Directions in Tanka

The following essay is previously unpublished. I wrote it in February, March, and April of 1994, with revisions in June and September, more in July of 1995, and again in February of 1997. This essay was prompted by the differences in nearly identical poems that appeared, almost simultaneously, in Footsteps in the Fog, the tanka anthology my press published in early 1994 (which was one of the first ever anthologies of tanka poetry written in English) and Kenneth Tanemura’s No Love Poems. But more than that, this essay explores larger questions on directions for tanka in English.

 

What follows are a few thoughts on directions in English-language tanka, focusing on Kenneth Tanemura’s No Love Poems (Pleasant Hill, California: Small Poetry Press, 1994, 28 pages, 5½ by 8½ inches; $5.00 postpaid from the author at 10 Wayne Court, Redwood City, California 94063 [no longer available]). The book itself does not deserve a fraction of the attention I’m about to give it. What is more important are the questions it unwittingly raises, mostly to do with the definition of tanka, its distinctions from haiku, notions of poetic honesty, and the vagaries of self publishing. My context is a belief that haiku and tanka could do with more conscientious, balanced, and substantive criticism. By this I mean the act of in-depth and studied analysis—something far removed from the practice of mutual back-patting that too often passes as “book reviewing” in some haiku journals, or conversely, any sort of vindictive and unreasoned flame-throwing that also sometimes occurs. But I am not able to address such compelling topics here. Rather, I wish to take a closer look at directions in tanka, using a single book as an example. Wherever I may speak specifically, I also mean to speak generically, for we could all benefit from increased conscientiousness and greater diligence in our writing and in our understanding of the haiku and tanka forms.

 


 

It is not enough for haiku and tanka poets to ask if they want to produce a book, but more important to ask if they should. One may create a book collecting some of the best of one’s poetry published in the previous year or so, as is Francine Porad’s habit with most of her books. One may publish a life collection offering the best of a lifetime’s haiku, as with Nick Virgilio’s Selected Haiku or John Wills’ Reed Shadows. Or one may create thematic collections, as with Adele Kenny’s environmental haiku in Starship Earth, or, more recently, as with vincent tripi’s color focus in White. If a hierarchy of values may be assigned to these types of books, a carefully edited life collection is probably the most honorable—if the selection is stringent. Next I would rank those books with a theme or purpose to unify the collection. Kenneth Tanemura’s first book, No Love Poems, might initially seem to fall into this category, given the title’s assertion that it is a thematic collection of “No Love Poems” (the title of which cannot be taken simply as a didactic declaration that today’s tanka writers should avoid the themes of love so common, seemingly imitative, and increasingly tired in tanka tradition). But the book doesn’t contain any bob-sledding poems either, so the question arises, what theme does unify this book? Without a unifying purpose, a given book falls into the third category, and it is in this category where the poet should most ask whether the book should be published. Indeed, too many haiku books published today result from their authors failing to confront this question. And too many of the results are mediocre as literary art. If these writers are not attempting to produce art, then my comments do not apply. But neither, then, would they seem to deserve to be called poets.

        Kenneth’s book is divided into four sections: “No Love,” “Hopelessness,” “Consoled in Dreams,” and “Consoled in Nature.” In the book’s first section of twenty-two poems (fourteen tanka and eight haiku, following a dedication tanka), the irony is that some of these poems would come across as entirely love-filled in a different context. For example, consider this poem:

 

in this photo

the empty space

beside you

I long

to fill

 

This is an expression of love, or at least desire. Thus we can infer that the title “No Love” means that the author receives no love. Yet even this belief is contradicted, for he does at least receive love from friends:

 

the love of friends

not stated

leaves me

counting syllables again

lining my thoughts . . .

 

Incidentally, how he receives this love is not explained, and showing rather than telling this concept might have improved the poem; also, its last line is abstract and fails to engage me. At any rate, we must now conclude that the author receives no romantic love. Yet even this seems contradicted by the tender and beautiful love poem that concludes the first section:

 

incense

the last strand

of her hair

as it leaves

my fingers

 

This scene is not likely to take place without some sort of mutual consent, if not love, but I still see this as a love poem. Thus I sense a lack of clear focus in this book—at least in the first section entitled “No Love.”

