Teika’s Ten Tanka Techniques

by Jane Reichhold 

According to tanka tradition Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241) is said to have been written a letter in 1219 to an unnamed student in which he mentions the ten tanka styles of techniques.

It was a common practice for students of poetry to write sets of ten tanka on ten sets of subjects as practice and challenge. It was a good plan. The various topics, such as snow, fog, blossoms, moon, grief, or travel, allowed the poet to explore and practice with subjects and situations not immediate or emotionally loaded. These poems were then copied and sent off, with a sum of money, to the local tanka expert for correction and appraisement.

Sometimes the poems were returned with only marks of circles or lines in the margins indicating the teacher’s opinion, but occasionally the expert was sufficiently interested in the student or his work (the majority were male) to write up comments or expound more on current theories.

Robert H. Bower, who did so much great work with Earl Miner for Japanese poetry, translated in the winter, 1985, in Monumenta Nipponica the teaching letter now known as Maigetsushō, along with copious notes of explanation. Bower’s translation is well worth deeper study because the Japanese author, Fujiwara Teika, was the most revered tanka teacher of his time and for centuries afterwards his opinions were read and adopted with a religious fervor.

As one of the compilers of the Shinkokinshū (1204) – the eighth and considered the greatest of the imperial anthologies of Japanese poetry – Teika had 46 of his poems included which was a great honour as he was among the younger and more innovative poets of his day. So esteemed were Teika’s opinions that after his death, sons and their mothers started a fight over their rights to various documents that is evident today in the schools of tanka named for the family lines – Nijo and Reizei.

The result is that today there are several versions, with and without forgeries, of the Maigetsushō – Monthly Notes. But for scholars it is worth wading through them all because this document is considered the most extensive and comprehensive of Teika’s surviving critical writings. There is a great deal of information to be gleaned from this letter that could be valuable for tanka writers at any age, even today. Any serious student of the form would do well to explore it.

However, my attention was caught by Teika’s mention of the ten tanka styles or techniques. He does not elaborate on all of them in this document because as he states, he had already discussed them in previous lessons. For us, the mere listing of the ten styles or techniques is one of the reasons this treatise is so famous. In Robert Bower’s way of exploring every facet of any work, he includes a footnote that the idea of ten tanka styles had been given in an essay supposedly written by Mibu no Tadamine in the early 900s titled as Tadamine Jittei – Tadamine’s Ten Styles. However none of these styles bear the same name as Teika’s, yet similarities are clear in several cases.

There is another document, Teika Jittei – Teika’s Ten Styles, in which 286 poems taken from the full range of imperial anthologies are grouped according to the concept of these styles but all are listed without comment. As so often, even this treatise, available only as a copy dating from the Edo period, has had its authenticity questioned.

Thinking that a greater knowledge of these styles might be helpful for my own work, and for helping others get a handle on some of the tanka concepts that up until now, in English had no terms for them, I have borrowed Teika’s list and defined it with further research. The styles or techniques are listed as:

Mystery and depth – yūgentei

An image evoking ineffable loneliness. This category is associated mostly with Fujiwara Shunzei (1114-1204) Teika’s renowned father and tanka expert. Teika mentions this in some of his other teachings and uses as examples poem #3:254 Kin’yōshū by Toshiyori:

uzura naku / mano no irie no / hamakaze ni / obananami yoru / aki no yūgure

cries of quail
from the shore of Mano cove
winds blow
waves of plume grass
ripple in autumn dusk 

#5:533 Shinkokinshū:

furusato wa / chiru momijiba ni / uzumorete /noki no shinobu ni / akikaze zo fuku

my birthplace
buried under crimson leaves
fallen in the garden
sedge grass from the eaves
melancholy autumn wind

Appropriate statement – koto shikarubeki

From the former emperor Go-Toba’s Secret Teachings, is his statement that the Priest Shun’e said of this style “that a poem should be composed so that seems to glide as smoothly as a drop of water rolling down the length of a five-foot iris leaf”. The priest was known to have composed in a smooth quiet manner. As example is this poem by Shunzei, 16:988 Senzaishū:

sumiwabite / mi o kakusubeki / yamazoto ni /amari kuma naki /yowa no tsuki kana

weary of the world
I thought to hide myself away
in this mountain village
but it reaches every corner of the night
bright radiance of the moon 

