Over the past year I often see members in THE DAILY HAIKU community featuring Tanka and I want to find out more.
As with haiku Tanka’s traditional roots are from ancient Japan. As a 31 syllable poem it was originally conceived as one unbroken line and thought of as a short song. But modern tanka tends to be split into 5 lines with a format of 5/7/5/7/7. However as with haiku adhering to 5/7/5 this is also a guideline not a rule.
The turn or shift usually comes in the 3rd line in a Tanka where a more in-depth exploration of the image is encouraged.
Unlike traditional haiku personification, metaphor and simile is invited and there is no requirement to add a season word.
Punctuation is generally avoided but again with modern tanka this is a suggestion not a rule.
After living with 3 lines for a year how do I feel about 2 extra lines? Tanka appears to offer the same similar juxtaposed joy of restriction and freedom afforded by haiku. I sense that the same approach to observing, gathering, distilling and settling into a rhythm that can support haiku practice will also work with tanka. My first feelings are that it is important not to rush excitedly to fill those 2 extra lines but make sure they are needed, relevant and subtle. My work on short film scripts may help me here to ensure I interrogate the need for each word, to strengthen and enhance the image and narrative created. I like the original sense of tanka as a song and will try to use that as inspiration.
A helpful way into getting to grips with this form, as with all writing, is to read examples. I have chosen two tanka here, one from its traditional roots and the other a contemporary offering. The first is by Emperor Tenji (626-672)
秋の田の かりほの庵の 苫をあらみ 我が衣手は 露にぬれつつ
Aki no ta no/ Kariho no io no/ Toma wo arami/ Waga Koromode wa/ Tsuyu ni nuretsusu
In the autumn rice field
Sheltering at the temporary harvest-hut
Coarse the rush-mat roof
My sleeves get wet
With the raindrops
Tessa Woolridge writes ‘One of tanka’s gifts is that it can both capture and extend a moment in time.’ Her helpful article on Tanka https://tessawooldridge.com/2017/10/31/tanka-a-brief-introduction/ features the following example
and short of days
hands his garden’s fruit
across our common fence
Despite their obvious differences both Tanka share an observed moment that evokes a poignant and relatable connection to our human fragility. There is an active engagement in these tanka that draws you into both scenes. We shelter in one, feel those raindrops and the coarseness of the mat and in the other we receive the fruit from an elderly neighbour as we meet at the threshold of our common experiences. In both something deep is seen and felt where sensory details are carefully selected to establish a depth of connection. What they both share is that they would have had far less impact as haiku. I guess this is the point that they suit their form, it compliments each narrative and the five lines each lead into another with that essential ebb (or turn) and flow.
I look forward to experimenting with Tanka. Do add your own work, thoughts on this form and any tips here. 4
Brett Christensen’s helpful introduction to Tanka https://medium.com/house-of-haiku/tanka-poetry-a-brief-introduction-11f2aabef214
Differences between haiku and tanka https://www.masterpiece-of-japanese-culture.com/literatures-and-poems/haiku-tanka-poetry-difference
Our very own TDH member Alan Summers on His CALL OF THE PAGE website runs a wonderful mix of courses on haiku and here is a link to those on Tanka