Short Verse Forms 5 – Tanka

December 2004

TANKA

Introduction by Jane Reichhold


Tanka, a Japanese poetry form, is one of the oldest that still enjoys current popularity. First called uta (song), the form was later named waka, and only after one of its dips in popularity, was the term tanka (tan = short; ka, for ga, = elegance) given to it. Though both tanka and waka are now used interchangeably, waka refers to all Japanese poetry and tanka to the five-part poem classically composed in Japan with sets of 5, 7, 5, 7, 7 sound units. In English the poem is written (most often) in five lines to show, and validate, these five parts, and because English syllables do not equate with the Japanese sound units, which are much shorter – often only one vowel, many writers use less words than one would use if counting out 31 syllables. Nowadays many try to respect this basic form by making their lines short, long, short, long, long, so the poem retains a certain distinctive shape.

Due to its long history, written since 700 CE, many styles and objectives have been attached to the tanka. But there are a few basic characteristics that separate the tanka from other poetry forms.

First of all the poem is composed of phrases and fragments; it is not a sentence from beginning to end. Whether the phrase portion continues over one, two or even three of the lines, is still an open option. The placing of the fragments is also completely open to the author. What is important is the relationship between the parts of the poem. It is here the poetry occurs.

This relationship can function over a pivot phrase or image that has two sides or meanings that relates to both parts of the poem. Characteristically, a scene will be set, or an image portrayed in the first three lines. Then in the lower part, there will be another image, statement, opinion given that relates in some way to the top portion with a twist in meaning or vision. Often the image or fragment in the middle line is the one that relates to both parts, but experts can use any line. It is thought to be admirable to have a change of place, voice or time between these two parts and give a tanka its distinctiveness. These devices are necessary to differentiate tanka from simple free verse poetry set into five lines.

Many modern writers, to emphasize that the poem is not a sentence or sentences, prefer to write tanka without capitalization and with a minimum of punctuation.
The subject matter for a tanka is unlimited, though traditionally the poem has always had a lyrical quality (missing in haiku), and has striven to be refined, gentle, and heart-felt. Tanka are associated with love and most often thought of as the love poems between lovers, but they are also used to express the love for someone who is absent through circumstances or death. It has been the custom at various times to use images of the natural world interfacing with human emotions as in the relationship of tears and rain to the point that these have become cliché.

The search is on for new ideas of how we relate to each other and the natural world around us how we are all one reflecting each other. Tanka, because it works with relationships, has been thought of as a woman’s poetry, even though in all the ages men, too, have written it, but the stars of the form have been females.

A sample from the famous author of The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu, with a tanka expressing Genji’s love for and anger with his dead father. Here he is speaking of one of his father’s robes that he has brought with him in exile:

a single robe
yet the two sleeves
are wet with tears
on one side bitterness
on the other affection

(From A String of Flowers, Untied: Love Poems from The Tale of Genji translated by Hatsue Kawamura and Jane Reichhold. Stone Bridge Press: 2003.)

……………………………………………………

Yuri Runov

Commentary
by Conrad DiDiodato

Yuri’s tanka spring wonderfully, I believe, from a unity of style and mood: their adherence to the more traditional tanka format of 5-7;5-7-7 gives them technical strength, while the mood throughout is consistently one of sad and mournful regret. Yuri’s tanka are the lover’s powerful but gentle arms that are about to loosen and let something precious go. Whether occasioned by the spritely play of snowflakes or the presence of a young companion, the poet-narrator faces the inevitability of age and loss with a master’s quiet dignity. Not even in a cinema, having “take[n] refuge from/night blizzard”, can he see, with eyes wide open, the film’s happy ending: even the surest prospect of happiness here cannot be taken directly, without any admixture of uncertainty.

Turning right then left
right again then left again —
this unsure pathway
used to lead out of the wood…
whither now when I’m with you?
*

Games young snowflakes play
in the golden neon light
under each street lamp
first waltzing all around me
then rushing to someone else.

*

Leaves rustle underfoot —
sad reminder of my age
when I walk with you.
Undeserved, belated gift —
your young and loving heart

*

We take refuge from
night blizzard and raging wind
in a cinema
watching the film with eyes closed
so sure of a happy end

………………………………………………..

