The Structure of Tanka

by Beverley George

I am prompted by Michael Fessler’s selection and analysis of Stanford Forrester’s tanka on page 15 of Blithe Spirit 24:1 2014, to comment on some aspects of tanka structure.

from my window
I see flock after flock
of geese pass by –
I wonder why loneliness
doesn’t migrate too?

(Previously unpublished; permission of the author)

The above tanka by Stanford Forrester has something that is absent from many examples of the genre: it’s the right size. Right for an English-language tanka, that is. The five lines seem to fall naturally into place; all the syntactical divisions make sense. In certain types of poems, of course, odd or fractured lineation is called for, but all good poems, whatever their structure, persuade the reader that they possess the proper dimensions, and that is what Stan has accomplished here. The poem is ‘bicameral”, separating into a kami no ku (the poet sees) and a shimo no ku (the poet wonders). The lines have a melancholy feeling to them, akin to that of the Japanese kokoro ibusemi (unspecified sadness). The Latinate verb, ‘migrate’, adds tone. The first, third, and fifth lines end in broad vowels; they don’t rhyme, but create an interlocking flow of sound. A classic, this one.’

I agree wholeheartedly.

Without going into the differences between Japanese and English linguistics, with the former’s short, often rhyming, sounds and the latter’s stressed and unstressed syllables, consonant clusters and so on, I would like to comment on basic structure.

What sets a tanka in English apart from any other brief, five-line poem if it is not the short-long-short-long-long line rhythm; the turning point / pivot / twist; and the building to the last line?

While I was editing Yellow Moon issues 9-20; 2000-06, which published haiku, tanka and haibun in every issue, I became curious about how tanka actually sounded in Japanese. Poet, Kohjin Sakamoto, from Kyoto, kindly responded with a cassette of three chanted tanka. This paved the way to my understanding, but they sounded more foreign to me than they would now, in light of subsequently hearing male Japanese poets chanting tanka (formerly waka) in the Meiji Shrine during the 6th International Tanka Festival, 2009.

Sometime after the tape from Kohjin Sakamoto arrived, Tokyo poet, Mariko Kitakubo, with whom I have travelled, and performed, in Japan and Australia, alerted me to the way in which tanka traditionally built line by line, and ended strongly, rather than limping away. In late 2006, I took this newfound knowledge, together with a better understanding of pivot word or line, and the juxtapositioning of images and ideas, into founding and editing Eucalypt: a tanka journal, Australia’s first journal for tanka only.

Reviews of Eucalypt are available on the journal’s website, hosted by John Bird, as are appraisals of tanka by poets whom the speaker has never met, given at the biannual Bowerbird workshops. My article Tanka: the myriad leaves of words can be found under the ‘Articles’ heading, and includes guidelines for writing tanka [note, the above link takes you to the Archived Articles on the Haiku NewZ website].

With regard to the juxtapositioning of ideas or images, I think that ideally a tanka usually has only one break or turning point and that it can occur at the end of the first, second, third or fourth lines. To have too many breaks risks making the tanka read as if it were a list.

The break can be indicated by punctuation such as an em dash or ellipsis, in much the same way as the Japanese poets use punctuation words like kana or ya. It is also possible for the line phrasing to indicate the break without any need for punctuation.

mountain peak
softens with age
the stoop
that was your father’s
has become your own

– Michele L. Harvey, Eucalypt 14 (2013)

a priest
slowed by the weight
of piety
the guttersnipe looks up
a question on his lips

– Kirsty Karkow, Eucalypt 15 (2013)

Sometimes the turning point is indicated by a pivot word or line. A pivot line is usually, but by no means always, the central or third line and it belongs equally to the upper and lower hemistitch of the tanka, as in this example by Bob Lucky in which the words ‘every day’ make sense when read with either the first two lines or the last two.

crunch of gravel
in the school parking lot
every day
a little more worn down,
a little closer to dust

– Bob Lucky, Ribbons 8:1 (2012)

A critique of this poem, given at Bowerbird workshop #11 in 2014, is now available on the Eucalypt website.

So often within tanka written in English, lines 4 and 5 are really one line cut in half! I also believe that a single word on a line, particularly a preposition, does not usually serve the genre well. There are always exceptions, of course, as in any creative activity.

Visual balance comes into play too, I believe. A line of 5-syllable English can sometimes look much longer than expected, or appear very short. I find a tanka poem that is visually well-constructed more appealing than one that is not.

And of course the acid test of any poem is to read it aloud, or better still, ask someone else to read it to you, sight unseen. If it sounds like a tanka, feels like a tanka – then it probably is.


Editor’s note: Beverley George is past-editor of Yellow Moon, which published tanka 1997-2006 and editor/founder of Eucalypt: A Tanka Journal in 2006, Australia’s first journal for tanka only. In 2009 Beverley presented a paper on tanka at the 6th International Tanka Festival, Tokyo, and was a co-judge for the 7th ITF anthology in 2012. Her tanka won the Tanka Society of America International Award 2006 and the Saigyo Awards 2010.

Beverley’s article appears here with her permission. It was first published in Blithe Spirit 24 (2), 2014 pp.69-72.