Tanka: The Endless Stream

First published in the Tanka Society of America Newsletter 3:3, September 2002, pages 1–2. Excepted from my “President’s Message” of that issue.

A year since the September 11 attacks, we are all changed. I watched a bit of the television coverage of the anniversary, but mostly I felt like leaving the TV off. Perhaps you did, too. But perhaps we will never be able to turn off some of our painful memories. Countless Americans turned to poetry in the wake of the attacks, and returned to poetry again on the anniversary. Perhaps tanka poetry can provide some solace to those of us who have been irrevocably affected by the shocking events of a year ago. At the very least, I hope you have made the most of the past summer, and that you have found time to write new tanka and read some tanka books.

        I’ve recently been reading Atsuo Nakagawa’s book, Tanka in English: In Pursuit of World Tanka (second edition, 1990). Though the book is dated (it’s been sitting on my shelf unread for a decade), I recommend reading it to gain some perspective on the history of how the Japanese language has affected waka and tanka poetry, on issues in translating tanka into English, and matters of form in English tanka. The same author also wrote a book titled Studies on English Haiku (Hokuseido, 1976), also published in Japan, that I would like to track down. Nakagawa also founded the Poetry Society of Japan and edited its journal, Poetry Nippon.

        Professor Nakagawa’s book is prefaced by long-time tanka poet Father Neal Henry Lawrence, one of the pioneers of English-language tanka. He writes that “Tanka has greater potentialities than haiku for poetic expression. This is not to belittle haiku, but to stress that the mother of haiku, tanka, offers more” (page vi). Lawrence also presents some observations of tanka that might serve as definitions: “Tanka,” he says, “takes one into the world of nature and of other human beings, deepening knowledge about them and giving new insights” (page iii). This seems to be no different from haiku, though, it seems to me. Thus the challenge of differentiating haiku from tanka isn’t limited to America. He also writes that “The content of tanka can be as broad as human experience, an emotional response of love, sorrow, tragedy, joy or happiness, a living awareness, a momentary sensation or illumination, physical, mental, religious or spiritual . . . an impression set forth in broad simplicity, more intuitive than analytical . . . concrete images of flowers, birds, landscapes and mountains as well as people rather than abstractions” (pages iii–iv). Again, this seems equally true of haiku! For his part, Nakagawa elsewhere says of tanka that “Its content is a little thumbnail sketch or a fraction of poetry just like that of the haiku, with the undercurrent of a touch of pathos that runs through most classic tanka” (pages 11–12). I have always felt that, in addition to length, one attribute that differentiated tanka from haiku was tone, though there is surely more to the distinction than just that. Perhaps a new edition of Nakagawa’s book in the future might provide a clearer differentiation of haiku and tanka from a Japanese perspective, and might also be updated to reflect the greater flowering of international tanka that has taken place since the book’s second edition in 1990.

        Lawrence’s and Nakagawa’s attempts to differentiate haiku and tanka prompt me to relay a passage of text about tanka that Steven Addiss posted to the “Raku Teapot” online haiku discussion list on 26 July 2002. He wrote that he had recently come across the following comments by Makoto Ooka, probably Japan’s most prominent poet and poetry critic, in his book The Colors of Poetry: Essays on Classical Japanese Verse [Katydid Press]. They are worth repeating here:


The essence of waka comes out of those sensations we feel in everyday life. Especially important themes include:

While haiku can be called the crystallization of fugitive instants, one might call waka or tanka the endless stream of sentiments and thoughts experienced in daily life.


I would think Ooka’s comments apply equally to both waka and tanka, and serve well to help differentiate them from haiku. Waka, of course, is by definition written in Japanese (the word means “Japanese poem,” and thus waka can be written only in Japanese). Tanka is the modern term for what is now predominantly being written in Japan in the 5-7-5-7-7-syllable form, as well as the term for similar poetry that is being written in five lines in other languages. To think of haiku as a crystallization of fugitive instants and tanka as an endless stream of thoughts experienced in daily life is a useful distinction. As Takuboku also wrote in the previous century, tanka can be a diary of daily thoughts.

        Before I end my mention of Nakagawa’s book, a comment on tanka form. In contrast to the perspective of Neal Henry Lawrence, who writes the book’s preface, Nakagawa states that he does “not insist on any particular forms [for tanka],” adding that “My contention is that content naturally forms its own patterns” (page 9). Though Nakagawa dedicated the book to Lawrence, Nakagawa describes some of Lawrence’s strictly 5-7-5-7-7 tanka as sounding “unnatural or artificial” because of attempting to maintain this form, and that “most of his works have too many images” (page 112). It would be interesting to know what Nakagawa would think of the tanka that appear in the TSA Newsletter and in other recent journals and books that feature contemporary tanka in English. While Nakagawa’s book covers a handful of poets writing tanka or tanka-like poems in English, starting with Adelaide Crapsey, it presents no discussion of Lucille M. Nixon or Sanford Goldstein or most other pioneers of English-language tanka, or of any pioneers in any other language, or even of the most prominent tanka poets writing since these pioneers, so perhaps the book was premature in discussing the notion of international tanka—or at least is ripe for an update.