Tanka: ‘the myriad leaves of words’

by Beverley George

Tanka is an engaging form of poetry which allows us to record the most essential of human emotions and responses poetically, distilling our experiences into five lines when we write this genre in English.

Japanese tanka are composed of five phrases of Japanese moji (sound units) in the pattern 5-7-5-7-7. Their rhythm comes from the breath pauses after each phrase when they are read aloud. They are usually, but not always, written in one vertical column.

Originating 1300 years ago, tanka remain popular in Japan and can record everyday experience as well as more significant events.

The original name for tanka was waka, which means Japanese song. In the late 19th century, several distinguished poets questioned the lack of originality and adherence to outmoded diction in the waka that was being written. To indicate their desire for reform, they renamed it tanka meaning “short song” or “poem”. The broader interpretation encouraged adoption of this genre by an expanded audience outside of Japan.

Makoto Ueda, translator and editor, writes: “On rare occasions, the term waka is used interchangeably with tanka. The standard practice in today’s Japan is to reserve the former term for the 31 syllable poems written before the tanka reform that started in the late 19th century. In other words, tanka is modern and modernised waka.”

Origins of Tanka: Waka in the Heian Era 

It is common practice to write an explanation of the genre and then provide examples. Reversing this, I would like to begin with two examples of early waka so that you can discover, or re-read them, on your own terms first.

Why did you vanish
into empty sky?
Even the fragile snow,
when it falls,
falls in this world.

Izumi Shikibu [974?-1034?]
tr. by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani 1

How invisibly
it changes colour
in this world,
the flower
of the human heart.

Ono no Komachi [834?- ?]
tr. by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani

Poetry played a dominant role in Heian culture. The first of a series of imperial anthologies, the Kokinshu; was published circa 905. The preface by Ki no Tsurayuki, translated here by Laurel Resplica Rodd with Mary Catherine Henkenius, defines the themes that dominated the poetry of the Heian and later periods:

The poetry of Japan has its seeds in the human heart and mind and grows into the myriad leaves of words. Because people experience many different phenomena in this world, they express that which they think and feel in their hearts in terms of all that they see and hear. A nightingale singing among the blossoms, the voice of a pond-dwelling frog listening to these, what living being would not respond with his own poem? It is poetry which effortlessly moves the heavens and the earth, awakens the world of invisible spirits to deep feeling, softens the relationship between men and women and consoles the hearts of fierce warriors. 2

Tanka, with the exception of tanka sequences or tanka strings, do not usually have titles. But Japanese poets sometimes use a prose headnote. For Izumi Shikibu’s waka reproduced above, the head-note reads, “Around the time Naishi [Shikibu’s daughter] died, snow fell, then melted away”. The references to the physical aspect of death, cremation and to the spiritual acknowledgement of human transience, are so delicately composed that the mother’s anguish resonates in our minds a thousand years later.

Transience is a recurring theme in Japanese poetry. The poem by Ono no Komachi may refer to human love: how it can fade without the other being aware – for some time anyway – that this is happening. Perhaps it also refers to change in a broader sense. While the natural world constantly demonstrates change in the forms of dawn, dusk, falling leaves, lengthening or shortening days, the human heart changes its emotions secretively, hidden from the view of others and sometimes surprising even the self.

People new to waka are often surprised by their relevance to matters that trouble or delight the human heart today. These lyrical utterances were written with truthfulness, intimacy and a compression of language that made their message all the more compelling and enduring. As Jane Hirshfield writes, “The brief poems [of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu] serve as small, but utterly clear windows into those concerns of heart and mind that persist unchanged from culture to culture and from millenium to millenium”. 3

In Heian court life, poetry played a daily and significant role. Poems were written to mark every significant event, both public and private. The success or failure of a night of love was not ratified until a poem arrived from a lover the following morning. In the love poetry of this period we read often of the “overlapping of clothes”. This pragmatic method of staying warm by interleaving the discarded clothing over both the lovers often resulted in a garment or accessory being inadvertently left behind. This led to a whole sub-genre of waka, as in this one to a visiting monk:

I think
you may have briefly forgotten
this fan,
but everyone must know
how it came to be dropped!

