Surveying Recent Tanka Criticism

First published in the Tanka Society of America Newsletter 3:1, March 2002, pages 1–3. Excerpted from my “President’s Message” of that issue. See also a follow-up to this essay in Tanka Elbow Room.

Every once in a while it’s good to take a look around to assess the landscape. I’d like to do that today with tanka by taking note of some recent tanka publications and, most particularly, various comments about tanka. In addition to an increasing focus on tanka that I hope the Tanka Society of America has helped facilitate, I believe there has recently been an increase in tanka criticism that helps keep our poetry vigorously alive and growing. The following is a survey of some of it.

        Let me start with The Art of Haiku 2000, edited by Gerald England (New Hope International, 2000). While primarily a collection of essays focused on haiku, the book includes an informative essay on tanka by William J. Higginson. The essay makes a basic introduction of the tanka genre and its history, pointing out that the old classical tanka “unlike haiku, often depend on metaphor for their meaning and power” (page 49), and that tanka “originated as formal—and often playful—verses on love” (page 48). The essay also includes a tanka bibliography that is particularly useful for its liberal annotations.

        A key point I’d like to emphasize from Higginson’s essay is the distinction between waka and tanka: “Older tanka are often called waka, a broader classification that includes tanka of the courtly era. Westerners should be careful how they use the word ‘waka’, however, since it literally and specifically means ‘poem(s) in Japanese language’ [i.e., excluding even Chinese loan-words]. It is thus foolish to apply the word ‘waka’ to modern Japanese poems that do not observe courtly diction, or to those written in languages other than Japanese” (page 50). Online, there are discussion groups on “waka” poetry, yet they concentrate on poems written in English. Such discussion groups thus seem to be misnamed, and might be wise to heed the distinction Higginson emphasizes.

        Another key point Higginson makes is that “just as haiku has its satiric senryu counterpart, there is a humorous tanka-manqué, called by the Japanese kyōka, or ‘mad poems’” (page 50). As I’ve said before, I believe the tanka community could benefit from adding this term to its understanding, and perhaps the Tanka Society of America might consider whether kyōka-style poems are acceptable in its annual tanka contest, or if we might someday have a separate kyōka contest as well.

        Next up is the Iron Press tanka anthology, In the Ship’s Wake, edited by Brian Tasker (Iron Press, 2001). This is an essential book for any tanka enthusiast, presenting a fine range of tanka poetry in English with one poem per page in an attractive format. What I’d like to comment on here, though, is Tasker’s extensive and well-reasoned foreword, which serves to introduce and identify tanka and its singular aesthetics. He says, for example, that “It is that quality of open, authentic and genuine contact with life (the external world), and our human vulnerability (the internal world) that can be found in tanka as a moment of reconciliation and acceptance which gives tanka its place in world poetry” (page 9). More significantly, in talking about the value of allusion in tanka, Tasker states that “It is this archetypal transference, the sense of subconscious recognition—a kind of emotional déjà vu—that needs to be preserved in modern tanka, especially in the West, otherwise tanka will become just another vehicle of self-expression or artistic statement and lose its essentially defining characteristic and attraction” (pages 10-11).

        If I might disagree with Tasker on anything, it is his reasons for saying “tanka in the West remains in its infancy” (page 13). The book was originally promoted as “The Tanka Hundred,” intended as a sequel to the highly successful The Haiku Hundred published by Iron Press in 1992. Yet the book contains only 75 tanka, primarily chosen out of nearly 700 submissions. I’m certain another 25 tanka could have been found of sufficient and even superior quality among published poems not submitted, if not among the 700 submissions (which included previously published poems). To have shortened the book to just 75 poems seems an unfair indictment against tanka in the West, and contrary to the book’s very purpose of promoting tanka. I don’t believe tanka is still in that much of an infancy.

        Tasker’s finger-wagging will hopefully inspire us to reach higher standards, though, and on a positive note, he does say that his anthology “goes quite some way to prove the relevance and validity of tanka to Western writers as a vehicle that enables communication between strangers” (page 15). Tasker, by the way, also distinguishes kyōka as a humorous variety of tanka.

