Tanka for OneShotPoetry


OneShotPoetry has asked me to do a presentation on tanka February 14th and February 21st.   Tanka, as many readers know, is an ancient form of Japanese poetry.  Originally called waka, it is a predominant form in Japanese literature, along with the 17th century haiku.

Tanka is much earlier than haiku, with anthologies of tanka being produced in the 8th and 9th centuries.  Basically tanka is a vehicle for  emotional verse.  In some cases, it’s deeply erotic, in other examples it celebrates nature, seasons, etc.  I am no expert, having stumbled upon  tanka  about 5 years ago, but I have fallen in love with the form.  It is a short and powerful  vehicle for poetic thought.  My intent in this presentation- to- come is to introduce tanka to those poets and readers who are not familiar with the form and to present some of my favorite tanka writers from ancient Japanese literature, in particular the priest-poet, Saigyo, and Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, two Heian court women who were excellent and could stand in any era as superb poets.

Below are some of my tanka, though I still struggle with the form.  It is not to be confused with freeverse in the classical sense of tanka, but then again, poetry and these forms do evolve.  That is my excuse for my poor offerings.

Lady Nyo

The moon floats on wisps

Of clouds extending outward.

Tendrils of white fire

Blanketing the universe

Gauzy ghosts of nothingness.

Come into my arms.

Bury under the warm quilt.

Your scent makes me drunk

Like the wine we gulped last night.

Too much lust and drink to think.


Give me a moment!

To catch my breath and settle.

Give me some peace now.

Stop kissing my hands, stop it!

What if someone is watching?


Presence of Autumn

Burst of color radiates

From Earth-bound anchors

Sun grabs prismatic beauty

And tosses the spectrum wide!

Bolts of lightening flash!

The sky brightens like the day

too soon it darkens.

My eyes opened or closed see

the futility of love.

Had I not known life

I would have thought it all dreams.

Who is to tell truth?

It comes at too sharp a price.

Better to bear flattery.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2008,2011

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43 Responses to “Tanka for OneShotPoetry”

  1. brian miller Says:

    nice…i really like th lightening one…they are all good but…i cant wait to read your piece you will be doing on tanka…i look forward to learning alongside you and thank you for doing it for us…


  2. woih Says:

    Oh…forgive me when I say you don’t know what you’re talking about…these tankas are GREAT!!! I really, really like them. My wife is a haiku freak so I naturally enjoy this similar form.

    Oddly, the first and only time I’ve ever seen one since now was in Thomas Mertons’ “Asian Journals.” He wrote one on the plane ride to Asain. Stuck in my head ever since.

    Thank you, I really love your tankas and you’ve sparked me to give em a shot.

    best wishesIf I’m getting it right the form is


  3. Katie Says:

    I really like the cryptic quality of these new pieces. I read them through aloud and enjoyed the way they sound, too. Musical and thought-provoking


  4. ladynyo Says:

    Hey Katie!

    Thank you for reading this ALOUD!!! All poetry should be done so, and you know what? I am a TERRIBLE aloud reader of my own poetry. LOL!…It takes practice, and I don’t do that enough.

    Thank you, Katie for reading and taking the time to leave a thoughtful comment.



  5. ladynyo Says:

    You got it! 5-7-5-7-7. That’s the usual accepted ENGLISH form….in Japanese, the mora (sounds) are a bit different, so they can stretch or shrink.

    I am glad you are inspired to write tanka! There can never be too much tanka in the world as far as I think!

    Haiku gives me shingles….LOL!…it’s harder for some reason, probably because we English speakers are used to longer poetry. But! Haiku is the great ‘top poem’ and pivot line for a completed tanka. It’s great fun to extend it outwards.

    Thank you so much for reading and liking the tanka. I struggle still with the classical forms of it all, that pivot line especially, and sometimes it falls into place. Regardless, I love it so much, the tanka form, I turn a blind eye to the defects.

    It’s a very emotional language form and wonderful in so many ways. More on that next week~

    Lady Nyo


  6. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Brian…

    Well, I sent off the text (and other stuff) to Moonie today, so we shall see….

