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In 712 AD, the Kojiki, the oldest Japanese anthology of poems, was presented to the Emperor's court. In it, the god Susanoo is alleged to have written the first poem to appear on the opening pages of this book. This poem presented above was written in the Tanka form or "Uta" or "Waka" as it was called then.
The interpretations of this poem vary from its being a wedding song to a poem denoting the building of a newly wedded couple's home to an incantation to the Izumo gods for protection of the newly married couple. However, it is not the meaning of this poem that is most notable today; it is, instead, the exact use of metrics that would be the prescribed format for what would later be called "Classical Uta, Waka or Tanka". This classical form consists of 5 lines as stated above in the now standard form of 5-7-5-7-7 onji with appropriate rhythm and rhythm changes.
Tanka are 31-syllable poems that have been the most popular form of poetry in Japan for at least 1300 years. As a form of poetry, tanka is older than haiku, and tanka poems evoke a moment or mark an occasion with concision and musicality.
During Japan's Heian period (794-1185 A.D.) it was considered essential for a woman or man of culture to be able to both compose beautiful poetry and to choose the most aesthetically pleasing and appropriate paper, ink, and symbolic attachment - such as a branch, a flower - to go with it.
Tanka were often composed as a kind of finale to every sort of occasion; no experience was quite complete until a tanka had been written about it.
Tanka have changed and evolved over the centuries, but the form of five syllabic units containing 31 syllables has remained the same. Topics have expanded from the traditional expressions of passion and heartache, and styles have changed to include modern language and even colloquialisms.
In Japanese, tanka is often written in one straight line, but in English and other languages, we usually divide the lines into the five syllabic units: 5-7-5-7-7. Usually, each line consists of one image or idea; unlike English poetry, one does not seek to "wrap" lines in tanka, though in the best tanka the five lines often flow seamlessly into one thought.
English is very different from Japanese, and the first-time writer of English-language tanka may find that his or her tanka are more cumbersome and contain more images than we find in translated Japanese tanka. With practice, though, you will find the form strangely suitable to our relatively non-syllabic language.
Many writers of English-language tanka use less than 31 syllables to achieve the form in English.
What exactly is this Tanka?
The Tanka is a Japanese verse form, and its name is generally translated as "short
I am citing the definition given by the Haiku Society Of America - Draft definition from the Haiku Society of America definitions committee led by William J. Higginson (published in the HSA Newsletter in early 1994):
By Pat Shelley, from Footsteps in the Fog, Foster City, California: Press Here, 1994:
By Gerald St. Maur, from his 1999 Haiku Canada Newsletter article entitled "From Haiku to Tanka: Reversing Poetical History" (also published in the TSA Newsletter, II:1, Spring 2001):
All of the above definitions which are simply worded shed light on the various interesting aspects of a tanka. It in one the Oriental forms of poetry which had enthralled the Western world and fascinated many poets; old and new alike.
The Tanka poem has been considered the most important form and the oldest style of Japanese poetry, which dates back to the 1300s. The Tanka poem is similar to the Haiku but it is a little longer. Over the years, the Tanka has changed but, the form has remained the same, that is, it has 31 syllables. In the original Japanese Tanka, it was written as a one line poem with 31 syllables.
Today, the poem consists of five lines. Lines 1 and 3 have five syllables, and lines 2, 4 and 5 have seven syllables. Usually, the Tanka is written about nature and/or seasons. Therefore, the number of possible topics are endless.
Writing Tanka in English depends on how closely one wants to stay with the Japanese model. English is very different from Japanese. Most writers feel that converting onji syllables is not a one for one process. English syllables are long and carry too much information to equate to the Japanese onji. Tanka written in English would be difficult to recite properly in two breath lengths. (This shouldn't stumble western poets who like to write in Tanka style or from using English syllables in one format or from rhyming.) This is only a matter of personal taste and reflects only as to whether one wishes to stay close to the Japanese model or go away from it. If you are concerned with your English-based Tanka being translated to the Japanese language in a form that those reading it are used to, then you can stay closer to the Japanese model and modify it to make it work. If anyone doesn't prefer this, in order to keep the poem a semblance of a Tanka, then one must become more restrictive in tone and theme to have one's poems recognizable as Tanka in the Japanese tradition. There are other possibilities, but making a claim that the outcome is in fact a Tanka becomes much difficult to defend.
The history of the Tanka is interesting because in Japan thirteen hundred years ago lovers used Tanka as a way of sending secret messages. After being with their lover all night, it was a custom to have good manners and write a thank-you note a nice night together. They used 5-7-5-7-7 onji in a poem to express their feelings. They sent their messages in paper containers or wrote it on fans. Then they knotted it on a branch or stem of a single blossom. A messenger was sent to deliver these things to the other lover's house. As the messenger went, he was given something to drink, giving him the chance to be flirtatious with the household staff. During this visit, a Tanka would be written as a reply to the first note, which the messenger would then take back to his master. The writer would be under some pressure all night to write some sort of verse that was related to the previous note. This note needed to express his feelings carefully because this note would determine if the sender would want to return again. This was not an easy task! The chore of writing these morning-after notes was raised to an acceptable art. Basically, a woman who was good with a pen and who had a command of the language had more lovers and financial support than others did.
In the old days, they used Tanka as a way of privately expressing emotions, especially between friends and lovers when they were separated. When they expressed their feelings in Tanka, they were usually longing for a better time, more faithful lovers, younger years, or just plain old hard times. Some writers have been looking for this outlook all along.
Tanka Vs. Haiku
Tanka and Haiku are similar in the sense that both of them are syllable based and both of them mostly depict nature. I found this interesting comparison of the two forms done by Jane Reichhold and I am pasting it here for your reference
courtly ---------------------------------------merchants and lower class
to savor beauty ----------------------------to open the heart
How do you write a tanka?
I would suggest that you start with writing haikus. This is not exactly a compulsory step but it definitely gets you the right mentality to write tankas. You get into the habit of zeroing into the zen and writing the crux of the matter in a succinct manner.
Refer to the class on Haikus Class # 6).
There is a famous saying which is oft repeated in Tanka circles: "It is not as if you can just glue two haiku together to get a tanka. Within the tanka there is a switch of time, place, person, thing, or voice in order to create a leap or define a new relationship."
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