        The second section of nine poems (six tanka and three haiku) spirals into “Hopelessness,” offering poems that are more personal yet still detached, as if the author pleads for our sympathy. There is some honesty in Kenneth’s haunting verses, though, and an attempt at boldness in his directness of expression. But here again, the poems contradict the section’s title:

 

discovering

this tanka world

bird songs

no longer

console me

 

If bird songs do not console the poet, they once did, and now perhaps tanka doesand this is hardly “hopeless.” In passing, too, “discovering this tanka world” is abstract, and begs the question, how? This bald (not bold) statement happens just in the head—neither the poet nor the reader gets his fingernails dirty. I feel that tanka succeed when they happen in the heart—and one does not need love to write poems from the heart. To fully share from the heart requires honesty, and the knowing of one’s self. As Sanford Goldstein states in Tanka Splendor 1990 (Gualala, California: AHA Books, 1991, page 40), the “individual voice aware of itself must confront us in tanka.” Indeed, one must dig one’s nails into the dirt of living. For all the apparent honesty in Kenneth’s poems, however, the “honesty” is controlled, limited, or perhaps inhibited, or suppressed, as in this poem:

 

fear

of putting ink

to paper

fog tonight

conceals the moon

 

In this case the poet may seem direct and honest in stating an emotion, yet he does not tell or show or even hint to us why he is afraid of writing. What is the poet hiding? Why doesn’t he dig deeper? We are also given no clue as to why the day is blue and melancholy in the following verse:

 

gazing at

the bay water

more blue

than this

melancholy day

 

So in this sense the poetry is not honest enough or direct enough. And this is puzzling given the poet’s comment in Footsteps in the Fog, Press Here’s 1994 anthology of tanka by seven San Francisco–area poets, that in tanka “there is a need for intimacy and honesty of expression” (Foster City, California: Press Here, 1994, page 28).

        But to put the questions of honesty and intimacy aside, Kenneth’s book does take a happier turn—and if one is honest with negative matters, one should also be honest with positive emotions. Perhaps in answer to the lovelessness and hopelessness of the first half of his book, Kenneth does find solace in dreams and in nature. The book’s third section, “Consoled in Dreams” (with five tanka and two haiku), does hint at some degree of consolation:

 

so beautiful

I follow her

through the bookstore

past poetry, dreams

& all their immortal words . . .

 

Yet still the question persists in Kenneth and his poems:

 

how is it that

my heart

spills

into

these five short lines . . . ?

 

We are not told—and I believe it might be because the poet does not know. Thus, beyond the weaknesses of choppy line breaks in this tanka and others, the poems remain opaque and only occasionally and superficially engaging. And as with other poems, I feel more of a confused or manipulative intellectual pathos than true honesty from the heart.

        The final section, “Consoled in Nature” (with two tanka and seventeen haiku), is to me the book’s best section. And I say this with the curious observation that the majority of poems here are haiku rather than tanka. It occurs to me that Kenneth might be trying too hard to write tanka—or not hard enough—and is more natural or comfortable with his haiku. Several of Kenneth’s notable haiku are included in the book’s last section:

 

the first petals

to fall from the branch . . .

summer rain

 

a single leaf falling

  and with it

    the morning dew

 

this cold night

the abandoned car

covered with leaves

 

The fourth section and the book concludes with the following poem:

 

a white swan makes a path

through fallen cherry blossoms

floating in the moat

 

While this poem paints a pretty picture, it seems derivative (whether consciously or not) of the following classic poem by Roka, here translated by R. H. Blyth (Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1950, page 364):

 

The water-fowl swims,

Parting with her breast

The cherry petals.

 

Surely many of us have written haiku about real or imagined moments that other poets have also experienced. How many poets have written poems about cherry blossoms, beggar’s cups, or yard sales? Yet to me, Roka’s poem is far superior for its focus on the bird’s breast. But here I note a distinction that cuts to the “heart” of Kenneth’s poetry: In Roka’s poem the focus is on the bird; in Kenneth’s poem the focus is on the bird’s path through the blossoms. Both, of course, are “acceptable” for haiku. But is he so alienated from humans, and even birds and other animals, that all he can write about is their contexts or what they leave behind? No wonder this book’s title is cast in the form of a negative. The bird is not human, of course, but in the same way that his poem avoids the focus on the bird, many of his poems, especially his tanka, do not confront humanity with the honesty, intimacy, and directness that he himself espouses—or at least not with enough of these essential qualities. This is yet another contradiction inherent in this self-financed book. No doubt this alienation is a source of the otherwise inexplicable and distressing anger sometimes present in the poetry:

 

you write

of chrysanthemums

now let me

show you

these two fists

 

To me this is not an honest confrontation of humanity in the sense of accepting and correcting a problem maturely; rather, it is pure anarchy, an angry adolescent rebellion against some hidden demon—again, unexplained and opaque. Perhaps, for now, rebellion is the only action the poet can bring himself to.