    The problem for me is brevity~ LOL~….I love this history and form so much that I can bedevil it to no end. And I have to remember that people aren’t necessarily as enthusiastic as I am about tanka.

    It’s perhaps, one of the very best communication forms for emotional language that exists. 32 syllables (or moras….sounds) and we can pack in so much!

    Thank you for reading and leaving a comment, Brian.

    Lady Nyo


  7. dustus Says:

    I always learn something new when I visit, and so glad you will be sharing your knowledge with us at OSP very soon. Enjoyed your selected selected stanzas for today, especially the second one… “Come into my arms. / Bury under the warm quilt. / Your scent makes me drunk / Like the wine we gulped last night. / Too much lust and drink to think.” Seems like a prelude to Valentines Day. lol Lovely poetry.


  8. Gay Says:

    I loved reading these. As you know I have had a long love affair with haiku but know nothing of Tanka. I am eager to learn this form. Thank you for sharing these beauties with us today. Breathless with anticipation! Gay


  9. hedgewitch Says:

    These are excellent. I especially like the last two, the: “…Bolts of lightening flash!…” one most.

    I look forward to your form article at One Stop very much–I’d like to know more about tanka, (and the senryu as well.) I know you’ll have some great examples to check out.


  10. marousia Says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed your tanka – I actually printed them out so I could ponder them


  11. ladynyo Says:

    LOL Marousia! I am honored!

    I have only been writing them for a few years…there was a year where all I did it seemed is walk around counting on my fingers. After a while, the correct number of syllables forms naturally….lol….as the tanka, and the thoughts were not interrupted.

    Tanka is a marvelous form. It has so little limitations, but has enough perimeters that you feel cradled in the form. That is a good exercise and discipline for most of us!

    Tanka you for reading and leaving such a kind comment!

    Lady Nyo


  12. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Hedgewitch!

    A couple of readers liked that one with “Bolts of lightening flash!”….LOL!….I am thankful, because tanka can be hit and miss for quite a long time. I am struggling with the difference between tanka and freeverse, and sometimes the differences get blurred.

    I think the article will be fun…at least I had fun writing it…LOL! But I look forward to many tanka coming from people who embrace this new form….it will be exciting to see what people come up with.

    Thank you for reading and leaving a comment, Joy.




  13. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Gay~!

    I am so glad you read these. Yes, I do know and have read your beautiful haiku. You are very good at that form. I think tanka will be of great interest to you, Gay, given your abilities with haiku. I have no doubt about this. You might be a modern age Ono no Komachi!

    I must admit….I get scared faced with the demand for a haiku….tanka is MUCH easier….Or so it seems! LOL~ (well, it’s longer and has more leg if that helps)

    I have done a lot of tanka that just was ‘extended’ haiku, and sometimes it really works….LOL!

    But there is something that is different with tanka that we will go into. This two layered poem with a pivot line in the middle. Ugh. I find this very, very difficult…complex in a way. Only by disassociating myself from the poem can I actually do this. That is another process I would like to discuss at some point somewhere…I call it Hyperarousal Trance.

    Well, I intend for people to have fun with this second part of the Tanka presentation….I am breathless with anticipation as to what people turn out. Tanka is such a personal and emotional form….or can be. I think it its best form it is.

    Thank you for reading and your anticipation!



  14. Katherine Says:

    I am not familiar with the tanka form, but always interested to learn new styles of verse. I will have to swing by and check out your post next week.


  15. RepressedSoul Says:

    Lovely collection of tanka, I use haiku all the time but I’ve never really understood Tanka well enough to be able to write them. These were beautiful and imigary packed dear Nyo 😉 Might have a go now if I’m feeling brave enough!


  16. ladynyo Says:

    hello repressed soul!

    Buck up your courage and form some tanka! I will present some methods, but it’s still 5/7/5/7/7 in terms of syllables. I think we can learn the ‘classical’ methods, but then again….we are English speaking (many of us) poets and we can fit the tanka ‘rules’ into our own creative bends.

    It’s funny. I don’t feel very comfortable with haiku, but tanka is a snatch.

