My Experience of Tanka Writing *
Human values embedded within the framework of natural beauty influence my poetry writings. At an early age I wrote both longer and shorter versions of free verses. Some of my poems are characterized by aspects related to social issues. I am more comfortable in writing shorter version of poems. This has given an additional avenue for writing tanka. The article, ‘The New Short Lyric Poem’ by Denis M. Garrison inspired me a lot.
I wish to do experimentation by assimilating the essence of scientific fragrance into the petals of poetry. Recently I have coined an idea of “Astro-Poetry” assimilating the essence of scientific entities in literature. In one of my poems titled “The Other Being”, I wrote in Poetbay in 2010:
At times I wonder
Perhaps we are the
Of distance cosmic rays
At an imaginative focal length.
I write shorter version of poem with philosophical touch. Initially I was not knowing these poems are close to Tanka. Later I read some of the classical articles on Japanese poems by Jane Reichhold. Indeed the age old literary cadence manifests excellence of humanism and emotional behaviour. ‘Tanka’ means ‘small song’, and originated in 7th century AD in Japan, when it was known as waka. Originally tanka was known as uta (song in Chinese). The waka has been written on seasonal subjects (kidai). Waka literature, popular during 7th century AD, represents the classical Japanese aesthetics of Man’yosh?, Kokinwakashu, and Shinkokinwakashu eras. The earliest rich collection, Man’yosh? (Collection of Myriad Leaves), consists of 4496 poems out of which 4173 are waka poems. The schemata or mora patterns follows 5-7-5-7-7 (known as ‘sanjuichi’). Original structure was in 5-7, 5-7, 7 and subsequently became 5-7, 5-7-7 during the Man’yo period.
The pre-existing format 5-7-7 was known as katauta. This format was preceded by a number of 5-7 couplets composing the long poem known as choka. Later waka was widely known as tanka, a five-lined short song (post Meiji period), named by Masaoka Shiki in 19th century. The Japanese poet, Jun Fujita, adopted tanka into English in 1923 (Tanka: Poems in Exile).The tanka is divided into two strophes. The first three lines of tanka is known as kami-no-ku and the last two lines is known as shimo-no-ku. Sometimes there is rare composition of three strophes. The pivot line or swing line (zeugma) is the main organ that distinguishes tanka from the five-lined free verse. Tanka contains two parts, the inner and the outer scene, in terms of rhythm structures and each of about one breath length. The break or swing line formats the tanka in 2/3, 3/2, 1/4, or 4/1, simple sentence with each line having concrete image as suggested by Kala Ramesh. Generally line 3 serves as pivot line and swings away the art of expression from the three lines above from the prominent lines below imparting an expression of poignancy to poetry. This pivot (kakekatoba) links one way with the lines before it and equally links and reads with the lines after it.
In contrast to haiku, tanka embodies subjective judgment rich in lyrical intensity, musicality and with emotional emancipation. Tanka does not necessarily deal exclusively with nature. It embodies wide thematic values of human expression: pathos, anguish, emotion, romanticism and other reflection with poetic elegance and musicality. Poetic essence (honi) or exhibition of personification or anthropomorphism, use of metaphor, similes, metrical exhibition, etc, are highly embedded in tanka writing. It is associated with imaginative blending of alliteration and assonance.
There has been many subgenre of tanka like kyoka, gogyohka, gogyoshi, zuihitsu, etc. Tanka sequence and tanka string with the expression of poetically connected theme have been dealt with in detail by M. Kei. Different techniques of tanka writings have been illustrated by Jane Reichhold (Teika’s Ten Tanka Techniques,’ (2010).
Japanese poetry is syllabic by nature and is not metrical or rhymed in style. The equivalent syllables would be more in English. The Japanese long poem choka, is structured 5-7-5-7-5-7-5-7-5 . . . 7-7 onji in line length and may even exceed 100 lines. Onji refers to counting of phonetic sounds. The katauta is known as the basic unit of Japanese poetry. In the choka, the 5-7-5 or 5-7-7 (17 – 19) onji pattern is widely seen. In early days the preference for ending Japanese poetry was with the 5-7-7 onji pattern. The 5-7-5 onji ending has become more prevalent as of now.
Tanka is constructed by 5 lines or units or phrases each odd in number of onji, and ending in the traditional 7-7 onji pattern. Makoto Ueda gave details on the reform and modernized review of tanka elaborately in his book Modern Japanese tanka. Of late we adopted tanka in five lines (s/l/s/l/l) without stressing the syllable count.
