Short History of Tanka and Some Classical Examples

A little while ago I was asked if I was comfortable with the tanka form.  I am rarely comfortable around poetry, but tanka is a Japanese poetry form, very ancient, that deeply interests me. I put together a two part presentation for OneShot, below the first part and next week the methods and the ins and outs of tanka writing.  All this is just to encourage readers to look at the history of tanka and get a ‘feel’ for this beautiful form.  And to try their own hand at this ancient poetry.

Also, this version is longer (800 words) than what is posted on Oneshot site.  There was a restriction on word count there, but here, none.  I hope this version fills out more information on the history and the poets sited.

Lady Nyo



The morning wren sings

I stand in the moonlit dawn

Kimono wrapped close

Last night I made my peace

Now free from all attachments


Lady Nyo

To understand tanka one must go back into the Japanese literary history of the 8th and 9th century.  Poets of this time, male poets, the only ones who counted in court anthologies, were writing in a Chinese poetic technique.  They were still not able to use the language skillfully enough to present their own emotions.  This would take another century but by the 10th century, women were using a new written language- kanji-something definitely Japanese, to write their poetry.  And they, for the next two centuries, excelled in it.  We’ll go over some of these poets who made such a mark on the literature of Japan, especially in the development and formation of tanka verse.

Tanka, whose earlier name was waka, was described in this way: “ Japanese verse is something which takes root in the soil of the heart and blossoms forth in a forest of words.”

This is a hint how tanka developed and its usage.  Tanka, if nothing else, was the medium for lovers: written on a special paper, or a fan, or wrapped around a small branch of a flowering plum or cherry, it was the communication between a man and a woman.

There are so many social aspects of Japanese society to consider: married couples for a certain class (usually court people) didn’t live together.  Perhaps a wife had her own quarters in a compound, or perhaps she lived in another town.  A tanka was composed, a personal messenger delivered the poem, waited, was given a drink, flirted with the kitchen maids, and an answering poem was brought back.

People were judged as to how “good” their poetry was.

In the court, especially during the Heian court of the 12th century, tanka became one of the greatest literary influences.  It developed great adherents to the form and large and prestigious competitions were developed by nobles and priests alike.  Usually the striving was for the most ‘refined’ tanka composed.  This lead to some very restricted poems because there were limited themes thought to be ‘proper’ amongst these competitions.  Praise of nature, the Emperor, and more praise of the Emperor were pretty much the court poems.

However, it was still the written form of communication between interested parties and lovers.  Poetry from that time, outside the court issue, still exalts the passions—makes connection between hearts —it fertilizes the soil of humanity.

Before I go into the ‘form’ of tanka, its development stylistically, I want to reveal the poets that drew me to tanka form.  There were many early Japanese tanka writers, and some excellent verse written by Emperors, but these poets below have found their way into my heart and have become great influences in my own work.  Ono no Komachi, Izumi Shikiba and Saigyo .

The first two were court women, great poets, and the third was a Buddhist priest.  Saigyo is perhaps the most influential poet to come out of Japan. Even the famous  haikuist Basho (17th century) said he studied Saigyo as his base for poetry.

Saigyo came from the Heian Court in the 12 century.  He was of a samurai/warrior family and at the age of 23 he became a priest.  He was always worried that his warrior background (he did serve as samurai) would ‘taint’ his Buddhist convictions and practice.   His solution was to wander the mountains and roads of Japan for decades.  He left the court when the whole Japanese world was turning upside down with politics and the beginnings of civil war.  He was dissatisfied with the poetry coming out of the court, and since he had developed a taste for tanka, he took this on the road with him, as he went across Japan and wrote his observations of the landscape, the moon and the people in tanka form.

For those who want a deeper history of Saigyo, read William LaFleur’s “Awesome Nightfall” about the life and times of Saigyo.

Saigyo’s wandering all over Japan was not so unusual.  There were many groups of priests who went out to beg and some to write poetry and their observations. Saigyo traveled with other priests and welcomed their company on the lonely treks through mountains and remote terrain.  Some were spies for the Court.  One couldn’t really tell, because many priests wore a large woven basket over their heads, extending down past their shoulders.  Some were Shakhauchi flute players who would play their wooden flutes under the basket as they walked.