Kirsty Karkow

golden. ..
the light! the leaves!
elevated
I walk among
sugar maples

*

I let her go . . .
no words or hugs
good-bye
the days grow shorter
and the evenings cool

……………………………………………………………………………

karina klesko

un-dreaming

aging dreamscapes
escape into deep caverns
hanging upside down;
my memory
& blue skies

Karina Klesko


Creative Corners: Bridging the Gap
Commentary by Conrad DiDiodato

The tanka form’s been skillfully reversed in the “hanging upside down” image of the narrator’s reve: rather than “blue skies” at the tanka’s more traditional opening, with its accompanying tension between Nature and a narrator’s contemplated place within it, haunting illusions that leave narrator suspended and disoriented from the very beginning reverse a traditional Eastern order of things, with natural scenes taking a back-seat to “unnatural” dream sequences. Tanka form, movement and dream state all form intertwining textures of the whole tanka piece, each in its own unique relationship, and ties, to the others. Tanka content, in Karina’s bold design, can no longer be separated from its form (as in traditional tanka conception). The words of the Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz seem to confirm Karina’s insight: “The distance between the name and the thing is abolished; to name is to create, and to imagine, to be born.”

a crow in the garden
calling out to the others
I wonder
what will become
of the stinging nettle

*

the overhead fan rattles
every ten seconds
in my dream
someone calls to me
from the shore

*

silver maple leaves
spinning and thinning
indefinite sleep —
nearer to your heartbeat
as dawn lifts its watery veil

…………………………………………………..

Gerry Bravi

the room shrinks
to a patch of shimmer,
a pool of light
directed and focused
inward

………………………………………………………………………………………….

Hans Jongman

summer rain…
barefoot angler
nudges a flopping catfish
from the puddle
into the river

*

building a nest
a woodpecker
cocks its head
at the sound
of a woodpecker knocking

*

on the car radio
the Eroica’s slow movement
turned up loud…
taking my place
in the funeral procession

…………………………………………………………………………………….

Victor P. Gendrano

autumn chill
the gardenia’s fragrance
scatters in the wind
her absence grow
more palpable each day

*

early winter
I linger awhile
in our sold house
children’s laughter echoes
from the bare walls

*

autumn chill
her bougainvillea sheds
all its leaves and flowers
an empty wheelchair lies inert
near the hospital bed

………………………………………………………..

Elizabeth Howard

shower at dusk
double rainbows fading
like the letters
you once wrote to me
like your vows of love

*

one-lane wooden bridge
from Temuco, Chile
to the Mapuche reservation
a van and an oxcart
nose to nose

*

tour of the bayou–
morning light streams
through cypress and tupelo
a Spanish moss beard on the guide
an old Conquistador

………………………………………………………………………………..

Izabel Sonia Ganz

in the dusty attic
your colorful photos
fill a black suitcase
with a hole
the size of my heart

a gecko
on the windowsill – so fast!
its tail waving
at me as I hold a ticket
for a trip away from pain

I breathe the morning air
of rain washed desert
where your bones and milk bowl
lie guarded by a bush
with fading yellow flowers

……………………………………………………………………………

Allen Terdiman

The autistic boy
lived twenty years
in silent rage–
at his graveside
no breeze in the leaves.

*

Summer
before the Fall–
flowers, birds, animals
and a dozing
Serpent.

*

Every so often
pangs of sorrow–
only a few words
or a joke would have made
your eyes sparkle

*

Two buddies
played with model planes–
now grown
they drink scotch
with lunch.

*

Wrestling with Daddy
I hold my own–
now I remember
only the love
in his embrace.

*

Mountains
under a gray sky–
and old man
walks a road through drifts
of deep show.

*

Above the clouds a
full moon
in the night sky–
and old man begins
his trek up Mt. Sinai.

*

Dark
in the corner of my room–
at the window
chirping birds
insist that spring is here.

*

Meandering
in field of haystacks
memories of life–
many acts
in a play without end.

*

Silently
sitting with you
on the nursing home patio
we hear a lifetime
of music.

……………………………………………………………………..

Adelaide B. Shaw

summer afternoon
again doing nothing
together
memories blend with today
and those of tomorrow

*

a murky pond —
the fallen oak tree
makes a halfway bridge;
the need to turn back
known from the start

*

a change in the wind —
the pines whisper
a softer tune
with the thawing of old snow
new desires emerge

*

the first meeting
in a room filled with chatter
there is but one sound;
your voice alone reaches my ear
long after we say goodnight

the end of August —
a brief scent of summer-sweet
at the saltmarsh;
we find our way back
to every day lives

………………………………………………………………………..

Michael McClintock

stopping frequently
under the dogwoods
in full flower
my friend comes up the path,
shyly, wearing her new dress

*

while we discuss
the upcoming exam
you chew gum
giving your face
a mask-like control

*

“jacaranda”
when you say it
in that way you have
I like how
this word sounds

……………………………………………………………………………

Larry Kimmel

as I lie sleepless
I would give much to hear
once more
a long ago train whistle —
a voice to speak these narrow bed nights

*

the gnarled apple tree in winter
now lush with leaves —
the twists
and turns of growth —
my own strange armature

*

I wanted my freedom
and now I have it
— a death will do that —
is there anything in life
that isn’t alloy?

