The Seed of the Human Heart: Writing Tanka

First published, in a slightly different form, on Sheila Bender’s “Writing It Real” website in 2006, and then in Modern English Tanka 2:1, Autumn 2007 (no longer online). Also reprinted on the New Zealand Poetry Society website. My thanks to the authors or translators of poems quoted here who gave their permission for such use. Please note that some of the tanka journals and contests referred to here have ceased since this essay was published, such as Tangled Hair, the Tanka Journal, and the Tanka Splendor contest. See also Tanka and the Five W’s.         +

Many poets have heard of haiku, but seldom know that it’s a spring chicken compared with another genre of short Japanese poetry. The rich heritage of this older poetry stretches back more than a thousand years longer than haiku. Indeed, the poetic grand dowager of Japanese literature is not haiku, but tanka. Its history continues to be venerated by the Japanese emperor himself through the 750-year-long annual tradition of the New Year’s Poetry Ceremony, known as the “Utakai Hajime,” at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, a contest that attracts tens of thousands of entries. For 2007, ten poems were selected from 23,737 entries on the prescribed theme of “moon” and chanted by singers in an elaborate, nationally televised palace ceremony. Tanka is a brief touch of poetry, though not quite as brief as haiku. It has a bit more room to explore, and often carries overtly emotional content that haiku only hints at. This genre of poetry has persisted through centuries, spawning linked verse and haiku along the way, and continues to be revered throughout Japan—and is also written, increasingly, in English. So what is tanka, how did it get that way, and how do you write it?

        In Japanese, a traditional tanka has 31 morae or sounds (not to be confused with syllables) in a rhythm of 5-7-5-7-7. Tanka first emerged more than 1,300 years ago as the uta, which simply means “song.” Indeed, these short poems were originally sung or chanted, and also penned with Chinese characters, which were adopted as Japan’s first written language. Over time, the uta progressed into the waka, which means “Japanese song”—poems written specifically and only in the Japanese language. And just as hokku became haiku, waka later came to be called tanka (“short song”).

        The oldest major anthology of Japanese poetry, the Man’yōshū, or “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves,” was compiled around the year 785. It assembled some 4,500 poems, mostly in the waka form, though also including choka, or “long poems.” The Kokinwakashū (or Kokinshū), or “Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems,” was compiled around the year 905, and contains 1,111 poems, nearly all waka. The Kokinshū was the first of twenty-one imperial anthologies compiled over the centuries. Most had a thousand or more poems, appearing as early as the years 951, 1086, 1127, 1154, 1188, and 1201. Needless to say, the immensity of this tradition can be intimidating, yet tanka remains approachable for both readers and writers by steadfastly focusing on nature and personal emotions.

        In its early centuries, waka was typically a pastime of the Japanese court, and an aristocrat was not considered properly educated or refined if he or she could not write waka. Large tracts of land or riches were awarded to noblemen or even commoners who happened to impress the right person with a waka at the right time. These poems were often love poems. If a tryst occurred between two lovers, one of them would commemorate the occasion with a poem, replete with the attending emotions of affection or longing, using natural symbolism. A messenger was dispatched to deliver the poem to the lover after he or she had departed, and a response poem was often returned. This exchange was the equivalent of modern-day flirting, like the dance of a peacock in inviting a relationship. Or sometimes the poems sought to terminate the relationship, and could be biting, especially if the tryst was not followed up with sufficient emotional desire—or perhaps if it carried too much. However, the bite—or affection—of these poems was often restrained or even hidden, relying on overtones, metaphor, or understood meanings. Indeed, the poems were typically written in an elliptical way—the recipient would understand, while the messenger remained befuddled. That elliptical nature has survived today through most of Japanese poetry, both tanka and haiku, and even in much of Japanese culture. The real meaning is just hinted at, obliquely implied, and understood only by the sufficiently sensitive or informed. This is not to say that tanka is a poetry only of the elite. Rather, it begins always with the common, and is often rooted in nature. But it acted as a sort of intellectual and emotional game, where the players learned allusions and symbolism to hint without censorship at a full range of topics.


                coming to bed

                I watch you sleeping

                in the last light

                of the candle

                you lit for me


        So how do you write tanka? They begin with feeling—what you feel in your heart. We can feel it in the preceding poem by Tangled Hair editor John Barlow (Barlow, 54). As is done in many great tanka, he writes about what caused his emotion rather than the emotion itself. This lets you, as the reader, feel what he felt. Other tanka may talk about feelings by directly naming them. Either way, the careful writer of tanka will be receptive to these feelings, even down to noticing the bodily sensations that go with them—the tightening of the chest, the widening of the eyes, or the slackening of the jaw, and might very well report these physical reactions in a poem. The tanka poet tries to catch what caused his or her emotion, such as the name on a return address label that makes a letter unexpected, or the sound of a leaf scratching across the pavement after news of a loved-one’s death. Then he or she begins to record these emotive observations in words.


                the doctor tells us

                of the baby’s heart murmur—

                outside the hospital window

                snow half way

                down the distant mountain                                                                                                       +


        This poem is one of mine (an’ya, 32). 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, in tanka, to carry the weight of one’s emotions. It says a great deal, I hope, without saying it. The preceding poem doesn’t state any emotion at all, yet conveys something of the tension and anxiety we felt, and does so by the leap or “turn” from the first part of the poem to the second.