    Thank you for reading and leaving a kind comment!

    Lady Nyo


  17. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you, Katherine. We all learn together or so.

    Lady Nyo


  18. Laura Hegfield Says:

    I am looking forward to your presentation…I think your tanka are lovely…the first is my favorite of all.


  19. ladynyo Says:

    hiya Laura!
    The first is my favorite, too! LOL!

    Thank you…..for reading and commenting. I am looking forward to the presentation because I want to see how many people come up with tankas…..that is where the fun is. I hope.

    The first part (Feb. 14th) is short history and some of my favorite historical tanka-ists…and then the methodology of tanka….sort of. And examples of the three parts of tanka.

    Thank you again for reading them and commenting.

    Lady Nyo


  20. Eric Says:

    Well, maybe I don’t know shit from Shinola (or tanka from Tokyo) but I really liked these. They’re tender and romantic and warm and bright.


  21. ladynyo Says:

    Tanka, Eric!

    tanka can be…and in my opinion…is best, when it is a deeply emotional communication. A brief thought, or declaration.

    Thank you, Eric for reading and leaving such a lovely comment!

    Lady Nyo


  22. Claudia Says:

    this form forces one to stick to the essence, find the heart/the core..stripped to the basics..and you do this so well…can’t even tell which my fav. is – they are all really good


  23. ladynyo Says:

    EXACTLY! Claudia! you got it!

    And that is why they can be so powerful…there are no wasted words in a good tanka. There is a 200 form story called a ‘flasher’ that does the same thing. Every one of those 200 words has to have substance and weight in the story…it’s a great exercise to refine the babble-brook of most of our writing. LOL!

    Tanka are a challenge, and when I write about the structure (in the classical sense) they are really hard to me to do ‘correctly’. Tanka are basically three parts in 32 syllables (moras…sounds in Japanese)

    I give up frequently with tanka and mine are more freeverse….which ain’t tanka…in the truest sense.

    Well, I hope you read Oneshot next Wed….that’s when I’m going to ‘expound’ on tanka…which is about a thimble-full of knowledge after 4 or 5 years of exposure.

    But the study of tanka is soooo worth it! The history, the traditions, the competitions, and especially the women poets from the Heian times! Oh my! To know that women led the way in 10th century Japan in tanka!

    A woman from a certain class was not ‘educated’ until she had composed, memorized and could recite 1000 poems….and most of them tanka. Amazing!

    Thank you for reading and your lovely comment.

    Lady Nyo


  24. gautami tripathy Says:

    Loved each one of those!



  25. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you, Gautami.

    Lady Nyo


  26. Kavita Says:

    Beautiful tankas, Lady Nyo… each one was a gem! A soft color pearl holding an oceanful of emotions… really enjoyed each once of them!!!

    REALLY looking forward to the your Tanka tutorial this coming Monday at One Stop Poetry!!!


  27. ladynyo Says:

    Oh, Kavita! What a lovely imagery you create!

    Thank you! I have looked over “Part I” of this presentation, and it is sorely lacking….because of my inexperience and also because there is just so much one can stuff into something like this. So many important points of history and so many other Japanese poets that I didn’t quote in this first part.

    I’m not so sure about the second part, but I guess we can wing it!

    Thank you for reading and your lovely comment.

    Lady Nyo


  28. kolembo Says:

    Oh it’s gorgeous! This time frenetic, the other, internal. Very good reading, thanks.


  29. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you, Kolembo.

    I love your enthusiasm! I hope you get to catch the OneShot presentation on Tanka Monday, or Sunday night…there….but I will be posting the the first segment on Monday.

    Thank you for reading and leaving a comment.

    Lady Nyo


  30. Libithina Says:

    perfect form for this day of love Jane ~ captures the romanticism ~ thanks Jane for highl;ighting and the information and of course your very own contribution a delight ~ Lib ~ @Libithina


  31. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you, Libithina,

    Next week I will have more fun posting my own tanka. I was mostly restrained by the need to write the history and give classical examples.

    Tanka is an amazing form of communication.

    Lady Nyo


  32. Steve Isaak Says:

    Excellent, first and second time ’round.