Tanka genre has a wide scope of poetic expression on broad spectrum, as described by Jane Reichhold, based on mystical expression and loneliness (yugen tei), gentle expression (koto shikarubeki), exotic beauty and elegance (urawashiki tei), human feeling, love, grief (ushin tei), grandeur (taketakaki tei), visual description (miru tei), witty with conventional subject (omoshiroki tei) having complex imageries. Sometimes the subject matters may be described with unusual poetic concept (hitofushi aru tei) or narrating in precise details with complex imageries (komayaka naru tei). Some tanka, in contrast to elegance or balanced narration, exhibit strong diction in style of expression. This is classified as demon-quelling (onihishigi tei or kiratsu no tei).
The Wind Five Folded School of Tanka by Jane Reichhold, scholarly essays published in Atlas Poetica, Tanka Online; The classical tanka archived in ‘Aha Poetry’ site, Tanka Teachers Guide, MET Publication, 2007; AtlasPoetica.org, and others are the storehouse of rich tanka literature.
I derived a lot of poetic inspirations from the enriched essays written by Stanford Goldstein, Jeanne Emrich, Michael McClintock, Kala Ramesh, Beverley George, Michael Dylan Welch, Jane Richhold, Richard MacDonald, Robert W. Wilson, J. Zimmerman, Max Verhart, H. F. Noyes, Karina Klesko, John Daleiden, Carmen Sterba, Larry Kimmel, Elizabeth St. Jacques, Richard Gilbert, Randy Brooks and others. The article ‘Introduction to Tanka’ by Amelia Fielden, ‘Sensing Tanka’ by David Terelinck, scholarly articles by Danis Garrison, and Robert D. Wilson have been very beneficial in understanding the age old classical Japanese genre. Later I got a lot of encouragements from Marilyn Hazelton, H. Gene Murtha, Kirsty Karkow, Aurora Antonovic, Sonam Chhoki, Susan Constable, Tokido Kizenzen, Robert Epstein, Miriam Wald, Don Miller, Liam Wilkinson, Lorette C. Luzajic, and many others.
I composed three five-line poems and sent them to Anglo-Japanese Society. I was new to the traditional style and syllabification of tanka writing. However, Dr Hisashi Nakamura, President, Anglo-Japanese Tanka Society, UK was quite appreciative of the philosophical underline of the poems, though it did not strictly follow the s/l/s/l/l schema. I made minor edits of the poems at a later date. Primarily these tanka reflect mystery and depth (yugen tei).
A few selected compositions, given below, express the mystery with metaphoric overprint blending with unusual complex imageries.
in the kingdom of darkness
for a ray of light
the sun remains always
in hide for the innocent blind
Indo-Anglo Tanka Society, UK, 2010
at life’s shoreline
the sands of time escape
from many gaps . . .
I collect memories
embedded in sediment
The Notes from the Gean, Vol. 3, No.1,2011
Often I try to follow simple expression on conventional aspects. Tanka unfold the inner beauty with gentle expression (koto shikarubeki). The followings are some examples:
the black, white and brown
short and tall
all variances and varieties
in the garden of beauty
Magnapoets, Issue 9, January, 2012
in the winter cold
of my mother
lulling me to sleep
Red Lights, June, 2012
in starlit sky
the beggar counts
for a Christmas cake
Ribbons, Fall, 2012
I deeply appreciate Kathabela Wilson’s poetic support when I published a tanka-art based on an image sent by my daughter, Smita, from USA with a concept of elegancy in expression (Urawashiki tei).
the poet scripts
her well-lit voyage
ripples of love
the darkness paints
gently on the silken edges
‘Poetry Corner,’ColoradBoulevard.net,May 2016
The followings are some examples based on elegance and poetic essence (honi):
rows of trees
along stretched seashore
perhaps the oceanic vastness
interacting in deep silence
Simply Haiku, Vol. 10 No. 1, Summer, 2012
fragrance of flower
from far off distance
I narrate and mail her
through the gentle wind
The Bamboo Hut, Vol. 1, No. 3, 2014
The narration of the above tanka endures graceful and melodious expression with musical note (sonority).
Most of my tanka are primarily focused on emotional expression (ushin tei). I felt privileged on inclusion of the tanka given below in the Special Feature at AtlasPoetica.org, ‘Snipe Rising From A Marsh – Birds in Tanka,’ edited by Rodney Williams, April, 2012.
leaves its message
the old man still awaits
son’s return from battle
One can stretch the pathos of the old man on receiving the telegram bearing the sad news.
awaits the old man at post office
the grief soaked paper
sends the message to darkness
over the coffee mixed with tears
Simply Haiku, Vol. 8, No. 2, Autumn 2010
into the sky
the stain of separation
drenches me with tears
A Hundred Gourds,Vol.4, No.4, September 2015
The phrases, son’s return from battle, coffee mixed with tears, the stain of separation, portray deep solitude. In the tanka, the rainbow, nature is intertwined with human emotion (jo). Ron Moss, touched by sorrowful manifestation of the poem, portrayed a tanka art.
