ability to feel anything touched is called tactile anesthesia. Paresthesia is a sensation of tingling, pricking, or numbness of the skin that may result from nerve damage and may be permanent or temporary.

it hasn’t stopped
where your hands
slid all over me
a deep humming
like the aftersound of bells

– Linda Jeannette Ward (Scent of Jasmine and Brine, 2007)

LJW expertly manages to weave two senses, rich with meaning, into the one tanka. However, neither overpowers the other. Each complements and elevates to raise the sensual awareness of the entire poem.

day in the garden
two under the same shower
we slide into bed
nothing between us
but the outstretched cat

– Beverley George (Empty Garden, 2006)

Beverley George says so much about touch through alluding to it, but never mentioning it directly. It is this absence of specific words that ensures the sensation of touch is heightened. The first line suggests that the gardeners, through a whole day outside, have been exposed to the touch of sunlight, perhaps wind or breeze, the feeling of their hands in soil. In the shower they have the sensation of water cascading over their naked bodies before sliding between crisp linen that rides over their skin.

Sensing Beyond the Ordinary – senses beyond the traditional

Balance and acceleration

Equilibrioception, or balance (vestibular sense), is the sense which allows an organism to sense body movement, direction, and acceleration, and to attain and maintain postural equilibrium and balance. The organ of equilibrioception is the vestibular labyrinthine system found in both of the inner ears. Technically this organ is responsible for two senses of angular momentum acceleration and linear acceleration (which also senses gravity), but they are known together as equilibrioception.

This is the sense we need to master as babies and children, in order to walk, and the one that can be severely disabled as adults following physiological injuries such as strokes and other brain trauma. The following poem encapsulates this sense to perfection. John Quinnett has managed to capture the essence of balance, and the failure of it, very succinctly in these 5 lines.

watching a toddler
take his first
teetering steps –
that’s how I walked
after my stroke

– John Quinnett (GUSTS No.12, 2010)

trying to perch
on the swaying flower
of a waterweed
in the middle of a brook
a butterfly dallies

– Mori Õgai (Modern Japanese Tanka, 1996)

Mori Õgai has layered this tanka with the sense of balance. The specific use of perch and swaying give a vivid sensation of balance amongst movement. And waterweed suggests movement and flow, further adding to the richness of this poem.

Temperature

Thermoception is the sense of heat and the absence of heat (cold) by the skin. There are specialised receptors for cold (declining temperature) and to heat. The cold receptors play an important part in the dogs sense of smell and for telling wind direction. The heat receptors are sensitive to infrared radiation and can occur in specialized organs for instance in pit vipers. The thermoceptors in the skin are quite different from the homeostatic thermoceptors in the brain (hypothalamus) which provide feedback on internal body temperature.

August with the warmth
of a Queensland holiday
in bare feet and wet hair
I boldly throw off the fleece
of a Sydney winter 

– Margaret Ruckert (Eucalypt 9, 2010)

crossing the bridge
across the border
the fire in us
could have melted
this steel

– Claudia Coutu Radmore (Your Hands Discover Me, 2010)

There is little doubt that these two tanka convey the sense of warmth. The sense of warmth in Margaret Ruckert’s poem is further emphasised with the description of throwing off the cold of a Sydney winter.

Claudia’s tanka turns up the heat to fever pitch and displays, in unmistakable terms, a boiling passion that very little can withstand.

Pain

When we touch, we touch to determine shape, texture, feel, warmth, size. We do not touch to determine if there is pain. But pain is a sensation – just like our 5 primary senses of touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing.

Nociception (physiological pain) signals near-damage or damage to tissue. The three types of pain receptors are cutaneous (skin), somatic (joints and bones) and visceral (body organs). It was previously believed that pain was simply the overloading of pressure receptors, but research in the first half of the 20th century indicated that pain is a distinct phenomenon that intertwines with all of the other senses, including touch. Pain was once considered an entirely subjective experience, but recent studies show that pain is physiologically registered in the brain. The main function of pain is to warn us about dangers. For example, we avoid touching a sharp needle or hot object or extending an arm beyond a safe limit because it hurts, and thus is dangerous. Without pain we would do many dangerous things without realizing it. Similarly, emotional pain (although not truly a sense) has the same warning capabilities.

rose arbour –
sipping perfumed tea
we avoid the barbs
that drew blood
last time we parted

– Beverley George (Empty Garden, 2006)

almost invisible
on the tip of my finger
a blue scar
painfully absorbing
the glare of summer

– Kitahar Hakush (Modern Japanese Tanka, 1996)

my blood crusts
to ochre
on the page
your words sharper
than any paper cut 

– David Terelinck (Eucalypt 5, 2008)

All of these tanka contain elements that deal with physical pain – thorny barbs from the garden, scars from physical wounds, and paper cuts. And on a deeper level, two of the tanka also relate that physical pain at an emotional level as well – word that cut and cause pain.