        At any rate, amid these growing pains, Kenneth would have us believe he is consoled in nature, as well as in dreams. If so, we may find a message of hope in the face of loveless hopelessness:

 

faraway birdsong

my closest companion

this spring morning

 

Yet for me the question still remains: should this book have been published? Has the poet’s urgency (by his own admission, noted by Sanford Goldstein in the introduction) clouded his judgment? And has a youthful enthusiasm for merely wanting to make a book hindered or disabled him in producing a potentially powerful, clearly focused collection that could stand proudly after many readings and many years? Perhaps so—perhaps he should have waited. It would have been preferable to have seen a better book than this (for some have had high expectations for Kenneth), but better still to have seen a book with less contradictions, and more focus. I say this considering the book as a whole, however, and wish to stress that several fine individual poems are included, mostly in the fourth section, on nature, some of which I have already mentioned. If you wish to see a representation of Kenneth’s poetry thus far, such as it is, then this book is for you. But if you seek a mature mastery of the haiku and tanka arts (or even a respectable attempt), or if you seek a valuable compilation of such poetry in unified book form, then I suggest you wait.

        I suppose I could have filtered these comments as certain others do by saying only complimentary things on only the successful aspects of the book (and some of the poems do succeed), but I feel that such an approach, if too sweet, eventually does both the author and the haiku and tanka communities a disservice. This is especially so here, given the growing interest in tanka in English and the fact that Kenneth recently dabbled with editing a new tanka journal called Five Lines Down, with Sanford Goldstein as coeditor [this journal was soon discontinued]. Yet I do wish to encourage Kenneth as a poet, no matter what his age. Furthermore, as this country does need a dedicated tanka journal, I am pleased that someone was willing to tackle this task. Lynx, of course, has thus far centered most of its energies on renga, although tanka is increasingly important in its pages. More recently, Laura Maffei has started American Tanka, which already shows a clearer vision and greater promise. Meanwhile, the future remains open for us to observe how Kenneth’s own poetry will develop. No Love Poems does leave room for growth.

        Before I find a place for No Love Poems on my shelves of haiku and tanka books, I would like to raise three more points. The last is particularly important in considering the direction of tanka in English today—but I will get to that. The first point is in regard to Sanford Goldstein’s introduction (Ken dedicates his book to Sanford). Goldstein notes that “Kenneth writes me that he is ‘young and urgent’ and suggests that the majority of old-age poets have no passion in their writing.” Goldstein says he has “no time to debate that,” implying that he disagrees. I too disagree, although I do think it is good for poets of all ages to maintain passion and keep from slipping into tired habits. I presume that an “old-age poet” might be anyone older than Kenneth, who was born in 1970. In Footsteps in the Fog, it was important to him to stress in his biography that he was the youngest poet to be included. But I think the point is not that many older poets supposedly lack fire. Rather, Kenneth seemed to feel, at just 23, that his youthful fire was somehow being suppressed and rejected by the “older” haiku establishment. He might even feel that way on reading my comments here. My wish, though, is to respond to the poetry—where age is not always relevant—as literature and heart language. Perhaps a greater maturity and less defensiveness would lead him to recognize that he is not victimized, and as a consequence, we might have had a better book. Perhaps we will later.

        The second point is a small one in regard to Kenneth’s overuse of ellipses in his tanka. Five of seven tanka with ellipses end with these three dots (one ends with an ellipsis and then a question mark). In all cases I would drop the ellipses from the ends of these tanka, as nothing is added by their use that is not already implicit in the poetry. One of these five poems also appears in Footsteps in the Fog, where he agreed to drop the ellipsis at the end. That he so readily agreed suggests to me that not enough thought went into deciding whether the ellipses should have been used. Do these poems need ellipses? I have quoted three examples previously that you can judge for yourself.