Tanka with creative interplay of imageries exhibit the style of grandeur expression (taketakaki tei).In such writing, influence of metaphorical components are often seen. In the following tanka, the phrases like taste of salt, colour of the wind, gap of the emptiness spell out the splendour and musicality of tanka writings.
wave after wave
on an incessant journey
when I long to change the taste
of salt, the colour of the wind
Skylark, Vol.2,No.2, Winter 2014
black and white
paintings on the pot
searches the streak of colors
to fill the gap of the emptiness
‘Chiaroscuro LGBT Tanka’, Special Feature, AtlasPoetica.org, August 2012
Spontaneity of tanka writing quite often expresses the visual imageries (miru tei).In the following tanka, the common observation such as penguins in Antarctica, climbing of spider, stillness of mountains create images of moment with poetic essence (honi).
white-land of Antarctica
a serene gathering of penguins,
the veteran leads the mass
to the curvilinear point
where ice meets the sea
Atlas Poetica, 6, 2010
the spider climbs
up the corner edge
on stepping stones
the handicapped boy
aims towards the starlit sky
Ribbons, Vol. 9 No. 2, Fall, 2013
for million years
the mountains in stillness
spells the perennial presence
within vast space of my rocky silence
I portray some compositions which are common and witty in expression (omoshiroki tei).
lengthens towards light
the cry of owl
reminds me in dream
it is still midnight
Atlas Poetica 18, Summer, 2014
under the shadow
our twisting lasts for long…
tossing the stone
I return in the evening
carrying the half-moon of love
Neon Graffiti, Keibooks, 2016
The above tanka are suffused with humour. The phrases such as the cry of owl and half-moon of love are replenished with poetic amusements.
Occasionally I have composed tanka with unusual poetic concept (hitofushi aru tei) to evoke socio-cultural underlines.
we feel proud
being descendant of Neanderthals
on the flow of time
living here, adjacent everywhere
as a part of the long human-ware
Diogen, February, 2012
from a ball of flesh
Queen Gandhari brought forth
her Kaurava clan . . .
science celebrates the birth
of test-tube baby, Louise Brown
‘Myths and The Creative Imagination’, Special Feature, AtlasPoetica.org, April 2015
Note: In the Mahabharat, Queen Gandhari sprinkled water over a ball of flesh, which was divided into a hundred and one parts about the size of a thumb. These were then placed in pots with clarified butter and kept at a concealed spot under guard. In due course, a hundred brothers and one sister were born, known as the Kauravas.
the temple steps
lead to the corner end . . .
the devotees divinely sense
the softness of the stony carvings
‘Yin, Yang, and beyond’, Special Feature, AtlasPoetica.org, October 2015
Note: The name Ardhanarishvara means “the Lord whose half is a woman.” In Hinduism and Indian mythology many deities are represented as both male and female, manifesting with characteristics of both genders, including Ardhanarishvara, created by the merging of the Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati.
Scientific quest and mythological concepts have been interpreted in the above tanka. Unusual topic and typical word phrasing have been used to spell out poetic expression.
In some of my tanka, I try to narrate in details with complex imageries (komayaka naru tei).
a lone myna
high in the sky
descends on its weight
holding the silent wind
Cattails, April 2017
my gleaming mother
shares her pleasure
with twin buds
I sense ripples of sound
of the swimming clouds
They Gave Us Life Anthology, 2017
The phrases such as holding the silent wind, swimming clouds are the depiction of art of exquisite imageries.
I have written one or two tanka with dictated strong tone (onihishigi tei or kiratsu no tei). Such type of writings expresses anguish of the socio-political issues.
deep darkness tears through
whiteness of woman
silencing everyone else and
letting moon to set in shame
Lynx, Vol. XXVIII, February, 2012
and counter arguments
I pile up like dust
it is all in the street
the wind you can not seize
IRIS International, 2, July, 2016
The phrases like, “letting moon to set in shame”, “the wind you can not seize” are sort of dictated statement.
Poetry creates a fabric of resonance to transmit the human essence into our surroundings and further into the greater space. Japanese art of poetry writing spells the aesthetic values of nature. It inspires to unfold the spiritual wealth of nature, even in the dust particle.
The mystic of art and literature delightfully reveals the kaleidoscope of science through colourful flair of human aspiration. It amalgamates the spiritual romanticism and intellectual cadence in the perennial journey along the corridor of nature’s blissful beauty. The essence of poetry lies in the fragrance of flower, simplicity of flow of river, gentleness of the trees and calmness of shadow.
Science is the composite reflection and poetry is its genetic soul. Let us put poetry to thrive in time and anti-time, in matter and antimatter. Let poetry remain immortal enlightening the lamp of humanism and brotherhood.
I wish to conclude by citing my tanka published in Atlas Poetica, 6, 2010.
tomorrow man may
fly to Mars and beyond
I wish all to settle
and flourish as human alone —
no caste, no religion
*First published in Atlas Poetica 29, 2017