Tanka Elbow Room

First published in the Tanka Society of America Newsletter 3:2, June 2002, pages 1–2. Excerpted (thus the abrupt ending) from my “President’s Message” of that issue. See also the essay that preceded this, Surveying Recent Tanka Criticism.

In my previous [Tanka Society of America] newsletter message, I wrote about recent tanka books and other publications that addressed matters of tanka craft and aesthetics. One book I did not mention but wish to cover now is New Moon: An Introduction to Issues in Contemporary American Tanka, edited by Kenneth Tanemura and A. C. Missias, a supplement to the Acorn haiku journal, published in 2001. In addition to presenting a selection of thirty-five tanka, chosen by Tanemura, the supplement contains an introduction by Missias in which she says—still too rightly, alas—that “understanding of tanka among ordinary haiku enthusiasts remains cloudy” and that “Without broad exposure to critical theory, many haiku poets find it difficult to recognize a tanka that succeeds as a tanka.” New Moon seeks to increase this exposure to critical theory, and though it is not as successful in doing so as the previous Acorn supplement was in discussing season words in haiku, it still provides a worthwhile glimpse.

        A good deal of the prose content in New Moon focuses on Japanese-American tanka, reflecting Tanemura’s predilection. This is a worthy discussion in itself, but much of the result seems to be in isolation from the rest of the English-language tanka community. Though I recommend reading this supplement, it has missed an opportunity to present deeper thoughts by more of today’s leading English-language tanka experts. For example, among other puzzling points, one of the Japanese-American poets Tanemura interviews, Frank Soyejima, says that “It’s easier to write tanka because there are fewer rules,” yet on the next page he says that “Haiku is easier.” Soyejima also defines the “key difference” between haiku and tanka by saying that “Haiku is a short version of tanka, chopped off at the third line.” I couldn’t disagree more strongly. A more refined observation appears in Roger Abe’s memoir about his immigrant Japanese parents, in which he says that “Tanka allows a little more elbow room to complete a full circle of motion, a fuller thought, a complete dance step to understand what may be happening in the dance and in the dancer.” He also says that “Tanka are more personal than haiku,” and that tanka is “the personal realization of the haiku insight.” While I’m not sure that tanka is best defined in terms of haiku like this (for the tanka need not have the “haiku insight” at all), perhaps it’s a useful observation for the majority of tanka poets in North America who have come to tanka via haiku. Some other valuable comments on tanka come from Laura Maffei in her concluding essay, “Tanka as Contemporary American Poetry,” in which she says that “tanka tells a story” and that “when they spring vibrantly from the uniqueness of life here and now, out of real passion and experience, [tanka] are powerful and relevant poems.”

        Another recent publication with essays on tanka is the tenth anniversary issue of the Tanka Journal, edited by Hatsue Kawamura. The Japan Tanka Poets’ Society president, Takeo Fujioka, writes about the internationalization of tanka, and Shigehiko Toyama discusses this genre of poetry as world literature. Toyama observes that the term “haiku” entered the English vocabulary in 1902, but that “tanka” entered English in 1877, and, more importantly, dismisses the nationalistic belief among some Japanese poets that haiku and tanka cannot be written in languages other than Japanese. “Haiku and tanka in Japanese,” Toyama says, “are works of Japanese literature, but haiku and tanka in other languages are works of world literature,” welcoming the development of Japanese poetic genres in other languages. Other brief essays come from the pens of Hiroshi Shino, Jane Reichhold, Neal Henry Lawrence, Sanford Goldstein, and me, among others. The issue also includes a list of notable tanka books by members, a timeline of Tanka Journal highlights, some book reviews, and many pages of tanka poetry and sequences by Japanese and English-speaking tanka poets. Of particular note, to conclude the issue, is a brief report by Shigeo Narumi on the definition of tanka in European languages. “Tanka and haiku,” Narumi writes, were “rebuilt as modern types of poems about 100 years ago and they are very popular now,” but that tanka isn’t as popular as haiku. In defining tanka in foreign languages, a topic of past Japan Tanka Poets’ Society meetings, Narumi presents the opinions of members saying that the “formal style tanka” is a short poem in 18 to 24 syllables without capital letters or punctuation (I should say that this puzzles me a bit), and that a “free-style tanka” is a short poem in 18 to 34 syllables, but without the capitalization and punctuation restrictions (which also puzzles me). Narumi explains that “31 Japanese kanamoji correspond to about 21 syllables not only phonetically but also significantly” (this does not puzzle me, and I am pleased to hear such a statement). Narumi also notes that “In USA, some people say ‘tanka having shift is good’” (a matter worth further discussion, for perhaps this idea is actually unique to American tanka, and need not be followed so religiously). Do get a copy of the Tanka Journal if you can—I highly recommend the latest issue for its commentary on tanka. And congratulations to the Japan Tanka Poets’ Society on its tenth anniversary and for the twentieth edition of the Tanka Journal.

