Tanka and the Five W’s

First published in Yellow Moon #15, Winter 2004 (Australia), and republished on the Eucalypt site. See also “The Seed of the Human Heart: Writing Tanka.”       +

In writing newspaper stories, journalists are challenged to answer the “five W’s”: what, who, when, where, and why. Sometimes “how” is added to the list. Poets interested in tanka typically begin by wanting to know the “what” of this poetry—what is tanka? The recent Tanka Anthology from Red Moon Press (2003), edited by Michael McClintock, Pamela Miller Ness, and Jim Kacian, provides both a discussion of tanka and hundreds of excellent models to learn from and enjoy (all my tanka here are quoted from this anthology). Numerous definitions and fine examples of tanka in English abound in other books, as well as online, and they are worth seeking out. For now, though, let’s leave aside the “what” of tanka, and examine the other five W’s, because they’re often overlooked regarding tanka.


                I tell her I grow old

                have a paunch and need new clothes

                that the wild geese have flown

                and winter is approaching

                —my mother laughs


        Let’s start with who. This question, like the other five, can be answered in two ways, applied to the writer or to the subject that the writer writes about. In other words, who can write tanka? Anyone, of course. And who can be written about? Also anyone. But let’s take a closer look at this question. Who are the poets who write tanka? Many tanka poets writing in English have come to tanka through haiku, since haiku has been much more popular in the West, and for a longer time. Poets interested in haiku have quickly discovered tanka and other Japanese poetry forms. Thus, it seems that tanka, at least in English, has mostly been written by haiku poets! As a consequence, many haiku techniques have influenced tanka in English, for better or worse, and it’s worth studying tanka, especially in translation from Japanese, to see how they differ from haiku. Many poets in Japan write tanka but do not write haiku, and vice versa. This seems strange to most Western haiku or tanka poets, who would typically feel free to write both haiku and tanka.

        Because we come to tanka differently than do the Japanese, we need to be aware of how haiku influences our tanka. For example, haiku is usually objective, has a caesura or “cut” (or kireji in Japanese, or “cutting word”), and a season word (kigo). But tanka (and its predecessor, waka) are often more overtly subjective, directly stating feelings, and allowing more leeway for metaphor and simile while also being more lyrical. In this way, tanka seem to be much closer to Western poetry than haiku. Many tanka also have a pivot to them, but this is different from the kireji, which, in Japanese, is a particle of speech that has no inherent meaning (as with a comma or exclamation mark). The kireji is used in Japanese haiku to add emphasis or tone (and sometimes to reach the prescribed number of sounds), whereas a traditional tanka (or waka) will have a line (or a phrase or occasionally a single word), typically the middle of the five lines, that “pivots.” This pivot (or kakekotoba) has a double meaning, or reads one way with the lines before it, another way with the lines after it (in Western poetry, this latter technique is called a zeugma). Haiku have used this technique, too, but tanka generally uses it more than haiku, and tanka typically uses a pivot much more frequently than haiku uses a kireji. Similarly, season words are not so prominent in tanka, yet are common in haiku (and, in some schools of thought, are required for the poem to even be considered a haiku).

        It is worthwhile to study these differences between haiku and tanka so that we can be clearer about what we’re writing—and learn about ourselves in the process. We can write better tanka by knowing who we are, not just relative to haiku, of course, but relative to our own feelings and ideas, and our relationships with other people. In fact, that’s another aspect of tanka that is worth emphasizing. Since tanka is often overtly subjective, an awareness of the feelings that it represents is worth cultivating. Since our feelings arise out of relationships, it’s worthwhile to cultivate our sensitivity to the people (and things) around us, and to be aware of our feelings about these relationships in all their complexity.


                my pen poised

                above the notepaper—

                no words come

                for my friend

                moving away


        Now for the when of tanka. When can you write tanka? Anytime, of course. And what is the “when” described by the tanka itself? That’s something that can diverge from haiku, too. Whereas haiku are typically thought of as keen moments of perception, usually in the present tense, centered in the here and now, or at least a recreated here and now, tanka has more latitude. Usually, haiku are never written in the past or future tense, except in rare cases, or where parts of the poem may be in past or future tense but only in the context of the main perspective of the poem that is still in the present. In tanka, though, perhaps it could occasionally be effective for the entire poem to be in past or future tense. Both haiku and tanka may be written about memories (when you think about it, every event described in a haiku is a memory, since the instant it happens, it’s in the past), but a haiku will usually present a past event as if it is happening now. Tanka often do this too but need not be limited to present tense. Though they’re rare, I suspect it’s entirely possible to write a fine tanka in past or future tense, or even to describe more than one moment. Usually, too, a haiku is about a single sharp moment in time, rather than two or more moments separated by time. But a tanka has more room, and a different aesthetic, making it possible to describe more than a single moment. In doing so, though, it would seem best to still provide emphasis in the poem, so that the two “moments,” if present, don’t compete with each other equally.


                two cars backing up

                towards each other

                in the clinic parking lot—

                is this, like the morning’s diagnosis

                what the future holds?


        The where of tanka is anywhere. It can be about anywhere, and you can write them anywhere you want to. This may seem self-evident but think about it. You can take your notebook and write about the most ordinary of everyday occurrences. Tanka pioneer Sanford Goldstein refers to this as “spilling tanka”—letting the poems spill out of him. Sometimes this won’t result in great poetry, but with practice and sharp observation (including self-observation, of your own feelings and ideas and moments of puzzlement or realization), you can hone your poems, written anywhere, and elevate them to being extraordinary. And again, compare tanka to haiku. Many people consider haiku to be autobiographical, and that haiku always uses a first-person point of view. This may be an incorrect assumption regarding some haiku, but generally it’s correct. With tanka, though, you again have greater leeway, and you could more readily employ a second-person or third-person or even omniscient point of view, writing tanka that could be remarkably different from haiku. The “where” that you write about could thus be removed from where you are, or your own direct personal experience. So long as the poem still comes across as authentic and effective, you can play with writing tanka not only about a wider variety of subjects, but about a wider variety of places.


                this is but a moonless night,

                and my pillow has no tear stains—

                it is in the grocery aisle

                amid the frozen vegetables

                that I long for you                                                                                                                 +


        Finally, why write tanka? Perhaps you can’t help it—it’s just in your nature to write poetry, and tanka is one type of poetry that you are drawn to. Fortunately, it’s not in competition with other types of poetry, so you can also write plenty of sonnets or haiku or senryu or free verse or fiction. Why write tanka? Because learning how to write them well can help to make you more aware of yourself, and more aware of your styles of writing, and because tanka could help you improve your other writing. Tanka might also be a way for you to express thoughts or present images in a tradition that you admire in another culture. One need not (and perhaps even should not) abandon one’s own culture in doing this but writing tanka and reading many excellent examples can be a way of learning a different culture. Or you could write tanka simply for its own sake. There are probably as many reasons why to write tanka as there are tanka poets. Probably you have your own answer to this question!


                These words I write

                Again and again—

                Nothing in them adequately reveals

                Knowledge or emotion,

                And yet again I write them


        In addition to the “five W’s” of tanka, there’s also the question of how. How does one write a tanka? That’s up to each individual writer. The best advice for how to write a good tanka has to start with doing lots of reading—read as much tanka as you can, not only original poems written in English, but poems translated from Japanese. Then write as much as you can!