Elegant beauty – urawashiki tei

Characterised by harmony, balance, and beauty of cadence. Examples of this style are the poem above by Toshyori on Mano Cove and this one from the great poet of the late 7th century – Kakinomoto no Hitomaro from the Kokinshū, 9:409:

honobono to / akashi no ura no / asagiri ni / shimagakureyuku / fune o shi zo omou

dimly dimly
on the shores of Akashi Bay
morning mist
vanishing by distant islands
longing follows the ship 

Conviction of feeling – ushintei

This is Teika’s most famous poetical ideal; one that he most developed in his middle and later years. Over this time he came to give ushin two distinct senses. One, in the narrow sense of “deep feeling” as one of the ten styles and in the broader sense of “conviction of feeling” – the quality the must be part of every good poem. Teika felt this could not be an adopted “style” but could only result if the poet “approached the art with the utmost seriousness and concentration”. These strong words of stubborn and uncompromising demand were typical of Teika’s goal of the highest stand of artistic integrity.

Another interpretation of the style is that it uses a highly subjective sense in which the speaker’s feeling pervade the imagery and rhetoric of the poem. It is especially appropriate for poems expressing love or grief. Given as example is this poem by Princess Shikishi, 9:1034 in the Shinkokinshū:

tama no o yo / taenaba taene / nagaraeba / shinoburu koto no / yowari mo zo suru

jewel of my soul
threaded on the string
that should break
how to endure these things
I am getting weaker

Lofty style – taketakaki tei

A method of achieving grandeur and elevation. One of the traditional examples of this style is the poem by Fujiwara Yoshitsune (1169-1206) composed on the given theme of ‘The moon at dawn’ in the Shinkokinshū 16:1545:

ana no to o / oshiakegata no / kumonma yori / kamiyo no tsuki / kage zo nokoreru

the coming dawn
pushes open the Gates of Heaven
from the clouds
the moon from the Age of Gods
is an image left behind

Visual description – Miru tei 

This is a rather bland style emphasising visual description and imagery and often containing no subjective or emotive statements. Some of the decedents of Teika, such as his son Tameie, used this style or technique to counteract the strong subjective vein of the “Fujiwara style”. In the Teika Jittei are 12 examples of this style among which is this poem by Minamoto Tsunenobu (1016-1097) written on the subject of ‘Young Rice Shoots’ as published in Shikokinshū, 3:225:

sanae toru / yamado no kakehi / morinikeri / hiku shimenawa ne / tsuyu zo koboruru

the water pipe
leading into mountain fields
must be leaking
moisture drips down sacred ropes
around the beds of rice 

It seems Shiki’s shasei style of “sketching” in haiku would be a carry-over from this tanka technique.

Clever treatment – omoshiroki tei

A witty or ingenious treatment of a conventional topic. The style must have been popular because Teika gave 31 poems in his anthology of style examples. This one is by the Archbishop Jien (1155-1225) on the topic of ‘Snow’ from the Shinkokinshū, 6:679:

niwa no yuki ni / waga ato tsukete / idetsuru o / towarenikeri to / hito ya miruran

in the snow only
I was in the garden
leaving footprints
will people think someone brought
comfort to my loneliness?

Novel treatment – hitofushi aru tei

Using an unusual or original poetic conception. Among the 26 examples is the poem by Fujiwara Motozane (ca 950) from the Shinkokinshū, 11:1060:

namidagawa / mi mo uku bakari / nagaruedo / kienu wa hito no / omoi narikeri

a river of tears
floats my body off
on its current
but it cannot quell the fire
you have set in my heart

Exquisite detail – komayaka naru tei

This style is indicated by exact and precise details with often complex imagery. In Teika’s anthology of tanka styles he has 29 examples. One of which is one from the Kokinshū, 4:193, written by Ōno Chisato (890-905):

tsuki mireba / chiji ni mono koso / kanashikere / waga ni hitiostu no / /aki ni wa aranedo

gazing at the moon
a thousand sad things
overcome me
not only I feel this
in autumn alone

