“The poem is an attitude, and a prayer; it sings on the page and it sings itself off the page.”
Imagine yourself in the Japanese court seven hundred and fifty years ago. Amid the emperor and empress and all their retainers and special ministers, all dressed in their finest court robes, a kouji (poem singer) is chanting a formal sort of poetry called waka. Both within and outside the court, these poems praise nature and the seasons, or could be love poems. They sometimes hint at deeper meanings through implied metaphorical references. Then and today, for example, a skylark might represent a lover, and if it’s flying over the hills, never to be seen again, the poet’s love might remain forever unrequited. Or if the moon’s reflection is depicted as rippling on pond water, it could be that the poet’s heart is aflutter with passion and desire. In later years, even warriors of the samurai class could not be respected leaders unless they were able to compose these poems on the spot.
This is how tanka poetry evolved in Japan, over thirteen hundred years. As the country of eight islands developed its own written language, expanding on and sometimes departing from the Chinese written script they first adopted, their poetry grew from uta (song) to waka (Japanese song), and eventually to the genre of tanka (short song) we know today.
In English, tanka is usually five lines in length, often blending descriptions of natural scenes with revelations of the poet’s feelings. As with haiku, its much younger cousin, in English a set syllable count need not be followed. Sometimes a pivot occurs in the poem, where one line might be read differently with what precedes it, compared with what follows. As with references to famous places or other allusions, this was a means of compression in the poem, in addition to the compression afforded by possible allegorical interpretation. An extension of Japanese culture itself, tanka was often indirect, merely hinting at meaning, relying on what is not said as much as what is. This is still true today. A turn in the poem gave it an added dimension, creating space in readers’ minds and hearts to enable them to enter the poem—to see what the poet saw, to feel what the poet felt.
For those who might be new to tanka, Margaret Chula’s Perigee Moon may serve as a model for how it is done. And for those who have known this poetry for decades and know Chula’s vaunted place in its North American unfolding, this book will provide many rewards. Each poem and sequence exhibits her wealth of poetic experience and cultural understanding. She lived in Kyoto for a dozen years and has continued, in Portland, Oregon, to live a life infused with Japanese aesthetics. Tanka does not require this sort of background, but Chula makes the most of hers, giving us poems that represent the flowering of tanka poetry in English. Her gift in these songs is a taste of life where she has lived and traveled, including a taste of Japan and its deep influence on her and her poetry. These are poems by turns energetic and tranquil, written in reverence and yet detachment, pointing to the old as well as the new.
Chula deftly groups her tanka in sections, such as the opening exploration of love poems, in a nod to tanka’s primary historical mode. Some of these poems hint at eroticism, and tell of Japanese contexts, such as Tanabata. They are by no means tethered to Japan in any kind of imitative way but share the modern grit and attraction of a Goth girl’s underwear or Billie Holiday’s crooning. Later sections explore memories of childhood and family, birds and nature, and travels both outer and inner. With the poems in Perigee Moon and beyond, Margaret Chula is forever dancing with Japan, her shadow lover.
May you emerge from each reading of this book with the urge to join the singing.
Michael Dylan Welch
Founder and President, Tanka Society of America