Tanka is a 1300-year-old Japanese form of lyric poetry. Non-rhyming, it is composed in Japanese in 5 phrases of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables.
In English, tanka are normally written in 5 lines, also without (contrived) rhyme, but in a flexible short-long-short-long-long rhythm. Due to dissimilarities between the two languages, it is preferable not to apply the 31-syllable standard of the Japanese poems, to tanka in English. About 21 plus/minus syllables in English produces an approximate equivalent of the essentially fragmentary tanka form, and its lightness. To achieve a “perfect 21”, one could write 5 lines in 3-5-3-5-5 syllables. If the resulting tanka sounds natural, then that’s fine. However, the syllable counting does not need to be so rigid. Though no line should be longer than 7 syllables, and one should try to maintain the short-long-short-long-long rhythm, variations such as 2-4-3-5-5 or 4-6-3-6-7 or 3-6-4-5-6 syllable patterns can all make good tanka.
So that the tanka does not “fall away,” it is important though that the final line be a strong, and/or meaningful one. Preferably it should be as least as long as any of the other long lines; a slight, 2-syllable fifth line like “of you” is not considered appropriate for tanka.
Individual tanka are not titled. Punctuation should be minimal and confined to the odd comma or dash. As they are not necessarily complete sentences, or short paragraphs, there is no need for either initial capitalisation or a final full-stop.
Although the tanka form may be interpreted somewhat flexibly in English, if it is disregarded altogether, what is produced cannot be differentiated from a short free verse. Hence the need for the above brief introduction on tanka “rules”.
While the form is thus fixed, the subjects and themes for writing in tanka are utterly free: elegies, love songs, family life, political commentary, nature poems, travel scenes – AND the experiences of the everyday can all be expressed in tanka.
Writing Your Life in Tanka
What do we mean by a tanka diary? And why write like this? Outside of Japan, the tanka form sometimes seems to be a little “precious”, and reserved for use only at times of particular inspiration, on special occasions, or to record something of deep significance in the poet’s emotional life.
Of course, exceptional people living varied and dramatic lives are not the only ones qualified to be poets. In Japan today there are tens of thousands, amateurs and professionals alike, writing tanka – and they do it all the time. They don’t wait for high, or low, points in their existence, and there is no expectation that every single tanka composed will be a “zinger”.
Their theory is not only that “practice makes perfect”, but that practice is fun, stimulating, and fulfilling. I subscribe to this theory. It works for me, and I’d like to encourage you all to endeavour to write a lot more tanka than perhaps you are accustomed to doing.
The idea is to try to write at least 1 tanka on a daily basis, rather than to sit down once a month and attempt to compose 30 or 40 at a time. This can be done in a variety of ways.
You can simply keep a notebook (on or off computer) in which you record the tanka as you compose them. One step up is to do the same thing re the order of composition, but to note alongside the tanka its actual date. And finally, you can create a full diary in tanka by writing for each day of a year the date, adding perhaps a short prose commentary about the weather and any activities/happenings you wish, and then at least one tanka. More than one a day is even better!
None of those options precludes later editing. It is good to go back and edit/re-write. In some cases what you have first put down on the day may be only the rough outline of a tanka. The important thing though, is to keep the poems in the order in which you thought of, and composed them Otherwise the collection is no longer a diary, for your pleasure and interest and possible later publication.
In contemporary Japan, most tanka collections published are sort of informal diaries. My own Still Swimming is of this type; written over the two-year period January 2003 to February 2005, it contains almost 300 tanka, mostly arranged in chronological sequences.
Japanese collections contain, on average, 250 to 400 or more tanka, divided into chapters, or sections, under a heading relevant to the subject matter, or a phrase quoted from one of the tanka in that section. Although undated, the tanka in these collections are normally presented in the order in which they were written. Often the period of composition is several years. Of course not all the tanka written during this period will appear in the published collection; some/a lot are edited out, (by the poet or the publisher), but the fundamental order of composition is usually maintained.
Many Japanese poets are very prolific (particularly by Western standards). For example, the high-profile professional tankaist, Kawano Yūko (born 1946), wrote this in the Afterword to her collection Vital Forces, published in 1997 (and translated by Amelia Fielden with Aya Yuhki).
“This is my seventh collection of tanka … Here I have collected poems written from the end of 1990 to January 1995. During that period I published (in journals) more than 1,100 tanka, but I have reduced this number to about 500, for the present collection.
“The 500, or more, which I have eliminated will probably never see the light of day again. The composition of this collection might have been different, indeed, if a certain percentage of those 500 had been left in it. I think of this as the fate of poetry, so to speak.”