What was so different about Saigyo was his interest in the common man.  He wrote tanka about fishermen, laborers, prostitutes, nuns (who sometimes were prostitutes); more than the general poems of lovers, court, emperors, landscape.  Of course the terrain he passed through figured as a background in his tanka, but he wrote so much more.  Tanka is a vehicle for very expressive, emotional verse.  Saigyo’s tanka spoke of his loneliness, his conflict as to his samurai background and how it would effect his Buddhist beliefs, and so much more over the decades of his roaming.

Generally Saigyo adheres to the 5-7-5-7-7 structure of tanka, but he is not shy about throwing in a ‘mora’ or two extra.  I will give the original in Japanese of one poem, because the translation into English doesn’t necessarily follow the 5-7-5 etc. structure when translated.



Kototou hito  no

Naki yado ni

Ko no ma no tsuki no

Kage zo sashikuru

“This place of mine

Never is entered by humans

Come for conversation.

Only by the mute moon’s light shafts

Which slip in between the trees.


The mind for truth

Begins, like a stream, shallow

At first, but then

Adds more and more depth

While gaining greater clarity.


(Remembering a lover)

The moon, like you,

Is far away from me, but it’s

Our sole memento:

If you look and recall our past

Through it, we can be one mind.


Here I’ve a place

So remote, so mountain-closed,

None comes to call.

But those voices! A whole clan

Of monkeys on the way here!


(On love like fallen leaves)

Each morning the wind

Dies down and the rustling leaves

Go silent: was this

The passion of all-night lovers

Now talked out and parting?

I find Saigyo to be such a wonderful, human and humane poet that I can fill my head and eyes with his poetry and be satisfied.  This is only a teaser of his superb verse, but in a definite way shows the brilliance, power and inventiveness of the short burst of tanka.  Of course, in the hands of Saigyo, the common becomes memorable and he is just one, but perhaps the best of tanka writers.  There is so much more to and of Saigyo, and of his tanka, but there are others I want to mention in this segment.

Quoting from “Ink Dark Moon”, Hirshfield and Aratani:

“Ono no Komachi (834?-?) served at the imperial court in the capital city of Heian-kyo (present day Kyoto) during the first half century of its existence; her poetry, deeply subjective, passionate, and complex, helped to usher in a poetic age of personal expressiveness, technical excellence and philosophical and emotional depth.  Izumi Shikibu (974?-1034?) wrote during the times of the court culture’s greatest flowering; a woman committed to a life of both religious consciousness and erotic intensity, Shikibu explored her experience in language that is precise in observation, intimate, and deeply moving.  These two women , the first a pivotal figure who became legendary in Japanese literary history, the second Japan’s major woman poet, illuminated certain areas of human experience with a beauty, truthfulness and compression unsurpassed in the literature of any other age.”

There is so much more to be learned about these two women poets, but perhaps it is enough to give examples of their poetry here without further delay.

(These are not my translations: I am continuing to study the Japanese language, but my abilities are sorely short here.  I can recognize many words, but Japanese is particularly difficult in the arrangement. These translations are from “Ink Dark Moon”, mentioned above.)

As with Saigyo, Ono no Komachi mostly writes in the 5-7-5-7-7 form of tanka.


Hito ni awan

Tsuki no naki yow a


Mune bashiribi ni

Kokoro yake ori

No way to see him

On this moonless night—

I lie awake longing, burning,

Breasts racing fire,

Heart in flames.

What is so striking about this poem is the imagery.  No way to see her lover without the light of the moon, perhaps she dare not strike a light.  But the repeated imagery of light: flames, fire, burning clearly relays her desire.  “Heart in flames” is common, but “Breasts racing fire” pushing this poem up a notch.


Since this body

Was forgotten

By the one who promised to come,

My only thought is wondering

Whether it even exists.

We have all been there: this feeling of unreality, surreal, even, in our relationship to another.  Do we exist independently of the one we deeply love?  Would we exist without them?

This next one is something so universal it needs no explanation.


I thought to pick

The flower of forgetting

For myself,

But I found it

Already growing in his heart.

These are only a few examples of her unmatched poetry.  She is so much fuller as a poet and woman then what I have quoted here.

Izumi Shikibu is a poet that can make one uncomfortable in the reading.  Her poems are so personal, so erotic , you feel at times like a voyeur.   There is an emotional depth, a vibrancy that sings through her verse and goes deep into the heart of human experience.


Lying alone,

My black hair tangled,


I long for the one

Who touched it first.


In this world

Love has no color—

Yet how deeply

My body

Is stained by yours.