        A third book I’d like to mention is Full Moon Tide, edited by Linda Jeannette Ward (Clinging Vine Press, 2000). The book collects the best poems, as chosen by the judges, from ten years of the “Tanka Splendor” awards given by Jane Reichhold and AHA Books. While principally a book of poetry rather than essays about poetry, this too is a strong book for every tanka writer, not only for its fine, if too brief, selection of poems, but for the short paragraphs of commentary by each of the judges, and an essay by Reichhold on tanka sequences.

        Though not books of tanka, three tanka-only journals continue to be essential reading in the field: Laura Maffei’s American Tanka (United States), John Barlow’s Tangled Hair (United Kingdom), and the Japan Tanka Poets Club’s Tanka Journal (Japan). The U.S. and U.K. journals focus chiefly on poetry rather than criticism, but both are useful for book listings and particularly author biographies. American Tanka, too, has recently started including essays on tanka, which I believe will prove increasingly useful and important to the tanka genre. Not to be forgotten, too, is Lynx, edited by Jane and Werner Reichhold. Though primarily focused on linked poetry and now only an online journal, it includes a healthy amount of tanka, plus the occasional essay on tanka, as well as tanka book reviews. Other online resources are available for tanka, and a good way to find many of them is through William Higginson’s Open Directory tanka portal site [no longer active; site discontinued 17 March 2017].

        I’d like to conclude by mentioning one more book, Countless Leaves, edited by Gerald St. Maur (Inkling Press, 2001). I can’t say enough how essential I think this book is to everyone interested in tanka. It is gorgeously designed, and very thoughtfully arranged. Nearly every aspect of its editing and production make it a top-notch publication, not only representing the winners of the 2001 North American Tanka Contest [full disclosure: it was my privilege to serve as one of the judges], but numerous other fine poems. Since the contest invited previously published poems to be submitted, the quality of tanka in the book is particularly strong. The collection also has a companion compact disc, available separately, where the poems are rearranged in effective thematic groupings that make for very pleasing listening. The poems are professionally read and recorded, and shouldn’t be missed. Together, the book and compact disc for Countless Leaves are a landmark publication event for English-language tanka.

        My theme here is to assess the landscape of current tanka criticism, so I’d like to point out the excellent introduction Gerald St. Maur offers in Countless Leaves. Unlike so many discussions of tanka in English, this one does not resort to discussing tanka in the context of haiku, and I applaud St. Maur for not feeling it necessary. Tanka is its own genre, and while many English-language tanka poets have come to tanka through haiku, tanka need not continually be presented as haiku’s underappreciated step-sister. It’s certainly not the case in Japan, and I am grateful that tanka in St. Maur’s anthology is presented on its own terms as he explores its origins, the characteristics of tanka in Japan, and tanka in English.

        I do have one quibble with the introduction, though, and that is where he says that “Poetry in the English language . . . tends to be objective, with a larger aesthetic distance between poet and subject” (page 17). I think the opposite is true. Western poetry drips with subjectivity and analysis, and in haiku and tanka workshops I give, it is exactly these Western subjective tendencies that give beginning poets the hardest time in attempting Japanese genres. Western science is more objective, but Western poetry generally isn’t. St. Maur later says that Western poetry “is predominantly a poetry of themes and ideas” (page 17), but this is essentially subjective content (opinions), not objective (facts), so he contradicts himself. Similarly, where he says “Japanese poetry . . . is more subjective” (page 17), again I think he has it backwards. This being said, though, I think his equating of the Japanese aesthetic style of yūgen to descriptive symbolism and ushin to subjective realism is very insightful. He emphasizes that “tanka written today in English possess greater freedom and potential than the Japanese tanka during its developing periods,” and that we have “no restrictions on subject and almost none on prosody” (page 22). He says that we have “no particular difficulties with the use of common poetic devices such as pun, irony, metaphor, allegory, association and symbol,” and that “allusion is only limited by the brevity and thinness of our tradition” (page 22).

        So, the door for English-language tanka is wide open, and I’m grateful for all tanka poets and observers who show us this open door. The landscape before us is primed for further exploration. Let us continue to support—as well as question—each other in our ongoing exploration.