  33. Louise Says:

    Thank you! A wonderful history of Japanese poetry ~ I am new to the art of Tanka myself, but I find it so expressive! We recently collaborated ‘live’ on twitter on a Renga poem, which taught me the art of haiku and tanka ~ I think we wandered off the track a few times but the process was exhilarating and thoroughly enjoyable. I love your poems ~ they show such character!


  34. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Louise,

    I love history, and when you pair history with poetry, it’s even better to me! I could have written more, but I just wanted others to feel the excitement enough to investigate, research for themselves.

    Renga poems! Delightful! The same can be done with tanka, and was.

    Today in Japan, the papers are full of tanka competitions, submissions, etc. This old art certainly isn’t dying at all. One elderly lady writes a tanka a day, and I have decided to do the same. I think it is an excellent chronicler of our lives and thoughts and aspirations.

    Thank you so much, Louise, for reading and leaving such a lovely comment.

    Lady Nyo


  35. ladynyo Says:

    Steve? I don’t know why but you went straight into spam~ LOL~

    Not nice at all.

    Thank you, dear, dear friend.



  36. Kerry O'Connor Says:

    Wow! So many beautiful images to lose oneself in. I savoured each one as a delicious taste upon the tongue. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us.


  37. ladynyo Says:

    I’m learning with us all. I think it takes a lifetime to truly get to the depth tanka can take us.

    Thank you for reading and your encouraging comment.

    Lady Nyo


  38. alee9 Says:

    I finally found what I believe I’ve been searching to get to the heart of tanka! I’ve been groping all along half-blind, moaning with each tanka I write, “could this be it?” Most of what I’ve been reading and hearing rebound to the source–your tanka and how you explain it have seeped in and that’s only yesterday. Thank you for guiding me, us, at OSP through and into it.


  39. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Alee!

    Well, here it’s the blind leading the blind. LOL!

    Tanka is a funny thing. Of course there are the ‘rules’ and all sorts of issues here….and NEXT week I will go into more fully this issue of tanka formation. I hope that will be more illuminating than the history.

    But besides these forms….rules,….whatever you want to call them….tanka are poems of sensibility. I think it takes a LOT of reading of tanka (and I would say, classical tanka for many, many reasons) before you get a real basis to understand it.

    I know we all struggle with hoping NOT to sound like ancient poets in a culture we don’t really understand, but I think we go through phases until we come to a place where tanka becomes as natural to us as walking.

    Next week we will discuss this issue of a tanka being two poems…with a pivot line that joins, unifies both top and bottom poem….and perhaps that will help in the formation? But I also think we can push aside the barriers, once we get a firm grasp on what is what in the world of tanka.

    I would just now encourage you to keep reading everything you can get about tanka….some of it is pretty bad out there in my estimation…doesn’t give a damn clue as to what tanka really is….but there are also marvelous writings as to what it was and has become.

    Look towards the poetry reform movement of the late 19th century and you can get an idea of just how persuasive tanka has remained and today, it’s still going strong.

    Lady Nyo


  40. alee9 Says:

    Thank you for taking the time to reply to my comment. I’ll keep your advice in mind. Meanwhile, I’ve been writing tanka through ‘half-eyes’ and even submitting them to haiku/tanka journals with temerity–a few have been accepted. But I’m aware I’m still not writing on solid ground. I’ve actually posted 5 after-the-classical tanka and 3 of my own understanding of tanka for One Stop Poetry Tuesday. May I then ask you to visit my blog when you have the time at http://jornales.wordpress.com


  41. ladynyo Says:

    I’ll be glad to look at them, but I’m no expert. I struggle just like everyone else here with tanka, poetry forms. I’ve just been plotting tanka for a few years now and only when I did a concentrated study of it, did I start to understand what was wrong with my tanka. I liked it very much, but it was more freeverse than tanka. It took me a while to accept that I wasn’t writing tanka…not now knowing what I have learned.

    It was a bitter lesson because it made me realize that I was a long way from doing what I thought I was doing. Now, there is nothing wrong with freeverse…it’s my favorite form, but I was mixing it up.