Direction

Magnetoception (or magnetoreception) is the ability to detect the direction one is facing based on the Earth’s magnetic field. Directional awareness is most commonly observed in birds, though it is also present to a limited extent in humans. It has also been observed in insects such as bees. Although there is no dispute that this sense exists in many avians (it is essential to the navigational abilities of migratory birds), it is not a well-understood phenomenon. One study has found that cattle make use of magnetoception, as they tend to align themselves in a north-south direction. Magnetotactic bacteria build miniature magnets inside themselves and use them to determine their orientation relative to the Earth’s magnetic field.

the coloured leaves
have hidden the paths
on the Autumn mountain
how can I find my girl,
wandering on ways I do not know? 

– Kakinomoto No Hitomaro (tr. Kenneth Rexroth, Written on the Sky, 2009)

there was a way to the moon
by a hidden path
I failed to blaze as a child
never dreaming
this need to find it again

– Linda Jeannette Ward (Scent of Jasmine and Brine, 2007)

Synesthesia

Some people experience a phenomenon called synesthesia in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another. For example, the hearing of a sound may result in the sensation of the visualization of a colour, a shape may be sensed as a smell, a colour experienced as a taste, or a sound experienced as a taste. Synesthesia is hereditary and it is estimated that it occurs in 1 out of 1000 individuals with variations of type and intensity. The most common forms of synesthesia link numbers or letters with colours.

after your goodbye kiss
the taste
of chewed-up blues
played late in the night
on a saxophone 

– Linda Jeannette Ward (Scent of Jasmine and Brine, 2007)

my brush
is led by clarinets
and violins . . .
I’ll paint
until the music stops

– Edith Bartholomeusz (Into the Sun: Selected Haiku and Tanka, 2009)

These two tanka capture the essence of interpreting one sense through another. LJW draws out the taste of music through the touch of lip upon lip. EB manages to convey to notion that colour and shape on canvas is interpreted through music. Both are fine examples of using the sense of synesthesia in tanka.

Time perception

This refers to the sense of time passing in an individual. It differs from other senses, by virtue of having no clear raw input, such as photons in the case of visual perception or sound waves in the case of hearing. Since time cannot be directly perceived it must be reconstructed by the brain. Humans can perceive relatively short periods of time on the order of milliseconds, or durations which are a significant fraction of a person’s lifetime. It is a field of study within psychology and neuroscience.

Although the sense of time is not associated with a specific sensory system, the work of psychologists and neuroscientists indicates that human brains do have a system governing the perception of time. This is a highly distributed system including the cerebral cortex, cerebellum and basal ganglia as its components. One particular component, the suprachiasmatic nuclei, is responsible for the circadian (or daily) rhythm, while other cell clusters appear to be capable of shorter-range (ultradian) timekeeping. The sense of time is altered in some people with neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and attention deficit disorder.

Human perception of duration is subjective and variable. For example, time may appear to slow or drag as one eagerly anticipates the arrival of a specific event. A school day may seem endless for a student who is waiting for the bell indicating that school is finished for the day. The traditional proverb describing this effect is “a watched pot never boils”.

and when
the sand runs out?
the stillness
of the hourglass
and I are one?

– Denis M Garrison (Ash Moon Anthology, 2008)

magpies at dawn . . .
from across the dateline
our son
answers my call
direct from yesterday

– Rodney Williams (Eucalypt 9, 2010)

I resent
putting the clocks ahead
your colour
so much worse . . .
every hour is precious 

– David Terelinck (Ribbons 6:3, 2010)

dusk settles
on your twilight existence
already
you have forgotten
that I have ever been 

– David Terelinck (The Tanka Journal [Japan], No 35, 2009)

All of the tanka above address the sense of time – whether it is passing too quickly, standing still, forgotten, or in limbo between world time zones.

Exercises

There is no doubt that the use of senses within tanka makes it more accessible and personal to the reader. It gives us a basis for understanding and interpreting what we relate to, and are influenced by, on a daily basis. But the senses in tanka also extend beyond the traditional five to open up a whole new world of writing based on the human experience. By thinking consciously of the other senses as we write tanka, we may be able to heighten the perception of these with specific imagery. This can then allow them to convey the richness of what the writer, and reader, may not have previously considered a human sense.

1: Experiment with writing a tanka that invokes one of the 6 non-traditional senses mentioned above.
2. Experiment with writing a tanka that involves one traditional and one non-traditional sense discussed above.
3. When you are reading tanka in the future, look and listen specifically for the use of senses within the tanka. Consider what makes them work effectively and brings them to life in the writing.

Editor’s note: David Terelinck presented this paper at the Bowerbird Tanka Group meeting on March 20, 2011. It appears on the Bowerbird website (within the Eucalypt website). The article appears here with the kind permission of its author.

David Terelinck (Sydney, Australia) is a full-time employee and part-time writer who seriously wishes the balance were reversed. He has been involved in creative writing for more than 25 years with many awards for his short stories, articles and poetry. David has been writing tanka for the past five years and has been widely published in international tanka journals. David’s first tanka collection, Casting Shadows, was published in late 2011. During the same year, David co-edited Grevillea & Wonga Vine: Australian Tanka of Place, with Beverley George. He enjoys giving tanka and other creative writing workshops, and lives by his motto scribo ergo respiro. In 2012 he joinedhe editorial selection panel of the Canadian journal, GUSTS: Contemporary Tanka.

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