Izumi Shikibu [974?-1034?]
tr. by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani

Waka could be used as a form of polite rebuttal or to put someone in their place, but often they were passionate poems of loss and longing as in this:

No way to see
on this moonless night?
I lie awake longing, burning,
breasts racing fire,
heart in flames.

Ono no Komachi [834?- ?]
tr. by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani

A Question of Translation 

Any considered discussion of tanka raises the issues associated with translation, the limitations and difficulties of importing a genre into another language and thereby into another culture. One of the most positive aspects of translation is that it can maintain awareness of the original work. The translation will almost certainly be influenced by contemporary literary preferences of the importing language. But the remaking of translations takes us back each time to the original source and keeps the work “alive”

In her essay on translation, The World Is Large and Full of Noises, Jane Hirshfield writes:

By asserting that things worth knowing exist outside the home culture’s boundaries, translation challenges society as a whole. Translated works are Trojan horses, carriers of secret invasion. they open the imagination to new images and beliefs, new modes of thought, new sounds. Mistrust of translation is part of the instinctive immune reaction by which every community attempts to preserve its particular heritage and flavour: to control language is to control thought. 4

And still translation occurs, playing an essential role in the innumerable conversations between familiar and strange, native and import, past and future, by which history and culture are made. It is integral to the way seed ideas and language strategies move out into the world, the new contending with the old until the translated works are either rejected or naturalised. After sufficient time, shapes of thought and sound originally alien may themselves become the revered heritage, as certain exotic trees have come to be treasured in their new countries.

There are many instances of “naturalised” poetic forms in English. They include the Italian sonnet and terza rima and the French triolet, villanelle and ballade. Together with those poetic forms based on models from the ancient Greek and Roman legacy such as ode, idyll and epic they have long since established an English identity. Yet they must have entered the language via translation.

A convincing argument for the adoption of tanka into foreign utterances lies in this form’s versatility. A tanka poem can capture the essence of human emotion and it can also be demonstratively used as a form of diary writing to chart the more pedestrian aspects of our lives, as well as significant events.

Rilke wrote of the “unsayable” that stands behind all words. In doing this he acknowledged that some adaptation must occur to bring a poem into an accessible state within the importing language. The essence should remain but the translated form must engage the senses and have meaning for the reader.

Another decision for the translator is how best to convey the 5-7-5-7-7 asymmetrical rhythm of the Japanese tanka to an English readership, untrained to hear its music. Most translate the one-line five-phrase poem into five lines. Sanford Goldstein, who is sometimes referred to as the father of tanka in English, usually translated tanka into five lines too, but notable exceptions are his translations of Takuboku Ishikawa’s Romaji Diary and Sad Toys. Takuboku wrote these poems in Romaji (Roman letters) arranged in three lines. This made the reading of the diary inaccessible to his wife and a number of his friends who may have been hurt by his unflagging honesty. Goldstein’s translations reflect the original structure. An example:

Thought it somewhat alien to me,
The terrorist’s sad heart,
But some days how close it feels!

Other exceptions are Kenneth Rexroth’s occasional use of four lines to translate Japanese tanka and Hiroaki Sato’s adherence to one-line translations.

No discussion of translation of tanka into English, however brief, should fail to mention the role of some of the great translators of the haiku form in the 20th century, notably R H Blyth, W J Hackett and William J Higginson. The scholarship and dedication they brought to making haiku available in English has greatly influenced the way we view the possibilities for tanka.

Modern Tanka 

It might seem abrupt to move this discussion from the Heian period to the end of the 19th century, but with some notable exceptions, waka remained virtually unchanged over many centuries. One of the exceptions is evident in the Shin kokinshu imperial anthology of 1205 in which the selected 1,978 poems exhibited mastery of “classical allusion, wordplay and symbolism”.

During the 14th and 15th  centuries other genres evolved, such as renga (linked writing). It was from hokku, the first verse of a renga that set the time and place and complimented the host, that haiku derived. This starting verse was developed by Matsuo Bashõ (1644-1694) into a poem with its own identity, although it wasn’t known as haiku until Shiki renamed it in the late 19th century.

