Short Songs: Tanka Poems

First published in the Tanka Society of America Newsletter 5:1, March 2004, pages 8–9.

Short Songs: Tanka Poems by Amelia Fielden. Ginninderra Press, 2003. ISBN 1-74027-188-2. 48 pages. Available from the author at P.O. Box 53, Charnwood, ACT 2615, Australia (inquire about price). +

The first 69 tanka in this book of 111 poems are miscellaneous individual poems followed by eight tanka sequences. Australian poet and translator Amelia Fielden describes the miscellaneous poems as “English tanka poems and ‘shasei’ word sketches,” indicating that some of the poems are not tanka. It is hard to tell the difference from the poems themselves, yet the distinction she makes (though without identifying which she considers which) emphasizes her respect for “tanka” versus “not tanka.” In her introduction she writes that to be a tanka a poem must have a short-long-short-long-long rhythmical line pattern. We see this rhythm applied fairly rigorously throughout the book. However, the cumulative effect gives a dulling rhythmic sameness to these poems, and one quickly wishes for more rhythmic variety. Tanka by numerous other poets writing in the genre range from some of the minimalist tanka of Sanford Goldstein and Art Stein to the full word-weight of Carol Purington. Are the poems that don’t follow the short-long-short-long-long rhythm somehow not tanka? Fielden has disciplined herself well, but perhaps little or nothing would be lost without this rhythmic rigidity. For example, consider this fine poem:

spring blossoms

for the third year, and I

still can’t bear

to revisit the town

where my father died

There’s nothing greatly wrong with the way this poem is lineated, but similarly, nothing is lost by using the more natural line break of “for the third year, / and I still can’t bear.” What would be gained is the muting of the faint artificiality of where “and I” is placed. Fortunately, there’s plenty of variety in the content of Fielden’s poems, and her productivity and dedication to the craft make her one of the world’s leading English-language tanka poets. Here are three favorites from Short Songs:

willow fronds

drifting with the river’s

dark currents—

such distance between

our unclasped hands

morning joggers

steam along the hill path

I walk my dogs

where I used to run—

sometimes the past is enough

in the rain

at the traffic lights

young woman

struggling with a child,

her back to the rainbow

The tanka sequences add another dimension to the book, demonstrating the extended capabilities of tanka poetry (“You See” worked best for me). And the book’s third section, identified as “31-syllable poems” (not tanka?), shows Fielden working at 5-7-5-7-7 syllables—though at least three of the twelve poems are not 31 syllables (nor 5-7-5-7-7), such as this one that I quite like:

Malay restaurant

where once or twice I had dined

with some lover—

savouring the dishes more

with my dear husband tonight

Short Songs is a pleasing book from a distinctive voice in worldwide tanka. All tanka poets would do well to read these often admirable poems and consider the stance Amelia Fielden takes towards defining and writing this genre of poetry.