The Way of Tanka

First published in Atlas Poetica #29, July 2017, pages 78 to 84. Originally written in February and April 2017, with revisions in June and July 2017.
I’ve made a few edits and additions since the original publication.

The Way of Tanka by Naomi Beth Wakan. Brunswick, Maine: Shanti Arts Publishing, 2017. Perfectbound, 144 pages, 5½ x 8½ inches, ISBN 978-1-941830-60-4. In the United States: $15.95 from In Canada: $25.00 from, 250-247-8931. This book is also available as an e-book from Google Play, Amazon Kindle, and iBooks.

As students of tanka poetry know, the tanka genre is more than a thousand years older than its shorter imagistic cousin, haiku. Tanka evolved in Japan more than 1,300 years ago from uta, which means “song.” These chanted poems were written down in Chinese, Japan’s first written language. As Japan began to assert its own language, uta became known as waka, which means “Japanese song.” And many centuries later, waka became known as tanka, which means “short song.” Tanka is now written around the world as a five-line poem. Naomi Beth Wakan would seem, by her surname, to be the perfect person to write about tanka poetry and how to compose it, especially given her many other books on Japanese poetic genres, including The Way of Haiku (Gabriola, British Columbia: Pacific Rim Publishers, 2012), which this book mirrors. It turns out that her invented surname is actually a Lakota First Nation’s word meaning “sacred”—or “creative energy,” as she and Elias Wakan, her wood-sculptor husband, have interpreted it. She says the name has nothing to do with “waka” poetry but that she does like the connection to the Japanese phrase “wakaranai (yo),” or “I don’t know.” As such, Naomi Beth Wakan brings her beginner’s mind to readers of her books. Whether despite or because of this stance, she has much to tell us about the rewarding genre of tanka poetry in The Way of Tanka.

Traditionally, in Japanese, tanka poems offer 31 sounds (not to be confused with syllables) in a pattern of 5-7-5-7-7, and are most often written in five lines in English. Tokyo’s Tanka Poets Club and the Haiku Canada organization (led by Kozue Uzawa) have both proposed that about 21 syllables is a recommended maximum length (likewise, about 10 to 14 syllables is equivalent to the 17 sounds of Japanese haiku). It’s from these and other informed stances that Naomi speaks.

If I could sum up the value of this book—and indeed, the value of writing tanka poetry—it would be to quote a single passing sentence that appears near the end of Naomi’s book. She says, simply, “Writing tanka can’t help but make you more aware of yourself, your feelings, and your motivations” (118; all page references in parentheses). In a way, tanka poetry is that simple, a sort of poetic diary-keeping—a daily practice that Sanford Goldstein has called “spilling” tanka. And Naomi offers a beguiling, if sometimes quirky, view of this poetry and how to write it. She rightly emphasizes the reading of tanka, and quotes many dozens of tanka by other writers (and fortunately some of her own) to illustrate the many ways of writing.

In fact, Naomi begins her book with a set of 50 tanka that she admires, saying that “I am the kind of writing teacher who lets her students plunge in unknowingly and allows them the freedom of an untutored initial exploration of the matter at hand” (12). In this way she empowers her readers, even while she also excuses herself from some of her possible responsibilities as a guide on the way of tanka. She also lets herself off the hook in her introduction, where she says “My interpretations and opinions . . . may be considered entirely wrong by more learned experts” (10). Indeed, some readers may quibble with bits and pieces of her prose, or not even be aware that they should quibble. But they cannot protest the style of writing, which is warm and inviting, making the book a pleasurable read. Sets of tanka, longer poems, and occasional personal stories and opinions enliven the prose and cannot help but make anyone, especially those familiar with haiku, want to dive in to try writing tanka.

If it may be a service to readers, the following are a few summations of key points, and my subjective reactions to various parts of the book as they unfold. In some cases I might identify possible gaps in knowledge or experience, in others applaud a fresh and disarming insight. These responses may be useful for both discerning and unsuspecting readers alike.