Waka continued to decline until by the 19th century most of what was written clung to stereotyped images and lacked originality. This was the criticism levelled at it by the poets Yosano Tekkan (1873-1935) and his wife Yosano Akiko (1878-1942). Akiko was the author of a famous anthology of love poetry, Midaregami (Tangled Hair). Together, they produced a poetry magazine, Myõjõ, which greatly influenced Japanese poetry in the early 20th century.

Professor Haruo Shiruane, of Columbia University, writes of another influence on Japanese poetry of the time, the impact of western realism which was later transported back to the west as something very “Japanese”.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), who greatly influenced the modernisation of haiku as well as tanka, promoted the principle of shasei, meaning “sketch from life”. He and his followers published “an objective, descriptive type of tanka that depended more on observation than on imagination”.

For those interested in reading about tanka reform in the 20th century, Makoto Ueda’s introduction to Modern Japanese Tanka, provides a concisely written, informative overview.

Tanka in the 21st Century

Poets writing tanka in English usually write them singularly, or as a sequence, but another option is to keep a tanka diary. A trend among a growing number of young people in Japan is to exchange tanka by cellphone. The small poem sits neatly on the screen. This practice has the immediacy of early waka in the Heian period, when poetry was part of daily life.

Interest in writing tanka in English is probably keenest in the US, with New Zealand, Britain, Canada and Australia following at a slower pace.

The following are modern examples of tanka:

purple swamp hen
uses the footbridge to cross
unlike I who have
no way to help you make
the transition to old age

Janice M Bostok (Australia) 7

between sun and shade
a butterfly pauses
like none I’ve seen,
who ever falls in love
with someone they know?

Michael McClintock (USA) 8

death’s door
for most of my life
shut tight
until you passed through
and left it ajar

Michael Thorley (Australia) 9

saying farewell
the wind feathering
your hair,
hearing that cough after
I’ve closed the door

Jenny Barnard (Australia) 10

six months
after she’s gone
drinking from her mug
the camomile tea
no longer bitter

Max Ryan (Australia) 11

in this white-stringed
fragile world of wheelchairs
and tapping fingers,
I watch their pale faces
my friend playing piano jazz

Sanford Goldstein (Japan) 12

after your visit
I left our cups on the bench
untouched –
not wanting to wash away
the last of the afternoon

Michael Thorley (Australia) 13

a night of stars
over the jack pines
growing older
no give in my neck
to view them all

an’ya (USA) 14

leaving home
fog over the harbour
makes all shapes one
I carry a thin mist
into the warm building

Patricia Prime (New Zealand) 15

shot with snowflakes
my image in the window
all a-tremble
I hug myself, the pain
of never-ending war

Kirsty Karkow (USA) 16

open along the path
yellow by yellow –
the colour of this new day
loosened in my hands

Maria Steyn (South Africa) 17

Writing Tanka 

Because poetry is constantly evolving one should not be too prescriptive about how any genre is written but here are a few guidelines that may help:

1: The twist or turning point. Although some tanka are written, both here and in Japan, without a break, most tanka do have a turning point or change in syntax, often indicated by an em-dash and sometimes by an ellipsis. This break can occur at the end of the second, third or fourth line and helps to distinguish a tanka from five-lined free verse.

An alternative is to use a pivotal word or a pivotal line, with or without punctuation. A pivotal line is usually line 3 where it can be linked to both the upper and the lower hemistitch of the poem.

2: The subject area is wide open. Anything that affects the human condition can be a topic. The theme of loss and longing formed a large sub-genre of traditional tanka, but tanka can be joyous too.

3: Rhythm is important. Remember tanka were meant to be sung. The pattern in English is short/long/short/long/long usually in a syllable count between 21 and 31. Read them aloud to make sure that they have music. The rhythm in Japanese tanka comes from its breaking into breath pauses of 5-7-5-7-7 Japanese moji (sound units) when read aloud.

Again because of linguistic differences, some tanka written in English seem to tail off in the last line. Our voices drop away when we are reading them. Or the last two lines are really one line broken into two. But tanka were meant to build and build, line by line, so try for a strong closure.

4: Phrasing should be carefully considered. Avoid leaving prepositions dangling at the end of a line or other unnatural breaks.

