Why Do We Write Tanka?

First published in Ribbons 12:1, Winter 2016, summarizing a seven-member panel discussion (including my own contribution) held at the Tanka Society of America’s Tanka Sunday event in October 2015 in Albany, New York. My introduction to the seven essays was written in January 2016 (I include only my own essay here). My essay was first written in May 2015.

Why do we write tanka? This was the question asked of seven panelists at the Tanka Society of America’s Tanka Sunday event held on October 18, 2015 at the Desmond Hotel in Albany, New York, in celebration of the society’s fifteenth anniversary. The panelists, in order, were Marilyn Shoemaker Hazelton (co-chair), Tom Clausen, Amy V. Heinrich, Aya Yuhki (visiting from Japan), David Terelinck (from Australia), Laura Maffei, and Michael Dylan Welch (co-chair).

        Some participants adapted the question to answer “Why do I write tanka,” feeling that the best answer they could give would be personal, rather than presuming to talk for others. The particular in tanka represents the universal, and we saw the same effect in the personal answers given by most panelists, with these personal views accumulating to speak for us all. Yet answers that took an encompassing view were also valid, extending empathy of feeling to the entire tanka community by considering the broader question. Either way, both approaches addressed the essentials of tanka poetry and what motivates us—individually and collectively—to pursue this written art.

        The prepared comments of each panelist appear here [limited here to my own essay], but preceding those are audience comments collected by Marilyn. She asked Tanka Sunday attendees to use sticky notes to contribute their own answers to the question by putting them on the wall at the front of our meeting room. These comments add nuances to the discussion that were deepened by spoken interaction. Our gratitude to everyone who participated in this manner, and to the panelists for their varied and carefully considered responses.

“to make the whole world sing . . .”

but I write

let my soul sing . . .

one note at a time

—Susan Burch

Marilyn Shoemaker Hazelton: Why I Write Tanka

Tom Clausen: Why We Write Tanka

Amy V. Heinrich: Why I Write (Wrote) Tanka

Aya Yuhki: Why Do We Write Tanka?

David Terelinck: Why Do We Write Tanka?

Laura Maffei: Why Write Tanka

[the preceding essays are omitted here, but can be found in Ribbons 12:1, Winter 2016]

Michael Dylan Welch: Why Do We Write Tanka?

The following is a poem of mine about why I write tanka, first published in The Tanka Anthology in 2003 (Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, page 195). It’s also an acrostic, spelling out the word “tanka” with the first letters of each line—a little poetic ploy that I suspect no one has ever noticed, because no one has ever mentioned it:

                These words I write

                Again and again—

                Nothing in them adequately reveals

                Knowledge or emotion,

                And yet again I write them

So it would seem that I write tanka to express myself, even if the intellect or emotion these poems might convey is perpetually inadequate. Yet still I write them, along with other poems. The question, though, is not why do I write tanka, but why do we write tanka? Who is we? It could be poets of any kind, but why do we tanka poets write tanka? Perhaps each of us has our own answer for that, and perhaps there shouldn’t even be a “we” in that question at all.

        Another subtlety in the question is why do we (or I) write tanka poems rather than (or in addition to) other kinds of poems. For me, the practical answer is that it’s another arrow in the quiver. Tanka is more overtly emotional or subjective than haiku, for example, and gives a little more room to describe a situation. It employs a greater variety of Western poetic techniques than haiku, too. It has the tradition of being a genre of love poetry, but has grown beyond that, and it employs a compression that may be absent in some longer poetry. Functionally, tanka is the right tool for a particular job, and it’s up to each of us to come up with the jobs that tanka is right for.

        Another reason comes to mind for why we write tanka. I think of the following poem by Naomi Beth Wakan, published in Segues (Toronto: Wolsak and Wynn, 2005, page 11). She may not have meant it to be a tanka, but to me this is the reason why we (and I personally) write poetry of any kind, or at least it’s nice to think so:

                One does not write

                because the goldfish play

                at the bottom of the waterfall,

                but because not everyone

                can see them.

As Edgar Degas once said, “The artist does not draw what he sees but what he must make others see.” This stance, at least partly, is why Percy Bysshe Shelley said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. As poets, we are not just partners in control of the English language, influencing intellectual freedom and the morality of civilization—heady topics that Shelley addressed in defense of poetry. More simply than that, we have a duty to be the eyes of those who cannot see, the ears of those who cannot hear, the legislators of taste and an appreciation for beauty for those around us who do not have the gift we have. It’s a responsibility we might not want to take lightly.

        Ultimately, perhaps the question of why we write tanka comes down to music. Tanka pioneer Pat Shelley called this poetry “a little song of celebration.” While haiku and other short poems may well be celebrations, tanka is a song of celebration. This gets us back to the roots of tanka in waka. But even earlier than that, more than a millennium ago, waka grew out of uta. It’s well worth remembering not just that “uta” means “song,” but that “waka” means “Japanese song” and that “tanka” means “short song.” Indeed, these poems have been chanted for hundreds of years in the Imperial court for the annual new year waka contest—the Utakai Hajime (歌会始), or first poetry reading. And note that “uta,” or “song,” is even part of the event’s name. Tanka is a lyrical poetry, with all of its fibers imbued with song. And how can the bird keep from singing? As Maya Angelou often said (although these lines were not originally hers), “A bird does not sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” Perhaps that’s why we write tanka, not to provide answers of any kind, but simply to sing. We may be a small chorus, but in all our fibers, in all our colours, I believe our song is beautiful.