When a lover was sent a purple robe he left behind:

Don’t blush!

People will guess

That we slept

Beneath the folds

Of this purple-root rubbed cloth.


If only his horse

Had been tamed

By my hand—I’d have taught it

Not to follow anyone else!

There is no wilting flower in the poem above!

This last poem quoted here is hard to read.  Shikibu’s daughter Naishi has died, snow fell and melted.  The reference to ‘vanish into the empty sky’, is referring to the smoke of cremation.  The grief felt in this poem is overwhelming and speaks across the centuries.

Why did you vanish

Into empty sky?

Even the fragile snow,

When it falls,

Falls into this world.

These are just a few examples of the rich literary tradition of Japanese Tanka.  To me, they speak cross cultures and time.  They speak directly to the human heart.

The next section will be about the formation of tanka, the classical measures within tanka, the pivotal words, and other issues.  I will end with some examples of my own tanka.

Lady Nyo

Tags: , , , , , ,

34 Responses to “Short History of Tanka and Some Classical Examples”

  1. Shashi Says:

    Dear Lady Nyo

    Amazingly beautiful post… so clear and concise and you have made it all look so simple though I know it is a very tough trace the history of this beautiful form through centuries of work done by great masters.

    I enjoyed it so much and will come back to it later to read it in depth… and learn from. This post needs lots of soaking in and it has given me a lot of enthusiasm to try it out… and I will.
    Thank you so much….

    ॐ नमः शिवाय
    Om Namah Shivaya


  2. ladynyo Says:

    Hello Shashi!

    So good to hear from you! Well, this is the expanded version on my blog, but the truncated (??) version is on Oneshot…and for a quicker read, is fine.

    There will be a second part next week that will help those readers who are not familiar with the method of tanka to form their own. I think this will be helpful to all of us.

    There is a lot in this first post, but it’s an engaging and exciting topic! I know you will do fine, excellently with tanka form!

    Thank you, Shashi, for reading and for your lovely comment.

    Lady Nyo


  3. Julie Jordan Scott Says:

    THANK YOU so much for posting this. I haven’t written Tanka in a long, long time and today, at OneShot, it felt as if the post was written for exactly what I needed to write – love for my son, who is going through such a difficult time.

    The words “thank you” don’t hold the gratitude I feel right this moment, and they are what I have. Thank you. THANK you. THANK YOU!


  4. ladynyo Says:

    Oh! Thank YOU, Julie!

    To be thanked in such random and profuse way is so lovely!

    If tanka doesn’t speak to the secrets and pains of our hearts, what does?

    I join you in your concern for your son, Julie. I, too, share some of that for my son, who is also finding out that growing up has responsibilities attached. When he stops running from them, perhaps he will find peace?

    Write some tanka, dear friend, and send them to me. I would love to read.

    Next week is really the more ‘fun’ part. The structure, dissection and the ‘how’ of tanka, in its myriad ways out of the eyes and into the heart~


    Lady Nyo


  5. Padmavani Says:

    I loved your article on One Shot and then here, I found others that were written such simplicity, grace and precision. You very rarely come across articles that not written like lecture notes or a treatise:)

    I am encouraged to attempt a Tanka and would be thrilled if you would let me know your thoughts.

    Thank you Lady Nyo.


  6. ladynyo Says:

    Dear Padmavani,

    I would love to see your tanka, and encourage you to write some. They can be little bits of magic and go deeply into the soul of readers.

    And thank you for your praise on the presentation! I am just a poet and I do struggle with all poetical forms. But tanka exists in a special realm of poetry.

    Lady Nyo


  7. Padmavani Says:

    Dear Lady Nyo

    I have posted my Tanka. Can you be so kind as to visit and read it and let me know what you think. I would like an honest feedback because then I will have direction. I could do with some intelligent critique of my writing 🙂

    Thank you so much


  8. ladynyo Says:

    We all can Padmavani.

    Do with intelligent critique.

    I will be glad to visit your site.

    Lady Nyo


  9. robert Says:

    This is a wonderful post as is your blog.
    I wanted to write you a small note of thank you for your wonderful comment today.
    I have had a little experience with the tanka form but not written much.
    The prompt had me thinking of Takeo, the man the poem was written for.
    As an Issei he was interned during the war as were many in British Columbia. He was a little different though. He was a poet and throughout his internment he wrote. He kept his journals and poems and when he was released compiled and published in Japanese. He always wanted this work in English. His daughter Leatrice my then wife and I took on the arduous task with the help of Peter Aylward to translate and put it in order as Within The Barbed Wire Fence. Takeo was such a gentle man and cared for Canada so very much even after everything had been taken from him.

