A Brief Introduction to Tanka

The following text, now slightly updated, appeared as an introduction to Debbie Strange’s book, Warp and Weft: Tanka Threads (Perryville, Maryland: Keibooks, 2015). It was derived from the overview of tanka on my Tanka page. Find Debbie’s book on Amazon.

Tanka has a rich history stretching back more than 1,300 years. Its predecessor was originally known as uta, or “song,” when written language first reached Japan from China. Later, this poetry became known as waka, or “Japanese song,” as Japan began to develop its own language and writing systems distinct from Chinese. Tanka is the modern term for waka, and tanka in Japanese is more wide-ranging than traditional waka. In English, a tanka typically has five lines, often with a pivot line of some kind, and seeks to leave something out so that it may be implied, usually with intuitive or emotional effect. Tanka were traditionally about love and longing, but these poems have evolved over the centuries to encompass a variety of topics, and tend to be more overtly emotional and subjective than haiku. For this reason, and because it allows more metaphor and simile than haiku, perhaps tanka is the most Western of Japan’s poetry genres. In the last twenty to thirty years, tanka has been written by more and more people around the world, combining brevity and lyricism in an accessible sort of poetry that anyone can enjoy.

Michael Dylan Welch
Founder of the Tanka Society of America