        The third point is in regard to distinctions between tanka and haiku. And here is probably the most important observation I can make about this poetry. Indeed, the implications of this distinction have an even larger impact on the direction of tanka in English. In describing the sections of Kenneth’s book, I have indicated the number of “tanka” and “haiku” therein. It is more accurate to indicate the number of “three-line” and “five-line” poems, for a few of the three-liners are tanka-like and sometimes longer (in number of words) than the five-line poems, and many of the five-liners seem stretched into five lines and could easily be rearranged into three. The distinction between haiku and tanka seems acutely to be blurred here, whether intentionally or not. Simply put, by classification at least, these poems are not sure-footed.

        In Tanka Splendor 1993, both George Ralph and Jane Reichhold are “concerned with the all-too-easy practice of passing off haiku chopped up into five lines as tanka” (Gualala, California: AHA Books, 1994, page 43). Yet Kenneth has committed this unconscientious sin himself, as two of the three-line poems (one assumes they are thus haiku) appear in five lines in Footsteps in the Fog, Press Here’s tanka anthology mentioned previously. For example:

 

my father asleep

every wrinkle on his face

reveals the fatigue

 

This verse appears in five lines in Footsteps in the Fog, with additional line breaks after “wrinkle” and “reveals.” As the publisher of Footsteps in the Fog, it startled and disappointed me to discover this transmogrification. But, in five lines, is anything added? Rather, isn’t something even lost? Likewise, consider this poem:

 

writing haiku

the cat pushes my pencil

with her nose

 

It appears in five lines in Footsteps in the Fogwith “haiku” changed to “a poem” in the first line as my suggestion to Kenneth in the five-line version that he submitted to me as a tanka:

 

writing a poem

the cat

pushes

my pencil

with her nose

 

My intent in choosing quality poems for Footsteps in the Fog was to be as democratic, broad-ranging, and educational as possible, in that I wanted to represent the tanka form as each San Francisco–area poet believed it to be. And as brief and as unusual as some of Kenneth’s poems or line breaks were, and although he did not tell me he was also about to publish No Love Poems, I was willing to provide a platform for his Takubokian musings.

        Indeed, Kenneth’s approach to tanka is highly Takubokian—he even states in Footsteps in the Fog, “I am Takubokian.” Yet I note with interest William J. Higginson’s recent description of Takuboku as being “sadly self-involved” (Modern Haiku, Volume XXV, Number 1, Winter-Spring 1994, page 93). To the extent that this description also applies to Kenneth, or at least to his so-called tanka in No Love Poems, perhaps we get a clearer picture of the limitations of these poems. Aside from their problems of form, line integrity, and so on (as I see this poetry), perhaps it is this sad self-involvement that keeps most of the tanka from being anything but superficially engaging, despite the surface appearance of pain-wracked honesty.

        At any rate, several of Kenneth’s brief “tanka” in Footsteps in the Fog and many more in No Love Poems seem artificially split into five lines. That the line splitting is artificial in the five-line versions is confirmed by Kenneth himself in the three-line (and superior) versions already cited. My emphasis is that Kenneth seems unclear of the formal distinctions between haiku and tanka, as shown by the rearrangement of the lines in these poems. Yet these trivial changes do not miraculously transform the poems from one type of poetry to the other. Kenneth occasionally latches onto something in these poems, but, I am afraid, too often doesn’t. The implication, for the rest of us, is that perhaps we are all still wrestling with the concept of tanka—both its form and spirit. Or, if we are not wrestling with it, having worked through this question already, or being blithely ignorant, its form and spirit are still vital to understand. Tanka is as different from haiku as the sonnet is from the epigram. Until so-called tanka poets recognize this, I feel the direction tanka takes in English will likely be misguided.