It was Kawano Yūko who took one large step further along the tanka diary line: in 1999, she was commissioned, by the Tokyo publisher of a major tanka journal, to compose tanka for monthly serialisation. These tanka, written over the 12 months beginning November 10, 1999 appeared in Tanka Forum from February 2000 to January 2001 under the cover title of “The Calendar of My Life: Dated Tanka”.
To make things even more interesting, Kawano’s postgraduate student daughter, and fellow tankaist, Koh (Scarlet) undertook an identical contract. Their two sets of diarised tanka were then published monthly in parallel, in the journal. And they were later made available in book form (separately).
For her book, My Tanka Diary, published in September 2002, Kawano culled some, though not a great many, of her already serialised poems. That still left 643 tanka for this, her tenth collection. The dating and the prose commentaries – ranging from a couple of words on the weather, to two or three lines on the happenings of the day, concerning the poet and her family personally, or wider Japanese society – which preceded the poem or poems, were retained, making this a true tanka diary for the delectation of Kawano’s many readers.
You Too Can Write a Tanka Diary
Kawano Yūko writes about her life. At the time of My Tanka Diary, she was a woman in her mid-fifties, a professional tankaist, wife, mother and grandmother. Her work is close to what the iconic poet, Ishikawa Takuboku (1886-1912) considered the ideal.
In his famous 1909 essay, “Poems to Eat”, Takuboku wrote “… the name means poems made with both feet upon the ground. It means poems written without putting any distance from actual life. They are not delicacies, or dainty dishes, but food indispensable for us in our daily meal. To define poetry in this way may be to pull it down from its established position, but to me it means to make poetry, which has added nothing or detracted from actual life … Poetry must not be what is usually called poetry. It must be an exact report, an honest diary of the changes in a person’s emotional life. Accordingly, it must be fragmentary …” (translated by Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda in Romaji Diary and Sad Toys, Tuttle, 1985).
Whatever your particular life consists of, however mundane you might consider some of its days, you too can write a tanka diary. None of us lives at a constant level of emotional intensity. The subject matter, or content, of some of your diary tanka, may seem very ordinary to you. Never mind; in writing so regularly you will be honing your skills, and along the way almost certainly producing the occasional “gems” which win individual publication or awards.
At very minimum, you will be creating a body of work to edit and use as you choose – to select from for submissions to journals or tanka contests, to collect for a book, to share with other writers.
I will leave the last words to Kawano Yūko. She had written in a 2003 essay “Encouragement for Prolific Writing,” which was addressed to amateur poets. “… writing a lot, quantity turns into quality …. anyway, one does not know whether one’s own poems are any good or not. The thing is to aim for tanka which might score 20 or 120 (out of 100). If you are composing only 85 and 90 percenters, you’ll get straight excellence, which is not interesting. Tanka collections in which there are no poems but good ones, are boring. There is a special dynamic at work in collections whereby a good tanka right alongside another good tanka makes the latter look dull … unimportant poems amongst excellent, significant ones, act as a sort of breather. That way the tanka seem to give each other a mutual life.”
This could be called Kawano’s ‘peaks and troughs’ theory, and it is real encouragement to be bold in one’s tanka attempts, I believe.
Again, specifically addressing the issue that, as she had earlier avowed in her 1994 book The Modern Tanka Scene: “I believed … and I still do, that not only high-toned poems are worthy of the name of tanka”, Kawano wrote the following in the 2002 Afterword to My Tanka Diary:
“Because the tanka in this book were written as a diary, intermingled are some which are in the nature of memos or desultory jottings. Had I not made such trivial matters from my daily life into tanka, I might have forgotten them; and letting them become public in the form of my poetry shows they really did matter to me” …
and, also this: “In the course of the year of this collection, life-altering things, which no-one could have predicted at the start of the project, happened to those close to me and to me myself. I anguished over whether I should put these things into my tanka or not, but in the end I wrote of them in all honesty. And I think it was for the best that I did so.”
Good luck with your tanka diaries!
Vital Forces by Kawano Yūko, translated by Amelia Fielden with Aya Yuhki (2004)
Still Swimming by Amelia Fielden (2005)
My Tanka Diary by Kawano Yūko, translated by Amelia Fielden (2006).
Editor’s note: Amelia Fielden, an Australian living in Canberra, is a well-known writer of tanka in English. She is a professional translator, specialising in the work of contemporary Japanese poets such as Kawano Yuko, Kuriko Kyoko, Kitakubo Mariko, Terayama Shuji, Kono Mari, and Tawara Machi. Amelia has to date produced 14 collections of such tanka in translation. Five collections of Amelia’s own tanka poetry are also in print; the most recent is Baubles, Bangles & Beads (2007). In 2008 Amelia and fellow Australian poet and diarist, Kathy Kituai, published a book-length conversation in tanka called In Two Minds. Amelia has been tanka editor for the American haiku and tanka publication Moonset: a Literary Newspaper. This article first appeared in Tanka Online, and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author.