What Is Tanka?
First published in Castles in the Sand (Press Here, 2003), the first Tanka Society of America members’ anthology, which I edited. See the Press Here page for the book this content is quoted from. See also my introduction to Castles in the Sand. See also my definition of tanka in “Notes on Japanese Forms.”
Tanka may be defined in several ways, but this often lyrical, chiefly five-line poem, derived from the Japanese tanka and its predecessor, waka, continues to attract poets around the world. The following are three definitions or comments about tanka in English that may prove useful to members of the Tanka Society of America as we continue our study and appreciation of this poetry.
By Pat Shelley, from Footsteps in the Fog, Foster City, California: Press Here, 1994:
Tanka in English is a small lyrical poem that belongs to everyone. Still written in thirty-one or fewer syllables in five rhythmic lines, as it was over 1,200 years ago, it can embrace all of human experience in its brief space, with emotions of love, pity, suffering, loneliness, or death, expressed in the simplest language. It may sometimes seem fragmentary or lacking in unity because it is more intuitive than analytical, using imagery rather than abstractions. . . . One of the more challenging (and charming) of its elements is the subtle turn at the center of the poem, something unexpected perhaps, usually occurring after the second or third line as two seemingly unrelated events, images, or ideas are brought together, something less than narrative, an elliptical space that adds pleasure to our listening. Tanka is about our everyday lives in its smallest happenings, a little song of celebration.
By Gerald St. Maur, from his 1999 Haiku Canada Newsletter article entitled “From Haiku to Tanka: Reversing Poetical History” (also published in the TSA Newsletter, II:1, Spring 2001):
In going beyond the experience of the moment, the tanka takes us from delight to fulfillment, from insight to comprehension, and psycho-orgasm to love; in general, from the spontaneous to the measured. To achieve this requires a fundamental shift in emphasis: from glimpse to gaze, from first sight to exploration, and from juxtaposition to interplay; in short, from awareness to perspective. . . . It is thus evident that to compose a tanka is to articulate reflectively. . . . It is a shift which, in general, takes us from the simple to the complex. More pointedly, it moves us from the poetry of the noun to the poetry of the verb; in weaving terms, from the thread to the tapestry; in botanical terms, from seed to plant; in chemical terms, from element to compound; in painting terms, from sketch to picture; and in musical terms, from chord to melody.
Draft definition from the Haiku Society of America definitions committee led by William J. Higginson (published in the HSA Newsletter in early 1994):
Tanka. The typical lyric poem of Japanese literature, composed of five unrhymed metrical units of 5, 7, 5, 7, 7 “sound symbols”; tanka in English have generally been in five lines with a total of thirty-one or fewer syllables, often observing a short, long, short, long, long pattern. Tanka usually need no titles, though in Japanese a “topic” (dai) is often indicated where a title would normally stand in Western poetry. In Japan the tanka is well over twelve hundred years old (haiku is about three hundred years old), and has gone through many periods of change in style and content. But it has always been a poem of feelings, often involving metaphor and other figurative language (not generally used in haiku). While tanka praising nature have been written, and seem to resemble “long haiku,” most tanka deal with human relationships or the author’s situation. In the words of Sanford Goldstein, “behind the scene is the autobiographical moment of the poet” (“Tanka: Off the Back Burner,” Frogpond, XV:2, Fall–Winter 1992). The best tanka harmonize the writer’s emotional life with the elements of the outer world used to portray it.