        So that’s something else that happens in many tanka. It has a turn of some kind, much like the “volta” or turn in a traditional sonnet, though without necessarily summarizing or commenting upon what precedes. In the Japanese pattern of 5-7-5-7-7, the 5-7-5 section is called the kami-no-ku (or “upper verse”), and the 7-7 section is called the shimo-no-ku (or “lower verse”). Between them is the shift. Sometimes it happens after the first two of the poem’s five parts (made into five horizontal lines in English, though typically written in Japanese in a single vertical line—or occasionally two). But usually a leap is facilitated in some way, most often connecting the poet’s inner and outer worlds. These worlds find a home in the following poems by American Tanka editor Laura Maffei (Barlow, 45) and Margaret Chula (Barlow, 11):


                Halloween— sitting beneath

                infant Batman the blossoming plum

                in my arms that never bore fruit

                barely aware of this world she makes the decision

                that needs saving not to adopt


        The middle or shifting line of a tanka can sometimes be what is called a kakekotoba, or pivot word—one of tanka’s chief techniques of compression. In Western parlance, it’s like a zeugma, a word or phrase that can be read one way with what precedes it, and another way with what follows it, or that carries two simultaneous meanings. “Wasting time flies” would be an awkward example (as in “wasting time” and “time flies,” with the implied additional meaning that time flies when you’re wasting time). An example in a haiku would be W. F. Owen’s one-liner, “another argument unfolds the futon” (from Bottle Rockets #4). The technique gives a word or line two meanings, like a pun, though usually without humour. Pivot words or pivot lines can be challenging to create in both Japanese and English-language tanka, but they allow greater compression, and sometimes produce a stunning effect in the change of meaning.

        Here’s an example of a kakekotoba from the Kokinshū, translated by Laurel Rasplica Rodd with Mary Catherine Henkenius, where “mirume” means both “seaweed” and “chance to meet”:


                   hayaki se ni   if in the swiftly

                mirume oiseba flowing rapids seaweed could

                   waga sode no   grow   I’d sow some in

                namida no kawa ni the river of tears that floods

                uemashi mono o my sleeves    then I might see you


As Rodd explains, the second line means “if seaweed could grow” and “if a chance to meet could develop” (Rodd, 18). This is a strongly traditional waka, with the predominant topic of longing, written more than 1,100 years ago. Yet the pivot technique it uses can still be effective today. For example, see how the middle line in the following tanka by William S. Simms produces a different meaning with the first two lines compared with the last two (Barlow, 29):



                on the beach

                for no particular reason

                I realize

                God must exist


        Tanka also employs other traditional techniques such as engo (a phonetically associated word), makurakotoba (a “pillow word,” also understood as an established epithet), honkadori (a phrase borrowed from another poem as homage or allusion), utamakura (the name of a famous place), and other methods of allusion. While English-language tanka use some of these techniques to varying degrees, many of them are natural tools available to any poet, even if the Japanese terms are unfamiliar. They may all sound too foreign to you, but you are always free to ignore them as you record your emotional discoveries in five scant lines.


                Wind, do not tease me

                do not muss my hair

                My joy is too large for the house

                and I cannot go in

                to await his coming


        This poem by Pat Shelley (Welch, 21) speaks of love’s joyful energy embodied in the wind’s threat of chaos. And though many tanka focus on love, Shelley has written that tanka “can embrace all of human experience in its brief space, with emotions of love, pity, suffering, loneliness, or death, expressed in the simplest language,” and adds that tanka is “more intuitive than analytical, using imagery rather than abstractions” (Welch, 16). Tanka pioneer Sanford Goldstein has written of a similar awareness. In 1977, he wrote that Akiko Yosano’s book “Tangled Hair prepared me for tanka as love,” that Takuboku Ishikawa’s Sad Toys prepared him “for the broader spectrum of man’s activities,” and that “It was Takuboku who brought tanka closest to colloquial language while still guarding its poetic element” (Goldstein, 52). Whatever various techniques a tanka may use, the poem emerges from the seat of emotion, the human heart.

        Earlier I mentioned the poet’s inner and outer worlds. Inherent in most tanka is the presumption of autobiography, as demonstrated in the poem about my daughter’s heart murmur. While the reader might not always be correct in this presumption, the great majority of tanka are indeed about the self, like diary entries. In his book Poems to Eat, the great free-style tanka poet Takuboku Ishikawa (1886–1912) wrote that “Poetry must not be what is usually called poetry. It must be an exact report, an honest diary, of the changes in a man’s emotional life” (Goldstein, 40). Takuboku’s tanka were replete with a heartbreaking and fearless honesty, which repeatedly embraced a bald record of the mundane, and not just his elation in response to the extraordinary. Takuboku’s stance is not the only approach to tanka, of course, for others have written more imaginatively or speculatively (also allowed in tanka), but a recurrent characteristic of tanka poetry is that it relies on personal experience, and finds strength in the reader’s identification with the poem because he or she has also had the same experience. Tanka are not poems about walking on the moon, but about gazing at the moon from a very real earth.