        To return to Kenneth’s book, however, there could be no clearer objective evidence to show a need for greater understanding of at least the formal distinction between haiku and tanka than the rearrangement of lines in the two preceding poems. With this evidence in hand, one may grow suspicious of all of the five-line verses in No Love Poems and wonder how many more might be rearranged into three lines. Considering this, perhaps it is no wonder that I find the haiku so much more uniformly successful in this book. Indeed, of the 28 five-line poems, I must assert that fully 25 of them are easily recast into three lines (as are, I might add, 13 of his 21 tanka in Footsteps in the Fog). This possibility indicates that Kenneth’s “tanka” are indeed brief, yes, but also makes me wonder more emphatically if he truly knows the distinctions between haiku and tanka, as I do not think he is intentionally trying to blur the boundaries here. This question is potentially disturbing as he edits his new tanka journal (even the title of which, Five Lines Down, seemed overly concerned with one accepted formal property of this poetry in English, perhaps to the detriment of heart and spirit, although I have since learned that this phrase came from Sanford Goldstein, the patriarch of English-language tanka, who often spoke of spilling tanka, dwelling in these short poems, “five lines down”). Also, when one reassesses Kenneth’s “tanka” as haiku (if rearranged in three lines), many of them fail, as in this example:

 

once

did I really                                                           once

have                                                                      did I really have purpose,

purpose,                                                              a life of dreams?

a life of dreams?

 

I also feel the five-liner fails as a tanka, but it clearly does not work as a haiku, lacking natural images, careful implications and juxtaposition, or a moment of heightened imagistic awareness. It is merely an intellectualized statement—in question form—and is to my mind an unfinished comment, much less a poem. To Kenneth’s credit, though, the failure of some five-line poems to work as haiku in three lines indicates that there is a difference between his haiku and “tanka,” in that what he says in five lines is sometimes not haiku if in three lines. Yet I am still troubled by the lack of clarity and distinction between the two forms as given in this book.

        A small tradition does exist for three-line tanka. Witness, for example, the three-line translations by Juliet Winters Carpenter of Machi Tawara’s immensely popular tanka in Salad Anniversary (Tokyo and New York Kodansha, 1989). Yet I note Jane Reichhold’s June 1991 letter to the editor of Poetry Flash (issue #219; published in Berkeley, California), in which she decries Carpenter’s three-liners in favor of the late Jack Stamm’s more “classical” (as she says) five-line versions (published in Japan by Kawade Bunko, also in 1989), although the credibility of her comments may suffer when one learns of her vested interest in Stamm’s book, for which Jane was then acting as North American distributor. My point is that Kenneth might have legitimately presented his tanka in three lines, given how brief they are in either three or five lines. But then what would distinguish them formally from the haiku he also includes? I am concerned about content as well as form, but because he chose to present his “tanka” in five lines, I am left with the problem that his spare poetry is artificially stretched to fit that number of lines—and the question of his distinction between haiku and tanka seems simply to be muddied.

        For these reasons and others, I believe Kenneth should have waited until later to produce a book with the clarity I trust he seeks. Since he has not waited, one can only hope that this book is a stepping-stone to that clarity. Again, this is not just a clarity of form I’m discussing here, but a clarity of content—in addition to the need I mentioned earlier for real honesty. He may write a tanka diary, but, whether in three or five or twenty lines, not every diary entry is poetry, much less publishable. As Kenneth states in Footsteps in the Fog, “tanka is not an idle, aesthetic craft.” He would do well to follow his own advice more closely (as would we all), to polish and define at least the tanka side of his writing (fortunately, his haiku are much stronger). I wish him well with his next collection of poetry—although it would likely do him well to wait until his voice, style, and editorial judgment have sufficiently matured. He has the potential to make a dramatic impact, and quite possibly, as Sanford Goldstein notes, he “will become an original in our short-poem universe.” But for now, as Sanford asserts, he is not yet there.

        The greater message for others exploring the tanka form is that we are well-advised to give conscientious thought to the nature of tanka, striving to learn, read, and understand it. I do not think we should write or revise our tanka lightly. For the sake of its direction in English, tanka deserves our careful attention indeed. Only with a considered understanding of its form and content—and the subject of content requires deeper analysis than I have been able to give it here—can we then begin to confront the question of whether our books of tanka should be published. My hope is that many more tanka books will be published (a few already have been, not the least of which is the wide-ranging tanka anthology, Wind Five Folded), and that in the future we can rejoice with each author by saying, yes, such-and-such a book had to be published. Given the current surge of interest in tanka among English haiku poets—due in part to the efforts of Sanford Goldstein and Jane Reichhold—I can only hope this enthusiasm, symbolized by Kenneth Tanemura’s youthful urgency, is tempered by the necessity of editorial insight and conscientious discipline. No matter what our chosen form of poetry, be it haiku, tanka, or longer forms, it is commonly discipline that transforms the poetry into art.