The Tanka
A Japanese Form

I am grateful to Pat Forster for providing the material for this page.

The Tanka is a Japanese form of poetry recorded in the Kojiki. This was written in 712 AD and translated in the Records of Ancient Matters by Charles E Tuttle in 1981.

Tan means 'short' and kan (an alternative form of ku) 'verse', so Tanka literally means 'short verse'. Tanka had its origin in the Imperial Court of Japan. Men and women of the Imperial court took lovers; the security of having and keeping a lover was helpful to the status of both man and women within the court. Subtlety was important; short verse to and fro between lovers kept the other party interested.

The traditional form as applied in the West uses thirty-one syllables. Onji consists of five lines, arranged as 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. The distinguishing characteristic of a Tanka is that it should be a short poetic statement depicting nature, linked to a particular feeling or emotion of the author. There is also the requirement to have a pivotal 'image-word', a Kakekotoba) somewhere in the third line. This image should link to both the upper two lines (which by themselves form one subject) and the lower two lines (which form another subject.

In 1882 Basil Hall Chamberlain translated a Tanka written by one of the Prince’s wives. She lived in a building built specifically for housing the wives of princes:

             Many clouds arise.
             The manifold fence of the forth-issuing clouds
             Makes a manifold fence
             For the spouses to be within
             Oh, that manifold fence.

The manner in which the syllables fall in Japanese differs from Western languages, thus this translation gives us 5-12-6-8-6 syllables.

This classic example by an anonymous poet is taken from the Kokinshu the Imperial anthology of ancient and modern poetry:

             Because there was a seed
             A pine has grown here
             On the barren rocks:
             If we really love our love
             What can keep us from meeting?

When we in the western world attempt to write Tanka it is interesting to accept the challenges of using the classic form as far as we can. In modern Japan some poets writing the Tanka use fresh language, instead of re-using the acceptable 'poetic phrases' depicting the beauty of nature and confessing their feelings or emotions. In her prize winning book from 1988. Saradakinenbis ('Salad Anniversary') Machi Tawara 1988 speaks more directly, yet maintains a shyness as in the following (translation by Jack Stamm):

             Both of us staring
             at the identical spot.
             Yet something reaches
             Its end between you and me.
             This lengthening afternoon.

The traditions of Tanka remain today in the Imperial Court. In 1993 the Crown Prince wrote this for a National Tanka Competition:

             I gaze in delight
             As a flock of cranes take flight
             Into the blue skies
             The dream cherished in my heart
             Since childhood has come true.

Weeks later, the engagement of Prince Naruhito to Princess Masako was announced. The palace watchers knew from the Tanka that the lady had said yes to his proposal before the offical announcement.

This is one of Pat Forster's own Tanka

             Mystical mountain
             In the distance mist hangs low.
             Ice weeps icicles
             Soft footprints fade away
             Carried in the northern wind.


A Note on Formal and Free Verse
The Haiku
Literary Terms
Metre
Triolet
Why Write Haiku?
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