    For me, and this is just for me….mileage applies differently here….tanka is a product of a distancing and a deepening of a sentiment, thought, observation, but there is a sort of ‘disconnect’ to it.

    Perhaps disconnect is the wrong word: it’s an unfocused sentiment that barely touches the poem, and then comes into a final focus. Sometimes.

    An offhandedness?

    I can’t explain this at all. It’s just a sense I get when I feel that I have had a bit of success with a particular tanka.

    I know what it is called in Japanese, but I can’t define it in English for some reason. Probably because the Japanese word is so….concrete.

    I think you write…we all do…through ‘half-eyes’ for a long time, and then at some point, we get it. Or think we do. It comes in and out of focus. Tanka is a tricky beast at best.

    Lady Nyo


  42. Alegria Imperial Says:

    Your responses here and the reply you left in my blog feel like the first bright new day I’ve ever waken up to! You have the ‘spirit’ of the art, its heart and source though as you feel often elusive but for me absolutely formless like the mist until now. Somehow all my readings about it makes sense. Gratitude as a word fails to express how I feel not only for yuo kind words but for your understanding.

    My interest in tanka began quite naively having read some in modern English journals and finding them exquisite in their simplicity yet depth of emotion. Meanwhile, because I’ve been struggling as well with my haiku I thought tanka might help me through it. A published haijin did say of a haiku I wrote for a workshop that it had the first part of a tanka–that encouraged me and I started to read more but obviously without fully comprehending what it is.

    Like you said, there are things in tanka as well in haiku, I now realize, that can’t be defined. These are, I suppose, embedded in Japanese culture, the womb where they have been seeded. I should know how one’s culture plays on anything we create like a great invisible spirit whose power is indiscernible. Since I started to write poetry seriously short of a decade ago, I have been struggling against this inner power. My culture–a melding of ancient Malay, Spanish and American–stews me into a brew often hard to find clarity. Language, too, often comes out in a blur… but I’m straying from this note to express my endless thanks.

    By the way, I hope you don’t mind if I pulled out your comments in my blog and post it along with my tanka tomorrow for my friends and readers to share in the lesson and your kindness.

    With deep appreciation…


  43. ladynyo Says:

    Dear Alegria,

    Your comment touched me deeply. I think we both have some of the same (though different) cultural issues…and sometimes it seems that they fight against each other and we find little to unite within us.

    You have extracted the essence of what I was striving to say about tanka, and made it a very personal statement and understanding. I think you are doing very well on this score. You have discerned the abstraction that tanka is better than any of my words.

    You know what? That is exactly what I found out about tanka. If you form a haiku first, and then extend it, you get to something of tanka. It gets a bit more complex and sophisticated when you learn more abot that pivot line and also the intention of the bottom poem to the top.

    I was really confused about haiku, still am. It’s got some of the same rules as tanka, but even more severe~ LOL~ of so it seems to me. Tanka is 10 times easier for me.

    Here is an example (early) of tanka being formed first by haiku.

    “Had I not known life
    I would have thought it all dreams.
    Who is to tell truth?”

    This was the haiku. I extended it with two lines later, much later and it became tanka.

    “Had I not known life
    I would have thought it all dreams.
    Who is to tell truth?
    It comes at too sharp a price.
    Better to bear flattery.”

    (This is one of the collection of tanka and haiku published in “A Seasoning of Lust” my first book published by lulu.com in 2009.)

    Next week we will read something of the division of a tanka into two poems….that top and bottom. I hope this will help us all in forming tanka, but this is just a quick sketch of the method.

    Reading as much as you can…and as often, reading the classical “Man’yoshu”, Saigyo, and especially Ono no Komachi, Hitamora, and one of my very favorites:

    “As I turn my gaze upward
    and see the crescent moon,
    I am reminded
    of the trailing eyebrows
    of the woman I saw but once.” (Yakamochi)

    What wonderful poetry, intriguing poetry are we given by tanka~!

    You are certainly welcome to use my comments to you on your blog. If what I said lends clarity to this knarly issue of tanka, I am honored.

    Lady Nyo


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