*

this slow flowing river
these gentle branches
the days
of wine and roses
not so important anymore

*

wind in the trees
or trees in the wind
what difference?
we fight over boundaries
yet breathe one air

*

bonsai —
or apple tree,
and me
incredibly
shrunk?

*

just the right scale
for parsley-sprig trees, this train
in the jeweler’s window —
now
if I could only make myself small

………………………………………………………………………

Darrell Byrd

the moon
shines still and bright
in her eyes
beneath the willow tree
sparkles a silent farewell

*

in evening shadows
a roadrunner skulks
by the chaparral
I rest my weary bones
on the still warm sand

*

autumn leaves
the songs of youth
quiet now
the goslings have left
tufts of down on the pond

…………………………………………………………………….

Allen McGill

though far from me
you satiate my senses —
my longing for you
grows ever more intense
each bleak day — each lonely night

*

shadows
lengthen before me
twilight
contemplating the years
I must go on without you

*

sunlit outcrop
lizards lie motionless
in the warmth
of a blazing campfire
our heads pressed together

*

the glint of tears
in my little boy’s eyes
I could bite my tongue
for first finding fault
instead of praise

*

starry night stroll
we stop to listen
birds song
memories return
of your off-key whistling

*

floppy ears
of the newfound pup
a chewed collar
from others who’d loved me
before

*

storm clouds pass
maple leaves rush swiftly
downstream
a beaver’s dam
divides the flow

*

rowboat fishing
an old man and a boy
converse softly
one speaks of the past
the other of the future

*

a leafless tree
nets the harvest moon
chimney smoke
from the crackling flames
curls on the hearth

*

fireworks
blaze in the night sky
placid lake
we float in silence
awash in light

*

winter wind
nothing green survives
in the hollow
our now-vacant rooms
abound with memories

*

a younger brother’s
terminal diagnosis —
memories flood
the distance between
then and now

*

sun eclipsed
by turbulent clouds
a sudden chill
visitors have walked
across my grave

………………………………………………………………………..

Ross Clark

widowed a year
he opens old diaries &
letters from his first love ~
the scent & crumble of
maple leaves in autumn

*

cuneiform prints
score magpie variations
in dusty paddocks
& on the footpath last night
snails wrote lyrics in sanskrit

*

kitten stalks
leaf-litter with
huge feet
catches only one
of butterfly pair

*

In a Temple Pond
heads underwater
tails to the sky
with just one action
ducks feed & pray

……………………………………………………………………..

an’ya

your dear-john letter
blows across the parking lot
light as a feather
though the message it carries
weighs heavily in my heart

*

sun sparkles on sand
how can I stand the sheer
beauty of it
when the glare of life
is blindingly ugly

*

peeking in
a store window
I still crave
the hard rock candy
we used to share

*

earthquake!
this insecure feeling
on shaky ground
our relationship, too
is sometimes unstable

*

funny how
my shadow never
catches up
as if it could postpone
the onset of old age

…………………………………………………………………….

Conrad DiDiodato

Eurydice

Steps rising to dawn
give way to backward flashes;
winds whisper her gone!
so like a sleepless nightscape,
osiers guard the cave.

Saddened poet sings
to maenads flocking to shores;
lyre rings tangy,
at the center of grief
lie his tendriled verses.

…………………………………………………………………………

b’oki (Bette Wappner)

How quickly they change
their color from dusk to dawn,
stained autumn leaves–
swirling behind your footsteps,
do they have no feelings?

*

The sun rolled over
my shoulder this morning
gilding your body–
gold leaves of dawn burnishes
our path to ecstasy.

*

The warmth of your touch
against my chilled, rosy cheeks,
together we kiss–
in showers of falling leaves
burning with autumn’s color.

*

Cherry woodblock waits,
stained with redness of ink–
wet to my touch,
the fibers of your being,
pressed into a virgin sheet.

*

While I muse
between dusk and full moon,
swiftly you appear,
in the corner of my eye
hovering hummingbird.

……………………………………………………………………………..

Cindy Tebo

the dryer rumbles
with the ting of loose change
some days
are filled with pockets
I’ve forgotten to check

*

the first wall hanging
in the new house
is not mom’s painting
but the tortured man
on dad’s crucifix

*

as close as
the world gets
to stopping time
is the frozen light
on an icy pond

*

if winter could be measured
in terms of color
it would be
the fields of rust
in the hawk’s feathers

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This entry was posted in Poetry, Tanka, Uncategorized, Vol 4-1 December 2004 and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Short Verse Forms 5 – Tanka

  1. qualandar says:

    Reblogged this on All Poetry Magazine.

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