Demon-quelling – onihishigitei or kiratsu no tei

This is designated by strong or even vulgar diction and terms. Because its methods are at odds with the classical poetical values of beauty, elegance, and grace, Teika said the style to be “more difficult” and should be attempted only when the student has become proficient in the other methods. One of Teika’s examples is taken from the Man’yoshū, 4:503 which is a more violent version than a similar poem in the Shinkokinshū, 10:911:

kamikaze ya / Ise no hamaogi / orishikite / tabine ya suran / araki hamabe ni

divine winds
reeds on the Ise beach
are broken
to make a traveller’s bed
on this rough shore 

The operative words to demonstrate the demon-quelling style are “divine winds” the breaking of reeds, and the rough seacoast. Teika taught that even though the poet put these elements into a poem, they should be treated with sensibility and gentleness however, it seems this has been most easy to ignore. Yet in an exploration of current tanka examples, I found this style under-represented and in no way as violent as the ancient poems.

Wondering if these sample poems, over 1000 years old and in translation, adequately portray the different styles, I have found these examples from current winners in the 2009 Tanka Splendor Awards contest which could also illustrate these techniques.

1: Mystery and depth – yūgentei

An image evoking ineffable loneliness.

autumn night
again the clamour of geese
flying away
soon I will be
nobody’s child

Ruth Holzer

2: Appropriate statement – koto shikarubeki

Meaning that a poem should be composed so that seems to glide as smoothly as “a drop of water rolling down the length of a five-foot iris leaf”.

retirement dinner – 
on his wrinkled face
the wistful look
of a little boy
waiting to be loved

Julie Thorndyke

3: Elegant beauty – urawashiki tei

Characterised by harmony, balance, and beauty of cadence.

still empty
my black lacquer box
awaiting
something too precious
to lie uncovered

Amelia Fielden

4: Conviction of feeling – ushintei

In the narrow sense of “deep feeling” as one of the ten styles and in the broader sense of “conviction of feeling” – the quality the must be part of every good poem. It uses a highly subjective sense in which the speaker’s feeling pervade the imagery and rhetoric of the poem.

no room left
for discussion . . .
finally
I give my ear, my whole heart
to the voice of a mourning dove

Michele Harvey

5: Lofty style – taketakaki tei

A method of achieving grandeur and elevation.

summer moonlight
pouring into calla lilies
tonight, i will sleep
on a pillow of stars
beyond the Milky Way

Pamela A. Babusci

6: Visual description – miru tei

This is a rather bland style emphasising visual description and imagery and often containing no subjective or emotive statements.

sprinkling ashes
along our favourite valley
for miles
the white star flowers
streaked with mist

Doreen King

7: Clever treatment – omoshiroki tei

Has a witty or ingenious treatment of a conventional topic.

steady rain . . .
still only half awake
I wonder
which of these thoughts will be
the one to rouse me from bed    

Christopher Herold

8: Novel treatment – hitofushi aru tei

Uses an unusual or original poetic conception.

up all night
working on a poem
about the sea
I write a barefoot dance
with the incoming tide

Michael L. Evans

9: Exquisite detail – komayaka naru tei

This style is indicated by exact and precise details with often complex imagery.

I think I love you
but then, I’ve thought before
that dandelions heard wishes
and daisies could tell
if you loved me, or not

Megan Arkenberg

10: Demon-quelling – onihishigitei or kiratsu no tei

Designated by strong or even vulgar diction and terms.

exhausted
after another fight
we sit down
the wind continues
slamming doors

Alex von Vaupel

**

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Ribbons, the journal of The Tanka Society of America, in its (northern) spring edition of 2010. It appears here with the kind permission of the author.

Jane Reichhold (1937-2016) wrote more than 30 books, mostly on haiku. She was a three-time winner of the Haiku Society of America Merit Book Award, and won two Museum of Literature Awards (Tokyo) for her haiku. She started the AHA publishing company (later a website) in 1987. In 2008 a book containing her translations of all of Matsuo Basho’s haiku was published, Basho: The Complete Haiku (Kodansha International), a work that took more than 10 years. Jane lived in Gualala, California.

Three of Jane’s books received awards from the Haiku Society of America, and she twice won the Literature Award from the Museum of Haiku in Tokyo.

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