    1. Naomi advises that “One must assiduously study the rules of poetics and then ignore them” (10). This comment may well be based on what I believe is a misunderstanding of Bashō, who said, of haiku, to learn the rules and then forget them. But by “forget,” I do not believe he meant “ignore.” Rather, I believe he meant that you learn the rules so well that they become ingrained—so much so that you no longer need to even think about them. I’ve found that the Bashō quotation has been used cavalierly for the unthinking breakage of rules. Poets should never limit themselves, but they should also position their poems to take advantage of effective and time-tested techniques that make their poems work, whatever genre they might be exploring. “Rules” may be the wrong word for what it’s good to aim at in tanka (I prefer saying “targets”—for haiku also), but one “ignores” them at one’s poetic peril. As Lenore Mayhew wrote in her translation of Sarumino (Monkey’s Raincoat: Linked Poetry of the Basho School with Haiku Selections; Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle, 1985), “Rules . . . are meant to serve, not to intimidate” (48).

    2. The fifty poems Naomi begins with (13) include contemporary poems by English-language writers as well as a few translations from Japanese masters. What we see is poems that Naomi loves, and we also see her uninhibited declaration of that love. This infectious enthusiasm will surely inspire even the most skeptical of readers. Because so many poets are quoted in this book, making it as much an anthology of tanka as a guidebook to writing tanka, it would have been helpful to have an index of contributors at the end. Indeed, the book cites 246 tanka (some of them repeated, and several in sequences), five haiku, five tan renga, and two longer poems. One could read this book just for the tanka alone and be very well rewarded.

    3. One of the longer poems Naomi includes is a 19-line piece titled “Writing a Tanka” (26). You’ll have to read it for yourself, but my sense is that the exact same thing could be said of haiku, so here the book unwittingly begins to raise the age-old question of how tanka and haiku differ—and so often definitions (my own included) could be applied to both haiku and tanka, except for references to length. She gets to the point later (on page 48) that it’s fundamentally tone that distinguishes the two genres, in addition to length, which I readily agree with. Yet she notes that “Unfortunately, as I try to explain what makes a tanka a tanka, I find it almost undefinable” (48). However, there’s still something there in tanka, something ineffable, and she trusts readers to gain their own intuitive feel for it. All the example poems, with touches of commentary along the way, work together to develop the reader’s feel for tanka in all its undefinable elusiveness.

    4. Naomi favours the “short, long, short, long, long” structure for tanka’s five lines in English (27), even though many tanka don’t follow this pattern, even her own. She says that “If one doesn’t keep somewhat” to this pattern, “tanka becomes little distinguishable from short free verse” (27). I’m not sure I’d agree, especially when tone is at work, plus the five-line confinement, but she is not alone in making this choice, one followed by such notable tanka poets and translators as Amelia Fielden and Kozue Uzawa. As an alternative to this choice, I favour a more organic approach to form, letting lines be short or long of their own internal accord. While the rhythm Naomi espouses supposedly echoes the rhythm of Japanese, I don’t think we need to be limited to that, and perhaps alternatives could have been mentioned.

    5. Naomi refers to a Susan Constable poem as having a metaphor when it doesn’t: “a toothpick / stuck into the cake / comes out clean . . . / wishing it were as easy / to know when I’ve said enough” (28). If anything, this is a simile (because of the word “as”), but the poem presents an actual toothpick stuck into a cake, thus it’s not a metaphor. This poem is included in a section in which she explores the value of the five senses as a key part of the tanka art. A later poem, by George Swede, is also touted as “Another example of metaphor” (33): “entering old age / I look less for truth / but find it more— / a mid-winter thaw reveals / pieces of sky.” But again, the poem itself has no metaphor. Rather, the reader may apply a metaphorical interpretation to what is really a direct statement of observation that is paired with an actual, not metaphorical, depiction of nature. The metaphor isn’t in the poem but in the reader’s interpretation of its two parts, which I think is an important distinction to make. The metaphor happens in the reader (if at all), but not in the poem itself, at least in these examples.

