Down the Distant Mountain

The following text, in a slightly different form, together with a tanka writing exercise, first appeared in Sheila Bender’s Creative Writing DeMystified (McGraw-Hill, 2011), page 90. It also appeared on the website on 14 September 2011, where you could also read Sheila Bender’s comments on my poem, reproduced below. 

Not all tanka need to be autobiographical, but here’s one of mine that is:


the doctor tells us

of the baby’s heart murmur—

outside the hospital window

snow half way

down the distant mountain


It turns out that our daughter’s murmur was minor and cleared up in just a day or two. At first, though, my wife and I didn’t know what to feel. We didn’t know if the snow, half way down the mountain in the distance outside the window, would come further down the mountain or retreat to higher elevations. Would the days ahead be colder or warmer, both metaphorically and literally? It’s this sensitivity to natural symbolism that so often helps tanka to carry the weight of one’s emotions. My tanka doesn’t state an emotion but conveys something of the tension and feeling we had by the leap or “turn” from the first part of the poem to the second.

Sheila Bender’s Commentary

Reading Welch’s poem, we notice a turn it takes in the third line, a turn from hearing the condition of the child to looking through a hospital window and letting the natural world communicate the stunned parents’ feelings. Those writing tanka strive for such a turn, often in the third line, marking the transition from the examination of an image to the examination of personal response. This connects, Welch tells us, what the Japanese call kami-no-ku, or upper poem, to the shimo-no-ku, or lower poem.

Dave Bacharach and Thelma Mariano Commentary

This poem also won an honourable mention in the 2006 Tanka Society of America International Tanka Contest, judged by Dave Bacharach and Thelma Mariano. Here are their brief comments:

After such devastating news, the distant mountain becomes a compelling symbol, its snow indicating the chilled numbness that the parents must feel. Just as the snow is half way down the mountain, we realize this child’s life may be curtailed.