    I will stop now as I have taken so much space up here.

    Thank you again very much for your kind words to me today.



  10. RepressedSoul Says:

    Just wanted to drop by and say thank you for yesterday’s class. Always wanted to have a go at tanka but wasn’t sure how!


  11. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Repressed soul!

    ah…you just put a few words together…roll them around, sit a spell, (I do my best tanka composing walking in my back yard….in circles….LOL~) and see what you get. I like the discipline of the form because you have the dimensions….

    Next week there will be some clues as to how to format tanka….and learning these small things in the beginning will go a longggg way to making it easier.

    Lady Nyo


  12. ladynyo Says:

    Robert, you have not taken up too much space. What you write was the essence of kindness…yours and Takeo. I am so moved to read what you write. I think of the internment here in the States of Japanese during WWII and I am sure that many of these people relied on tanka for comfort and to make a touchstone for their disrupted culture.

    I would love to read Takeo more, and appreciate the hands on heads up that you give here. Please visit this blog again, and I will visit yours. I am deeply interested in Japanese culture, and am studying the language now (I spoke some from a previous marriage, but not to the extent that I am studying now…it is lovely to be able to begin to read the tanka in Japanese, though at this point it is more of picking out words that have become familiar) and look for modern tanka writers where I can find them.

    What a wonderful poetry form we share! Continue to write more….it does feed the soul in myriad ways.

    And we all need a kind word EVERY day.

    Lady Nyo


  13. tigerbrite Says:

    I have enjoyed this post and reading about the history of tanka. Excellent and appropriate for Valentine’s Day 😉


  14. ladynyo Says:

    thank you so much, Tigerbrite!

    I enjoyed writing it.

    Thank you for reading and leaving a comment.

    Lady Nyo


  15. bluebee Says:

    This is absolutely fascinating, Lady Nyo – I have never heard of this form. I love that it allows more than a haiku but still demands brevity of expression. Thanks for the interesting post. bb


  16. ladynyo Says:

    You are welcome, bluebee….

    thank you for reading and leaving a comment.

    Lady Nyo


  17. Raju Thomas Says:

    Thanks a lot; I learnt alot. I have one question: I read that Japanese school children learn Tanka; what kind of learning/exercize do they do in tanka?


  18. ladynyo Says:

    Hello, Raju.

    I would imagine that they learn the basics of tanka. Like the seasonal words, for instance, mosquitoes for Summer, maple leaves for Autumn, etc..then the basic structure of tanka…the pivot line, etc.

    Since I have taught in the States and not in Japan, I am not familiar with the curriculm in elementary schools.

    But! Though this doesn’t exactly answer your question, most daily/weekly newspapers run tanka contests, and adults, etc…write in and share their poems. Tanka is a very popular, perhaps the most popular form of poetry in Japan still today. A very long history.

    Lady Nyo


  19. Raju Thomas Says:

    Very good. Thanks. I trhought of the question when I read how popiular it remains in Jpan, with the new year Uta-garuta and newspaper colums for the tanka. I prefer the Tanka over the Haiku, which I think tends to degenerate, at leat nowadays, into an exercize of the intellect rather than of the imagination, whereas the tanks affords greater freedom, scope.


  20. ladynyo Says:

    I agree. Haiku, in the hands of Basho, is very different…And a lot of the issues with both tanka and haiku with modern poets is because they refuse to do the research and the long study into the classical forms and why they exist. So many take (and I have too at an earlier time…) these forms just as freeverse, and don’t see the difference.

    There is a delicacy in haiku that very rarely is translated by modern haiku poets. Of course, there are poets who understand this, but I agree…haiku has become a dump-all for short bursts of intellectualism…very different from what you write of the imagination.

    Perhaps because tanka is longer, people have better results, but then again, there is a general ignoring of the parts of tanka…the top and bottom poems, and the pivot line. So much else…and people (poets) get outraged if you point this out…the deficiencies of their tanka. Then again, perhaps that they even attempt something called tanka is a good thing? Perhaps they will go on to actually study the form? It’s so much more than the correct syllable count. But then again, we modern poets use our poetry for psychological purposes. Good and bad.