        Another book I recommend reading (or rereading) for its tanka content is Janine Beichman’s biography of Masaoka Shiki (Kodansha, 1986). Though considered one of the four great masters of Japanese haiku, Shiki reformed the tanka about as extensively as he reformed haiku, also seeking to integrate the haiku and tanka into mainstream respectable literature in Japan. We too often forget Shiki’s tanka reformation, and that he wrote a couple thousand tanka in his tuberculosis-truncated lifetime. The third chapter of Beichman’s excellent book focuses on Shiki’s tanka, finely identifying it as a “heightened reality” and, in Shiki’s terms, as “the consecration of the everyday.” Among many passages I might highlight, one is a translation of part of an 1896 essay in which Shiki says that “anyone who wants to write tanka must study the haiku thoroughly, and should regard it as only natural for a writer to work in both genres, the tanka and the haiku” (p. 75). A second passage worth sharing is one where Beichman comments that “the haiku were more suited to objective expression and the tanka to subjective expression” (p. 90); this strikes me as one of the key differences between haiku and tanka (the length difference is rather superficial, in the sense that that’s an obvious difference). Beichman also identifies some of the segregational history and linguistics of haiku and tanka that continues to this day in Japan, but notes that Shiki sought to break down the segregation.


Regarding New Moon: An Introduction to Issues in Contemporary American Tanka, I recall editor A. C. Missias asking for my help toward the end of the book’s development because, as I understood it, she was dissatisfied with the depth and breadth of its content. That’s how Missias’s interview in the book with me and Pamela Miller Ness came about. Our interview, along with Laura Maffei’s fine essay in the book, helps to counter what I saw (and still see) as a problem in the content developed by Kenneth Tanemura, the guest editor, which amounted to a rather narrow view of tanka and a sort of disconnectedness, with many missed opportunities. The Acorn supplements had hitherto proven to be cutting-edge examinations of pressing aesthetic issues relevant to the poetry under discussion, but with this supplement, the guest editor veered into a private agenda that, for the sake of tanka, especially at that time, was unfortunate. Our interview hardly rescued the book, and I still consider it uneven, but I mention the story behind its addition as a way to emphasize my own dissatisfaction with much of the rest of the content, save Maffei’s essay and Missias’s introduction. Because of Tanemura’s choices, or disconnection, the book simply lacks other contributions that it would have benefitted from, such as essays by key tanka practitioners. Amelia Fielden would have been a fine contributor to the book, but had not yet connected very much to the American tanka scene. Michael McClintock’s tanka criticism was just (re?)emerging at that time, so maybe it was too early for him, too, but perhaps he could have been included. But it was unconscionable, for example, that Sanford Goldstein did not contribute to the book. And what about Jane Reichhold? Aya Yuhki? George Swede, not to mention leading tanka poets from England. And I’m not even mentioning a great number of talented academic translators whose perspectives on English-language tanka would have been fascinating. The book missed too many opportunities. I do recommend the book for any serious student of tanka and its history, but only with significant caveats. Since then, of course, M. Kei, Denis Garrison, and several others have emerged as new English-language tanka critics who have made invaluable contributions to tanka literature and its criticism.

—2 November 2009