A Tanka Repair Kit

by Jeanne Emrich

Whether you are trying to fix your own verse or help others fix theirs, you might consider the tools in this tanka repair kit.

Abstraction: Put a concrete image in each line.

Anticlimatic line: Position the strongest line as the fifth (last) line.

Archaic language: Rephrase in everyday, natural language. Reorder awkwardly placed phrases.

Awkward enjambment: End a line of a strong noun or verb, not on an article or conjunction, e.g., “and”.

Cliches: Retain the meaning, but reframe the verse using a different slant or images.

Clipped language: Employ articles as you would normally, but avoid repeating them within the five lines. Aim for the pacing of conversational speech.

Contrived concept: Divide the poem in half to dilute the contrivance. Add new content from a different context.

Distracting form: Delete unnecessary, experimental, and otherwise awkward word placement and line breaks.

Dry objectivity: Put yourself or some other person in the poem. Add concrete images that show your emotional state. Tell a story.

Excessive modifiers: Delete the modifiers and see if the nouns can carry the meaning.

Explaining: Delete mention of the cause of the described effect. Try omitting explanatory connectors such as prepositions.

Fabrication in content: Use an authenticating, real-life detail to make a scene more convincing.

Form distorting content: Relax any rules you have about the tanka form. Let form emerge as your write.

Grocery list effect: Combine some lines grammatically.

Lack of originality: Delete connecting words to create unexpected “leaps” or unusual juxtaposition of images. Use contemporary images.

Mimicry of forms: Read contemporary tanka to get a feel for natural expression typical of the form.

Orating: Drop generalities. Comment on the particular.

Overloaded first line: Shift the lines around; the last line should have the most weight or punch.

Overly dramatic action: Depict a telling detail after the action is over.

Overt parallelism: Delete “I too” connectors. Have the parallel activity happen in the same setting as described in the first strophe.

Overwrought emotion: Depict the after0effects of a strong emotion or dramatic situation.

Padding: Put aside strict adherence to a syllable count or line length concept.

Personal particulars: Write about your mother, not “Margaret”.

Predictability: Cut an extended metaphor. Delete clauses. Change subject or focus by third line.

Sentimentality: Recast the verse in an everyday, unsentimental setting. Show the emotion, don’t name it. Cut the sweetness with a shadow image.

Scattershot details: Delete extraneous details. Focus on a particular and significant detail.

Strain: Delete emotionally charged images and language. Focus on a few quiet details that hint of a larger story.

The obvious: Suggest with details culled from the periphery of the experience.

Third line reader fatigue: Reframe the third line with a new phrase, pivot or twist. Tell a story with a hook in the first or second line.

Unintended ambiguity: Reorder lines so a reference immediately follows its subject.

And remember all poetry, no matter the genre, tells a story.


Editor’s note: This article appears here with the kind permission of the author, a well-known American tanka writer. It first appeared in Ribbons, the journal of the Tanka Society of America.

Jeanne Emrich, a founding member of Tanka Online, lives in Edina, Minnesota. She has created educational material for teachers’ guides distributed by both the Haiku Society of America and the Tanka Society of America. A past editor of Reeds: Contemporary Haiga (2003-2007), Jeanne is also a talented artist. She released her first collection of tanka, The Pleiades at Dawn, in 2007. One of her tanka sequences — Fallen Grasses: A Winter Meditation — won First Place in Choral Works in the 2008 Biennial Competition held by the National League of American Pen Women.