Poetry Knowledge Zone > Class 12


yakumo tatsu
Izumo yaegaki
tsumagomi ni
yaegaki tsukuru
sono yaegaki wo

Eightfold rising clouds
Build an eightfold fence
An eightfold Izumo fence
Wherein to keep my bride -
Oh! splendid eightfold fence.

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
poem" or "short song."

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):

"Tanka. The typical lyric poem of Japanese literature, composed of five unrhymed metrical units of 5,7,5,7,7 'sound symbols'; tanka in English have generally been in five lines with a total of thirty-one or fewer syllables, often observing a short, long, short, long, long pattern. Tanka usually need no titles, though in Japanese a 'topic' (dai) is often indicated where a title would normally stand in Western poetry. In Japan, the tanka is well over twelve hundred years old (haiku is about three hundred years old), and has gone through many periods of change in style and content. But it has always been a poem of feelings, often involving metaphor and other figurative language (not generally used in haiku). While tanka praising nature have been written, and seem to resemble 'long haiku,' most tanka deal with human relationships or the author's situation. In the words of Sanford Goldstein, 'behind the scene is the autobiographical moment of the poet' ('Tanka Off the Back Burner,' Frogpond, XV:2 Fall-Winter 1992). The best tanka harmonizes the writer's emotional life with the elements of the outer world used to portray it."

By Pat Shelley, from Footsteps in the Fog, Foster City, California: Press Here, 1994:

"Tanka in English is a small lyrical poem that belongs to everyone. Still written in thirty-one or fewer syllables in five rhythmic lines, as it was over 1,200 years ago, it can embrace all of human experience in its brief space with emotions of love, pity, suffering, loneliness, or death, expressed in the simplest language. It may sometimes seem fragmentary or lacking in unity because it is more intuitive than analytical, using imagery rather than abstractions. . . . One of the more challenging (and charming) of its elements is the subtle turn at the center of the poem, something unexpected perhaps, usually occurring after the second or third line as two seemingly unrelated events, images, or ideas are brought together, something less than narrative, an elliptical space that adds pleasure to our listening. Tanka is about our everyday lives in its smallest happenings, a little song of celebration."

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):

"In going beyond the experience of the moment, the tanka takes us from delight to fulfillment, from insight to comprehension, and psycho-orgasm to love; in general, from the spontaneous to the measured. To achieve this requires a fundamental shift in emphasis: from glimpse to gaze, from first sight to exploration, and from juxtaposition to interplay, in short, from awareness to perspective. . . . It is thus evident that to compose a tanka is to articulate reflectively. . . . It is a shift which, in general, takes us from the simple to the complex. More pointedly, it moves us from the poetry of the noun to the poetry of the verb; in weaving terms, from the thread to the tapestry; in botanical terms, from seed to plant; in chemical terms, from element to compound; in painting terms, from sketch to picture; and in musical terms, from chord to melody."

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


TANKA ----------------------------------HAIKU
reflects nature
traditionally no violence
traditionally no war images 


13 centuries---------------------------------3 centuries
31 onji / syllables -------------------------17 onji/syllables
feminine ------------------------------------masculine

Social Background 

courtly ---------------------------------------merchants and lower class
literary----------------------------------------part of a game


to savor beauty ----------------------------to open the heart
contemplation------------------------------quick and direct
emotional -----------------------------------aim to have no emotion
uses imagination--------------------------senses with concrete images
written to assigned themes ------------based on an experience
five parts/five images --------------------three images - max.
exclusion of the ugly ---------------------write beautifully of the common
written to be a chanted song ----------spoken crisply

use of symbolic images ----------------use of Zen subjects

Satire Forms
Kyoka /mad poem--satirical -----------senryu

traditional uses a limited ----------------speaks of common things
accepted vocabulary of images-------with common language
that are agreed to be elegant ----------to reveal uncommon ideas


holds a mirror reflecting ----------------just as it is
nature and humanity --------------------also

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).

Though not carved in stone the following steps might help you to write a tanka:

  • Read a lot of tankas written by masters, it will give you a feel for what you are going to write.
  • Begin with a haiku and the haiku sensibility. Most commonly, this means that the poet writes something brief (such as three lines much like a haiku) depicting nature.
  • Then add the rest (usually two lines) to create a new relationship, perhaps adding information about the internal, emotional state of the poet, to show what the opening lines signify to her. This lets the poet link nature and a feeling or emotion. The new lines should shed a new light or add a new perspective to the first three lines. Take care that it doesn't look like an extended haiku.
  • Pay special attention to the part of the tanka that connect and leads from the image of nature to the emotion. This is where the poem turns or pivots between the physical outer world and the non-physical inner world. Most commonly, tanka pivot just after or else during the third line. Tanka is not just reporting like a haiku is. It involves emotions and a little bit of yourselves in it too. Pour your feelings in the last two lines and light up the tanka. A Tanka tends to be lyrical, whereas a Haiku can be comparatively fragmented. Also, a Tanka was historically written for emotional purposes, to redirect someone's heart, whereas a Haiku is more subtle in its evocation of emotion.
  • At the pivot point, you put an image that is related both to the preceding lines (usually on an exterior subject) and the lines that follow the pivot and that are written on another (usually interior) subject. Thus two images (one outer, one inner) could be connected by a third image.
  • Keep it concise, simple and a reflection of the nature. Tanka is not about flowery words and lovely rhymes, it is about getting your images painted in minimal words.

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."   

Smitha Chakravarthula


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