In ancient court Japan, robed figures might be seen passing through late-night fog bearing messages between lovers. These messages often took the form of tanka [then known as waka], a brief poem of intense feeling, inked mindfully on a paper scroll. They traditionally expressed eagerness for a romantic tryst, sadness or yearning if one’s lover did not appear, or conveyed some other deep emotion to do with aristocratic relationships. Typically these poems mentioned nature or the seasons so central to Japanese life. And early on, these elevated poems were written with careful subtlety and suggestion, leaving the messenger in the fog yet communicating emotions clearly to the recipient. Later the varieties of common experience also came to be included as subject matter. In the 1,200 years since this poetry began, tanka has evolved, spawned renga and haiku, and has been embraced by poets across the globe.
The poets in this collection now send their poems through the fog. Yet theirs is the fog that rolls over the San Francisco peninsula with regularity each summer. And theirs is a different context, too, for tanka in both English and Japanese today is less aristocratic and more a record of everyday life. Yet tanka continues to record love and other sharp feelings, and is usually still lyrical, subtle, and centered in nature.
My own view is that tanka is a lyrical five-line poem often expressing deep emotions through the use of natural symbolism. Indeed, T. S. Eliot’s objective correlative is key to the success and engagement of the best tanka. Without a natural representation of internal emotions, the poem can become detached, an unengaging intellectualization, or simply a pretty description of nature. But by the careful combination of natural elements with the implication of deep feeling, tanka can express the wholeness of life most potently—or delicately. In choosing poems for this compendium of tanka by San Francisco area poets, I looked for lyrical writing that spoke wholly of the broad spectrum of life, yet conveyed a transcendent simplicity. The spirit of tanka lies somewhere in this unity, this wholeness.
Some observers might say that tanka in English is still finding its way. Many tanka writers play with subjective challenges, experimenting with mood, tone, content, and juxtaposition. Others fuss over objective matters such as lineation, syllable count, punctuation, and syntax. Yet these changes are rightful developments in an ongoing poetic evolution. Indeed, the moment English tanka becomes static and unchanging is the moment its spirit dies. Most significantly, I find that hovering above the fog of objective and subjective concerns is an ineffable spirit, a spirit that defies description but once tasted is never forgotten. It is toward this tanka spirit that the poets in this book travel—to seek, with intuitive longing, what the masters sought. As they seek, listen for the echo of their footsteps.
The following is my overview of tanka that preceded twenty-one of my tanka in the book.
While the history of tanka in Japan offers much to inspire tanka poets around the world, my own inspiration comes primarily from the lyrical beauty and understated intensity of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu. I also admire the earthy frankness of Yosano Akiko and the authentic simplicity of Machi Tawara, but find myself drawn especially to elevated themes of love and longing, the yearning, lonely, often unfulfilled desire so common in the melancholy tanka of early court Japan. I also find myself affected by the transcendency of John Keats and other Romantic poets, the groundedness of Dylan Thomas, and the love poetry and childlike wonder of E. E. Cummings. Tanka is not an isolated closet in some poetic ivory tower, but a lyrical part of poetry’s continuum, interrelated and connected.
Some of the tanka I write somehow come complete, the image and its embodiment in words appearing in synchronized harmony. To get at the lyrical nature I find so appealing in tanka, I may need to revise and polish what I first write, but often my best tanka come whole, as if my pen moved at someone else’s bidding. For me there is magic in such rare poems, and perhaps a tinge of reticence at owning their creation—as if I didn’t really write them. Other poems grow out of haiku, or are distilled from longer poems, usually from an image or feeling I read about or experienced myself. The results may not always succeed, yet the process rewards me when it happens naturally. And somehow the thoughts that find their way into my tanka are truly me, or a part of me, and I hope they inspire readers to nod with recognition as they see what I have seen, and feel what I have felt. If just one of my tanka speaks to someone, then I will feel grateful.
The following is my bio that appeared at the end of the book:
Michael Dylan Welch lives by a lagoon in Foster City, California. He currently edits books for Bay Area and New York publishers, and edits Woodnotes, the quarterly journal of the Haiku Poets of Northern California. In the past he has been a summer camp counselor, technical writer, publications manager, and disc jockey. He has enjoyed writing haiku and related forms of poetry since 1976.