    6. Naomi proposes that “Many tanka have two parts: the first is often the setting of the scene, and the last part, generally the last two lines, is a comment that expands the personal to the universal, or vice versa” (32). We see this in the Constable and Swede poems I’ve already quoted, but in her statement I think I would simply change “Many” to “Some.” This generalization is easily shown as not applicable to lots of tanka poems, even though it may be accurate for some. Yet I appreciate that she refrains from such a stance as saying that tanka “should” have such a structure. What she doesn’t mention in this context is the notion of tanka having the kami-no-ku (“upper phrase”) in the 5-7-5 beginning, and the shimo-no-ku (“lower phrase”) in the 7-7 ending, so there’s a bit of a lost opportunity here to present more of tanka’s historical practices.

    7. The chapter on pivot lines (35–47) seems to be where I feel the author goes most astray. My understanding of the Japanese technique of the kakekotoba or “pivot word” is that it’s a single word, not a line, but I do agree that an entire line can have the same effect sometimes (in English if not in Japanese). The point is for the word or line to mean one thing with what precedes it, but another with what follows. However, most of the poems she quotes do not strike me as having this feature. To clarify, here is a quoted poem, by David Terelinck (40), that does offer a pivot: “your side / of the wardrobe / empty / I wait to be filled / with possibility.” Here the word “empty” refers literally to the wardrobe at first, as part of the first three lines, and then figuratively in its application to the author’s feeling as part of the last three lines. The poem pivots on this word, and its meaning changes. But in the following poem, by Gerald St. Maur, also offered as an example, the same effect does not occur: “just out of earshot / the periodic blinking / of a night airplane, / not quite far enough away / to be as close as the stars” (37). Naomi says “The night airplane links the ear and the stars,” as indeed it does, but this is not a pivot line, because it means only one thing and works only as part of the first three lines, both grammatically and imagistically. To clarify, “of a night airplane, / not quite far enough away / to be as close as the stars” doesn’t really make sense (because of the word “of”), but “empty / I wait to be filled / with possibility” does. Naomi also compares this structure to the “turn” in sonnets (whether Italian or Elizabethan), but missteps, I think, when she refers to the “volta line”—my understanding is that the volta (which means “turn” in Italian) happens between certain lines, and isn’t the line itself. Fortunately, Naomi ends this chapter with several poems that do indeed have strong pivots, and hopefully the concept will be clear to the perceptive reader. Another point I’m not sure I agree with, though, is at the start of the chapter where she says the pivot line’s function “is to link the outer image . . . to his or her inner thoughts and emotions” (35). Rather, I would say that a pivot might happen where the inner and outer are linked, but I would not say that this is the pivot’s function. The pivot is just a change of meaning, or twice-used meaning, as in the word “time” in a phrase such as “killing time flies” (like the zeugma of German poetics), but not necessarily a switch from inner to outer.

    8. In passing, Naomi says “a tanka is a summing up of the universe” (42). Yes.

    9. Despite saying that tanka are almost undefinable, Naomi offers the following overview of tanka: “I would define tanka as a five-line poem of various line lengths, but preferably of the short, long, short, long, long form, resembling somewhat the form of waka, the original name for tanka” (48). Fortunately, she doesn’t stop there, adding that “The contents may be of any topic, but the most common is that of a sensual image, often taken from nature and some comment on it that reflects human nature or the state of the universe.” Indeed, it’s that comment on the sensual image that often sets tanka apart from haiku. In speaking of tone, she notes that “the most important feature of a tanka is the rabbit’s foot kick that often occurs in the last line” (48). I’m not sure that every tanka has a kick in the last line, or even need it, but they can be wonderful when they do. Later, she notes that “Haiku is immediate, and tanka is nostalgic and reflective” (52).

    10. Naomi misquotes William Carlos Williams, who said “No ideas but in things.” To my knowledge, he did not say, as Naomi asserts, “No truth but in things” (53). The meanings are significantly different.

    11. In differentiating haiku and tanka, Naomi notes that “Haiku are concerned with sense objects” (54) but then says “in haiku, it is as if the poet has blended with the subject, and only the subject remains.” In this statement, I think it’s vital that it should have said “object” rather than “subject,” in keeping with the overwhelming tendency for haiku to be objective, not subjective. Similarly, she later says “haiku is concerned with the natural world” (56), but it’s really the seasonal reference that haiku is after, and nature comes along for the ride (it’s a common misunderstanding of haiku to think of it superficially as a “nature” poem). She contrasts this with tanka as dwelling on the human condition. I love, though, how she immediately offers a haiku on the human condition and a tanka on nature to show that opposites can be done—although the “haiku” example may really be a senryu (“removal van / pulls away already cold / fills the room” by Jeffry Harpeng) and the minimalist “tanka” may really be a haiku stretched into five lines (“slanted sun / of late autumn / paints / the dry grass / burnished gold” by Mary Mageau).

