Modern Japanese Tanka

First published in Woodnotes #29, Summer 1996, page 54. See also “Modern Tanka in Japan.”

Modern Japanese Tanka by Makoto Ueda. Columbia University Press, 1996, 266 pages, hardback, 5¼ by 9¼ inches. $16.50 in bookstores. Makoto Ueda compliments the current English-language tanka scene with the following comment at the very end of his excellent introduction to this volume: “Tanka will continue to be written as long as Japanese culture continues to survive. A more pertinent question may be whether the tanka form is universal enough to be transplanted into a foreign soil and grow as vigorously as haiku. Having read some recent examples of English tanka, I am inclined to believe it is.” For those who agree with Ueda, and even for those who may not, Ueda’s newest book of translations serves as an excellent survey of the modern tanka scene in Japan. The book includes short biographies and tanka translations from twenty 20th-century tanka poets, ranging from Tekkan Yosano a hundred years ago to Machi Tawara today. The collection contains poems by such modern tanka stalwarts as Shiki, Takuboku, and Akiko Yosano, as you might expect, but also numerous other poets whom American tanka poets should know better. Particularly recommended is the introduction, which outlines the growth spurts of this century’s Japanese tanka and its reformation of the waka of old, along with carefully delineated categories, trends, and uses of tanka. Makoto Ueda’s Modern Japanese Tanka is a landmark tanka anthology; if you have any interest in tanka, you do yourself a disservice not to read and know this book.