by Tom Lynch
Footsteps in the Fog, edited by Michael Dylan Welch. Press Here, 1994, 48 pages, paperback, 5½ by 8½ inches. 115 tanka by seven San Francisco area poets. $7.00 plus $1.00 postage from Press Here, P.O. Box 4014, Foster City, California 94404. Please make checks payable to Michael D. Welch. [address is no longer correct]
An odd confession for one reviewing a collection of tanka, but I beg the reader’s indulgence: I find myself skeptical about the growing interest in writing tanka among many haiku poets. Does this interest suggest a frustration with the sparse objectivity of haiku, and perhaps a too easy evasion of that discipline? Perhaps so.
Is tanka different enough from the short lyric poem of the West to justify its practice as a separate genre? I’m not sure. In any case, the move from haiku to tanka seems a move away from that which is most unique in the Japanese literary tradition (what I might call ego-suppression) back to a form with more affinity for the ego-swamped subjectivity of Western poetry.
And, paradoxically perhaps, the interest in tanka also sets off warning bells for me about the allure of exoticism, which I see as a constant danger for those of us practicing literary genres originating in other cultures.
But this is by no means a settled question in my mind. I’m more than willing to take a look at the tanka produced by my colleagues and to enter into the ongoing discussion about the features and merits of the genre.
Footsteps in the Fog contains a total of 115 tanka by Christopher Herold, David Rice, Pat Shelley, Dave Sutter, Kenneth Tanemura, Michael Dylan Welch, and Paul O. Williams. This range of authors provides a nice variation of tone, style, and content, and hence a nice introduction to the possibilities and limitations of the form.
Paul O. Williams, for example, writes in a fairly strict 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic stanza:
in far Illinois
the leaves turn red and yellow—
some fall on the house
in which my friend goes to sleep
by herself, her clock ticking
On the other hand, Kenneth Tanemura has a number of tanka so sparse, I wonder how, other than line arrangement, they might be distinguished from haiku:
I stare down
the last strand
of her hair
as it leaves
Most of the tanka in this collection lie somewhere between these two extremes.
The most frequent themes, befitting the genre’s history, are love and its arcing permutations. David Rice has several fine examples that also illustrate the way tanka often link inner and outer experience:
one patch of snow
full of pine needles
is all that’s left
of the blizzard that howled
while we made love
we even made love
under that ancient oak
one summer night—
it’s gone to firewood
and now the firewood’s gone
Dave Sutter describes a particularly complex consummation this way:
That last time inside you
I touched you so deeply
you cried out in pain
although I held you
gentle as a flower
This poem by Pat Shelley exhibits the longing of anticipation at the start of a relationship:
The rose branch
tapped the window to attract me
But I did not hear
occupied with thinking—my love
does not yet know I exist
At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Christopher Herold includes some fine poems about the bitterness at the end of a relationship, such as the following:
around my cottage,
the potted flowers, the trees,
even the sky—
their colors all have faded
now that you’ve gone away
Michael Dylan Welch similarly explores versions and visions of romance:
the rose you gave me
has dropped all its petals
to the windowsill—
overnight, I did not hear the rain
as each petal fell
Welch, who edited the collection, discusses some of the features of tanka in the Introduction, and each poet also has a page to explain what the form means to them. These discussions are enlightening and should be useful to readers new to the genre.
Has my engagement with the book settled my anxieties? Not really. The occasional excess of overt emotional statement and generality lends credence to some of my concerns. But a few quite good poems suggest promise, and that promise is perhaps all one can ask for at this stage of tanka writing in English.
In any case, to readers intrigued by the burgeoning practice of tanka, this book is a must.
[A cassette recording of a reading held in Saratoga, California on February 27, 1994 to commemorate the publication of Footsteps in the Fog is available for $6.00 plus $1.00 postage; address above.]