    12. We are told that “Haiku have to hit the target directly, whereas tanka have room to jump to the ends of the universe before coming to the point” (57). I get the intent here, but the comment about haiku seems to obscure the tendency of haiku to employ implication and a hinting at things rather than hitting the target directly. Still, I would say it’s true that haiku are more focused, whereas tanka can wander more.

    13. The chapter on “The Varieties of Tanka” offers a fresh take on different kinds of tanka, such as some that use quotation and allusion. However, she also refers to tanka collages, montages, strings, and sequences (68), defining their differences, but I would say that these are different ways of grouping tanka, and not really different kinds of tanka themselves. She later speak of “tanka prose,” but again, this is not really a different kind of tanka, but merely a different use of tanka (the way haiku are “used” in haibun, even though they are not really different from haiku that do not appear in haibun). Speaking of definitions, though, Naomi does offer a clear and concise differentiation of a string versus a sequence of tanka. She says that a tanka string consists of poems on a single subject, whereas a tanka sequence “orders the stanzas in a chronological dramatic order” (68). It is thus implied that the order of poems in a string does not matter, or could be random. I’ve never been convinced that the distinction matters that much, though, because I can’t imagine any poet always letting their “string” verses appear in a random order (where the order truly doesn’t matter). I would think they’d nearly always put the poems in a preferred order, thus for dramatic effect, which would make them a sequence rather than a mere string. Or they may choose some other arbitrary arrangement (alphabetical? seasonal? in chronological order when written?). Or maybe I should just speak for myself—I’d always put sets of poems in a preferred order. I can agree that order may not matter with some sets of tanka, but I suspect that, for the poet, the order usually does matter, making the concept of “string” an unnecessary and unhelpful distinction. Furthermore, as readers, we encounter the poems in a specific order (even if the author claims to have paid no attention to order), so that order does matter to the reader because that’s how they’re received.

    14. Toward the end of the “Varieties of Tanka” chapter, Naomi quotes Sanford Goldstein as saying “Poetry must not be what is usually called poetry. It must be an exact report, an honest diary of the changes in a man’s emotional life” (73). However, she is actually quoting Takuboku, in Goldstein’s translation. Sources are not provided for any of the quotations, and the list of “Sources” at the end of the book omits many items that the text refers to. This particular quotation is from Goldstein’s translation, with Seishi Shinoda, of Takuboku’s Romaji Diary and Sad Toys (Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle, 1985, 40).

    15. The chapter on kyōka, or “Witty Tanka” (87), provides a pleasing counterpoint to the more serious poems throughout the rest of the book. I appreciate Naomi’s quoting of M. Kei in calling this form “anti-tanka,” the way senryu is often distinct from haiku, even if the boundaries between them may be subject to endless debate.

    16. A chapter on “Response Tanka” (95) introduces the idea of writing poems back and forth between two poets, echoing the way waka was a kind of epistolary communication between Japanese courtiers in centuries past, even if trysting and flirting are no longer the primary objectives today. This chapter also refers to utamakura, or “poem pillows,” meaning place names that carry rich resonances in Japanese poetry. Naomi quotes her response-tanka partner Sonja Arntzen here as saying “There are really no place names in modern English with the same kind of richness in shared meaning” (96), but I would politely disagree. Niagara. Matterhorn. Machu Picchu. Everest. Palestine. Grand Canyon. Or name just about any well-known city in the world. New York. Rio. London. Soweto. San Francisco. Sydney. Overtones abound.