    Thank you for your observations. I generally find haiku harder than tanka and stay away from it. Both forms are a life-time study.

    Lady Nyo


  21. pamela a. babusci Says:

    hi lady nyo,

    my name is Pamela A. Babusci & i am the tanka editor of: Moonbathing: a journal of woman’s tanka. i live in rochester, ny. if you are interested to learn more about my journal please e-mail me back. many thanks! pamela


  22. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Pamela! Of course I am interested in a journal of women’s tanka. I love the form and it is quite the historic form indeed. Apparently you have read some of my pieces on my blog about tanka? It’s a long study, and important to ‘get’ the key elements in the classical background. Many people don’t lend themselves to this study. Once they do, their verse changes….and for the better, I believe.

    I will certainly check out your journal.


    Lady Nyo


  23. Anfernee Nhyviel C. Sawad Says:

    Hajimimashite Ladynyo. Watashi wa Anfernee desu. Arigatou gazaimasu! This really helped me in making my report about Japanese Poetry! Thanks A Million again!!! (^_^)


  24. ladynyo Says:

    You are very welcome, Anfernee.

    That makes me smile this morning, that my blog can facilitate someone in their own efforts in Japanese Poetry. Please feel free to come back and read more, and give suggestions!

    My very best,

    Lady Nyo


  25. Neha Haridas Says:

    Hi Lady Nyo !!!
    This webpage is really very good.I learnt a lot about Tankas. I will surely try to write one myself. Thank you Lady Nyo.


  26. Neha Haridas Says:

    Hello LadyNyo!!! I liked your webpage and i learnt more about Tankas. I will also try to write a Tanka and i will send it to you.
    Thankyou Lady Nyo!!!!


  27. ladynyo Says:

    Wonderful! I’m always happy to hear that people are learning about tankas, etc. I would love to read your tanka.

    Lady Nyo


  28. ladynyo Says:



  29. phoartetry Says:

    Again, a great article on tanka. I need to get back writing tanka, haiku and Haibum. Thank you for your blogging this article.



  30. ladynyo Says:

    You are so welcome, Connie. I love to hear that other poets are writing tanka, etc. I admit to believing haiku is harder in one aspect than tanka, but there is structure in both forms. I wish others would study it in its original intention, with all the issues of aware, etc. That you write in these styles is exciting! I would like very much to hear your experience with these forms….Haibum is something I don’t write much in, but do love to read other poets work.



  31. Gretl Feeson Says:

    Reblogged this on Letters & notes and commented:
    Nice post on tanka poetry 🙂


  32. Anfernee Nhyviel C. Sawad Says:

    Dear Lady Nyo

    Although I’m rushing

    I can always count on you

    For my deep thirst on

    Learning Japanese Culture

    With your very helpful blog

    After almost 4 years, I come back to use your article in my studies on Japanese Culture, can you imagine that Lady Nyo?!

    Maraming salamat ulit Lady Nyo para sa napakamaganda at napakamalaman na artikulo tungkol sa Japanese Poetry, lalong lalo na sa Tanka form. Kakaunti lang ang internet sources ko tungkol sa Tanka at iisa lang na hardcopy ang meron sakin tungkol sa paksa na ito. Palagi nalang na Haiku at Matsuo Basho ang lumalabas! haha! (Filipino)

    Thank you very much again Lady Nyo for such a beautiful and comprehensive article on Japanese poetry, especially on the Tanka form. I only have so little sources on the internet about Tanka and I only have ONE hardcopy about this topic. It’s always Haiku and Matsuo Basho that pop out whenever I search on the web! Haha! (English)

    May God keep on blessing you!

    Mabuhay po kayo Lady Nyo! Long live Lady Nyo!

    Your returning visitor,



  33. ladynyo Says:

    Hello! What a nice comment to wake up this morning! Thank you so much. Tomorrow I am posting a haibun, with a tanka and a haiku. For a prompt on I am putting it on the face of my blog. Hope you get a chance to read it.
    Japanese culture is long and wide. It is a lifetime study and the rewards are deep. I hope you can find other articles here to enjoy.
    Lastly, probably some time in January, 2018, I will publish “Kimono” a novel I worked on for 10 years. It is almost finished. I think, though, it is about a time warp journey from the 21st century back to the 16th, you might enjoy this. There are a few chapters on my blog that I have posted before.

    Thank you again. And I wish you the very best in your studies.


  34. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you!
    Lady Nyo


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: