The Tanka is a Japanese form closely related to the haiku. It’s a slightly longer form–made up of a quintet rather than a tercet–but maintains the haiku’s somewhat strict syllable restrictions. While some of the conventions associated with the haiku are still present–such as the focus on imagery–the tone of the tanka may be more conversational. Restrictions on the use of poetic devices such as metaphor and personification are also more relaxed.
Two Paths to the Tanka
There are two ways to approach the syllable requirements of a Japanese form such as the tanka when composing outside of the original language.
One approach uses the syllable requirements of the English haiku (the well known 5-7-5 rule) as a guide. Following this pattern, the syllable count for the tanka would become 5-7-5-7-7. Strict adherence to this method would result in a tanka of exactly thirty-one syllables. Since the way that syllables are counted in the two languages are not directly comparable, this is only an approximation of the original form.
The second approach is to use what I’ll call the short-long-short method, in which the length of the lines, and the difference between them, is more important than the actual syllable count. Using this method, the lines of the tanka would be written short-long-short-long-long. Using this method, the tanka is often shorter than thirty-one syllables (the number of syllables per line is more likely to be lowered than raised). Some would argue that this method is more in the spirit of the original Japanese form.
*Visit American Tanka for more on the history of the tanka.*
A Tanka by Saigyo*
Beside the roadway
a flowing of clear water
in a willow’s shade
I thought for just a short while
to linger and take a rest.
*12th century Japanese poet and priest
Requirements of the Form
– most often made of a single quintet
Similarities with haiku
– focus on brevity, immediacy
– use of natural imagery
– often features an unexpected “turn” in the final lines of the poem
Differences from haiku
– allows figurative language such as metaphor
– may have relaxed, more conversational tone
– Option One (Based on English Haiku): 5-7-5-7-7
– Option Two (Truer to Japanese Form): Short-Long-Short-Long-Long
– not typically metrical
– not usually rhymed
[Line 1] 5 Syllables (short line)
[Line 2] 7 Syllables (longer line)
[Line 3] 5 Syllables (short line)
[Line 4] 7 Syllables (longer line)
[Line 5] 7 Syllables (longer line)
Three Original Tanka
The Artist Knows
The artist knows
the bee in the sunflowers
shares a great lesson:
keep collecting that nectar
and the honey will come.
long covered by the blue
ice of the glacier,
will soon strike out with fiery
eruptions of consequence.
Like a Child Moving
Like a child moving
endlessly from game to game
in the hummingbird’s garden
our hearts dance from joy to joy.
Links to Online Resources
Tanka – Writer’s Digest
Tanka – AHA Poetry
**COME BACK NEXT WEEK TO SEE THE NEXT FORM: THE SOMONKA!**
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