    17. Later in the “Response Tanka” chapter, Naomi quotes translator Sonja Arntzen as saying “Generally, composers of haiku and tanka in English ignore most of the prosodic conventions in the Japanese poetic tradition” (104), but I find this hard to agree with. If Arntzen means syllabic conventions (or rather, following the rhythm of sounds, rather than syllables, in Japanese), then yes, I would agree. Writing in a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern in English nearly always produces a poem that’s significantly longer in content than a Japanese tanka, which is why we often ignore such patterns (this is why both Tanka Canada and the Japan Tanka Poets Club advocate 21 or fewer syllables for tanka in English). Rather than “ignoring” Japanese prosody, this is a necessary adaptation—in order to follow it more closely. Likewise, we hardly avoid other aspects of prosody, let alone “most” of them, because we can pay attention to assonance, consonance, sound, rhythm, diction, tone, stress, emphasis, focus, contrast, and harmony—and many other techniques—just as fully as Japanese does, even if the languages do have their differences. And of course the quotation begs the question, which Japanese poetic tradition? Even just within tanka, and waka before that, the tradition stretches more than a millennium, and this poetry has varied widely over such a long time, and seems to have even more variance in the last few decades.

    18. A chapter on “Ekphrastic Tanka” (107), or writing tanka in response to other arts (mostly paintings), broadens the reader’s uses of tanka, or means of inspiration. No images are included in this chapter, which would have been a pleasing luxury, but the images referred to are readily discoverable online. Likewise, a chapter on “Tan Renga” (121) gives readers yet more to explore, this time in a collaboration by poets within a single poem—usually the first three lines written by one poet, followed by two lines by another, making a whole poem. As usual, Naomi provides plenty of helpful examples.

    19. A chapter near the book’s end covers “Japanese Sensitivities,” and explores such aesthetic terms as wabi-sabi, aware, yojō, makoto, kokoro, and more, but the chapter might have been improved by providing sample poems to illustrate each concept. Here, too, the chapter quotes from many sources yet they are absent from the “Sources” list at the end of the book. For example, there are mentions of Eric Sherlock, Garr Reynolds, and Jiro Harada, among others, who are given no follow-up in the “Sources” listings. It would be nice to know more about them.

    20. In describing the term yojō, Naomi refers to me, saying, “Michael Dylan Welch, in a lecture, once wrote the word ‘tundra’ on the board as a possible one-word haiku” (127)—incorrectly implying that I wrote it, and making no mention of who actually did. She offers this word’s rich overtones of meaning as an example of yojō, or excess/lingering meaning and reverberations. However, “tundra” is really a poem by Cor van den Heuvel, and I know I said it was Cor’s. It’s such a pivotal poem in English-language haiku (from the 1960s and anthologized repeatedly and prominently since then) that I’m surprised she didn’t remember that it wasn’t mine, or didn’t say who really wrote it—and now unsuspecting readers won’t know the original author.

    21. The book concludes with short homages to Naomi’s haiku teachers (me included, for which I’m grateful) (131) and a set of “Tanka Exercises” (138), which help to move the reader from reading to doing. Effective details like this make the book personal and practical.

    22. As already mentioned, the “Sources” at the end (140) miss many texts referred to throughout the book (especially in the “Japanese Sensitivities” chapter). In the “Periodicals” section, the Japan Tanka Poets Club’s The Tanka Journal is a glaring omission, nor are such leading tanka journals as Skylark and Moonbathing mentioned, yet Modern English Tanka is mentioned, despite being defunct for some years. Nor is the seminal website “Tanka Online” mentioned in the “Web Resources” section, among other vital resources. The Tanka Society of America is at least listed here, but it seems clear from the book that this organization and its history of journal and anthology publications have had essentially no impact on Naomi, which is a missed opportunity. It seems that she must have never been a member, and readers can only wonder how her book might have been refined or expanded with the additional influence of the society and the other journals I’ve mentioned here—among others. These resources end up getting a short shrift in that they are more prominent and influential than this book would suggest.

Ultimately, this is a groundbreaking book, because there have been practically no guidebooks devoted exclusively to writing tanka before this, unlike the proliferation of books, both good and questionable, about how to write haiku. So this book may be considered a first step, and in many ways it is therefore tentative. I’ve outlined some of the ways the book might have been refined, but one aspect that I’m very glad for, and would leave just the way it is, is the author’s welcoming and breezy style, which makes the writing of tanka poetry very inviting indeed.