        In 1987 the contemporary Japanese poet Machi Tawara (born 1962) published a tanka book called Salad Anniversary. It sold several million copies in Japan, making the young writer a household name and a TV celebrity. The book’s renown soon resulted in two translations into English. What made the book so popular seems to have been its utterly fresh honesty, its disarming references to popular culture, and its intelligent mix of the modern with the spice of literary allusion. Here is the book’s title poem (Tawara, 122):


                Because you told me,

                “Yes, that tasted pretty good,”

                July the Sixth

                shall be from this day forward

                Salad Anniversary.


Two decades have passed since Machi Tawara inspired a popular revival of tanka in Japan, bridging the gap between young and old. The younger generation in Japan enjoys the current craze of text-messaging tanka on cell phones, while many in older generations continue to write tanka with brush and ink. But the tanka has something of appeal to all ages, to both the commoner and the emperor and empress (both of whom write tanka themselves).

        Beyond Japan’s shores, tanka has been written in English and other languages for several decades, but only in the last ten or fifteen years has it begun to flourish. In early 1994, I edited and published Footsteps in the Fog, a small book that was very likely the world’s first anthology of contemporary English-language tanka. This was soon followed, later in 1994, by Wind Five Folded, edited by Jane and Werner Reichhold. Then, in 2000, I was fortunate enough to establish the Tanka Society of America (wondering why no one had ever done it sooner), and an increasing number of tanka journals now appear regularly in the West, such as American Tanka (the oldest tanka journal still being published, founded in 1996), Red Lights, and Ribbons, all in the United States, Gusts in Canada, and Tangled Hair in England, as well as the new Eucalypt journal in Australia. These publications, among other tanka-friendly journals, augment the long-running Tanka Journal, published in Japan (in English) by the Japan Tanka Poets Club, which has several thousand members. Earlier, starting in 1994, the first journal devoted to tanka in English, called Five Lines Down, ran for a couple of years. And of course a number of haiku and other short-poetry journals have been tanka-friendly over the years, including Bottle Rockets, Brevities, Hummingbird, Liliput Review, Lynx, Raw Nervz, Woodnotes, and others. From 1990 to the present, Jane Reichhold’s “Tanka Splendor” contests have produced pleasing annual collections of tanka. The Haiku Poets of Northern California has been running a tanka contest for more than a dozen years, too, and other fine contests have sprung up for tanka. In the last five years, tanka organizations have appeared in Canada and England, as well as elsewhere. In 2003, Red Moon Press published The Tanka Anthology, edited by Michael McClintock, Pamela Miller Ness, and Jim Kacian, which marked a sort of coming of age for the genre. M. Kei’s Fire Pearls is a new tanka anthology, just published in 2006. Now, too, an increasing number of Internet sites celebrate tanka, the most comprehensive one being Denis Garrison’s Modern English Tanka (at [no longer active]), which also publishes an exhaustive print edition.

        Tanka may never catch haiku in popularity, but it may be closer to Western poetry than haiku in the freedom it gives the poet to use metaphor or simile (usually avoided in haiku), and to be overtly subjective, to tell directly of the human heart. Yet tanka does this even while courting restraint and suggestion as well as linkage to the natural world, perhaps a perfect melding of both eastern and western poetic sensibilities.


                How invisibly

                it changes color

                in this world,

                the flower

                of the human heart.


        All poets interested in broadening their scope would benefit from dipping their pens into the tanka inkwell. The ink may be black, but the colors of tanka know no limits. The preceding poem, translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani, is by Ono no Komachi (circa 825–900) (Hirshfield, 44). This poem may stand as a metaphor for the changes that tanka has undergone over more than a millennium. Ki no Tsurayuki’s preface of the first imperial waka anthology of 905, the Kokinshū, began by proclaiming that “Japanese poetry takes as its seed the human heart,” and this remains, to this day, a chief way of understanding the tanka genre and its overtly emotional or subjective content, whether implied or directly named, and its vibrant yoke to the natural image. And though that flower has evolved over time, invisibly changing color, its seed is still the human heart.


Works Cited

an’ya, ed. Ribbons. Vol. 2, No. 2, June 2006. This poem won an honourable mention in the 2006 Tanka Society of America International Tanka Contest.

Barlow, John, ed. Tangled Hair. #4, 2004.

Goldstein, Sanford. This Tanka World. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue Poets Cooperative, 1977.

Goldstein, Sanford, and Seishi Shinoda. Romaji Diary and Sad Toys. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1985.

Hirshfield, Jane, with Mariko Aratani. The Ink Dark Moon. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Rodd, Laurel Rasplica, with Mary Catherine Henkenius. Kokinshū: A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern. Boston: Cheng & Tsui, 1984, 1996.

Tawara, Machi. Jack Stamm, trans. Salad Anniversary. Tokyo: Kawade Bunko, 1989.

Welch, Michael Dylan, ed. Footsteps in the Fog. Foster City, California: Press Here, 1994.