5: A certain haziness or ambiguity is considered a desirable attribute of Japanese tanka. In English too, it is desirable that these fragmentary poems should suggest or infer, so the reader can interpret them in light of their own experience. “This reflects not only Japanese grammar, but also a poetic culture in which the experience is felt to be as important as the subjective frame around it; a few lightly sketched phrases can evoke a situation in which the reader is an equal participant.” 18 

6: Linguistic differences. Japanese moji (or sound units) tend to be short and of equal length. They are not the same as English syllables which can be short or long, stressed or unstressed and which may also contain consonant clusters. (A simple example is the English word streaks which has five sounds within it.) A basic misunderstanding of this can produce tanka which simply are too long and which do not approximate the light touch of those written by Japanese poets.

The Future of Tanka in English 

Michael McClintock, president of the Tanka Society of America, writes: “Much of tanka’s charm and power relates to its directness of expression, and this is one consequence of the form’s brevity. The poem has little or no room for the use of contrivance, elaboration, complex argument, or other rhetorical treatment to convey an idea or evoke an emotion. When a tanka makes a political point, reveals some love interest, expresses a philosophy, comments on life, sends a message, eulogises a dead person, gives advice, or complains about or mocks some aspect of life, it does so with energy and compression. It gets right to the point in a way that is new to the short poem in English.” 19


1: The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu: Women of the Ancient Court of Japan, translated by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani. New York, Vintage, 1990, used by permission of Jane Hirshfield. Unless otherwise stated, the tanka quoted are from this collection.

2: Kokinshu: a Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern, translated and annotated by Laurel Rasplica Rodd with Mary Catherine Henkenius. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1984. Used by permission of the author.

3: The Ink Dark Moon.

4: The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, essays by Jane Hirshfield HarperCollins Publishers, 1997. Used by permission of the author.

5: Romaji Diary and Sad Toys by Takuboku Ishikawa, translated by Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda. Tuttle Publishing, 1985. Used by permission of Sanford Goldstein.

6: Modern Japanese Tanka: an anthology, edited and translated by Makoto Ueda. NY, Columbia University Press, 1996.

7:  Songs Once Sung: Collected Tanka Poems 1972-2003 by Janice M Bostok. Flaxton, Post-Pressed, 2004. Used by permission of the author.

8:  Letters in Time: Sixty Short Poems California, Hermitage West, 2005. Used by permission of Michael McClintock.

9: Yellow Moon 18, Summer 2005. Reproduced by permission of Michael Thorley.

10: Ibid. Reproduced by permission of Jenny Barnard.

11: Yellow Moon 15, Winter 2005. Reproduced by permission of Max Ryan.

12: Yellow Moon 17, Winter 2005. Reproduced by permission of Sanford Goldstein.

13: Ibid. Reproduced by permission of Michael Thorley.

14: Yellow Moon 18. Reproduced by permission of an’ya.

15: Yellow Moon 14, Summer 2003. Reproduced by permission of Patricia Prime.

16: Yellow Moon 16, Summer 2004. Reproduced by permission of Kirsty Krakow.

17: Tanka Light September 2001. Reproduced by permission of Maria Steyn.

18: Natsu No Ushiro: Behind Summer Japanese Tanka Poems by Kuriki Kyõko, translated by Amelia Fielden and Yuhki Aya Ginninderra Press, 2005. Used by permission of Amelia Fielden.

19: the tanka anthology: Tanka in English from Around the World, edited by Michael McClintock, Pamela Miller Ness and Jim Kacian Red Moon Press, 2003. Introduction by Michael McClintock, used with his permission.

Editor’s note: This article is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author. It, and others on tanka, may read on the website of the tanka journal Eucalypt. The article was first published in Five Bells: Australian Poetry, volume 13 no. 1 Summer 2006 pp. 10-15 and in Tomodachi, the newsletter of the Australia-Japan Society of NSW (Inc.), May 2006.

Beverley George is a former editor of the Yellow Moon journal and current editor of Eucalypt. In 2005 she gained second place in the Tanka Society of America’s annual competition and in 2006 she won first place and a high mention in the same competition. Beverley lives in coastal NSW, Australia.