Some Tanka…..inspired by the Beauty of Autumn

My beautiful picture

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, as in the great Man’yoshu.  Basically tanka is a vehicle for  emotional verse.  In some cases, it’s deeply erotic, in other examples it celebrates nature, seasons, etc.

People who read tanka wonder:  Why so short, and why only 31 syllables? One theory is that the rhythm possesses magical power: the poems are spells. I like that.  Certainly such poems (tanka) have been used as spells, for bringing down a deity, etc. and to this day are still found embedded in the tough loam of Tantric Buddhist rites. Another practical theory is that they are formed in such a way that they can be recited in two breaths.  These poems after all, are also called songs.

I am no expert, having stumbled upon  tanka  about 7 years ago, but I have fallen in love with the form.  It is a short and powerful  vehicle for poetic thought.  And perhaps, after all, to compose them as ‘spells’ isn’t far from their historical mark.

I have found tanka to be a refuge.  Perhaps of scoundrels, but certainly a living, breathing poetry form.  I won’t go into the mechanics of tanka here, but I do have a two part essay “Short Introduction to Tanka and Classical Examples” that I was asked to present by OneShot Poetry group a few years ago.  I will post that soon.

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. Also, most tanka in Japan is written without punctuation.  Most English writers of tanka are more comfortable with some punctuation.  Some of my tanka have punctuation, and some don’t.

Autumn is so beautiful, even with most of the leaves gone. There is something magical in this short season that pulls at the heart. Perhaps a season of spells…..

Lady Nyo

The moon floats on wisps

Of clouds extending outward

Tendrils of white fire

Blanketing the universe

Gauzy ghosts of nothingness.

Cranes wheel in the sky

Chiding cries fall to hard earth

Warm mid winter day

A pale half moon calls the birds

To stroke her face with their wings.

The cat sits dozing

Beneath a thorny rosebush

No foot can reach him

His paws retract the sharp claws

A deep purr closes his eyes.

Give me a moment

To catch my breath and settle.

Give me some peace, please!

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.

I look up at blue

Sky this morning, watch leaves fall-

Whirling, colored tears

Clip my face like dull razors

The strokings of memory.

Like the lithe bowing

Of a red maple sapling

My heart turns to you

Yearns for those nights long ago

When pale skin challenged the moon.

When Autumn enters

Inexplicable sadness-

Season fades to death.

Hunter’s moon sits in Heaven–

Garden spiders finish, die.

Autumn wind startles–

Lowered to an ominous

Key—Ah! Mournful sounds!

The fat mountain deer listen-

Add their bellowing sorrow.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2014

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4 Responses to “Some Tanka…..inspired by the Beauty of Autumn”

  1. johnallenrichter Says:

    Jane, this is my first introduction to tanka – and am quite impressed! I particularly enjoyed your “Give me a moment” poem. How it smacks of life as it honestly needs to be lived sometimes…. You may not know forms in general are not my own cup of tea, and I would probably be tempted to create a sonnet from a string of tankas if forced, only to prove it a challenge if nothing more. But I’m not aware of the constraints. Must they contain 5 lines – or can they be squeezed into tercets and quatrains?


  2. ladynyo Says:

    Hi John! LOL! You raise some interesting questions! And thank you for a chance to put my two cents in here.

    First….to your last question. Tanka is a very different form than sonnets or quatrains or tercets. They serve a different purpose I would think….the themes could be the same but why do so? Sonnets have a very different purpose. Plus, the structure is much more difficult. (at least to me…)

    Tanka is formed to be able to declaim in two breaths. Try doing that with a sonnet. LOL! But further, and this gets into the necessary mechanics a bit of tanka: they are basically two poems, a top and a bottom poem, with a pivot line in the middle. That pivot lines ends the first (top ) poem…and begins the second (bottom) poem.

    Hopefully all these tanka of mine do that….look at how they are constructed. Some disagree with me on this, but after years of some study, I think this simplifies the structure. Of course, poetry is never simple, there is the kigo word, and other references, intentions in tanka. But writers also disagree on this.

    I didn’t like forms either, but did a lot of sonnets a few years ago….they are hard and I find my ‘voice’ in sonnets strangely stilted, changed. Tanka is so much more….honest. At least for me.

    You could certainly play around with squeezing tanka into tercets and quatrains, but I think you would probably muddy the intention of tanka. Which….well, that’s for later. LOL!

    People get confused when they read classical tanka for no good reason. It’s a living, breathing medium that is the most popular versifying in Japan today. That’s quite a stretch from the 6th century to today! There are tanka competitions in just about every Japanese newspaper with elderly writers and new, young writers. It’s the immediate impact of 31 onji (or sounds) and the emotional impact possible.

    It’s all in the rhythm!

    Forgive me if I extend this reply longer, but there are a few that are my favorite. Ono no Komachi, Saigyo, etc. are excellent medieval poets to study, but this one rather illustrates some of the sentiment and form of classical tanka. Be warned that translations don’t always add up to 31 syllables, nor are the ‘lines’ in the correct place in Japanese.

    Modashi-ite (5)
    Sakashira suru wa (7)
    Sake nomite (5)
    Yei-naki suru ni (7)
    Nao shikazu-keri (7)

    Ki no Tsurayuki
    8th century

    To sit silent
    and look wise
    drinking sake
    and making a riotous shouting
    is not to be compared with.

    LOL! I took some liberties with line 4 – 5, switching them around. But you see the progress of 5-7-5-7-7?

    There is a reason and purpose for this structure and it angers me when we non-Japanese insist that we can cut up the ‘rules’ of tanka. Learn them first they will hold you in good stead.

    But you can teach yourself Japanese poetry (as I did) by dissecting the lines and learning key words. After a while, when they appear, they pop out at you and you build your proficiency on this…it takes a few years, but tanka is like puzzles on different levels.

    Whew! John, I just want to encourage you and anyone to enjoy tanka…..your own and others. The classical tanka in the great Man’yoshu document (4,515 poems) are a great place to start but there are many other places to read tanka.

    Thank you, friend John, for your insightful comment.

    Jane (Hana Nyo Mori)


  3. TR Says:

    Hi Jane,
    I love how I can connect to nature via your blog through your tanka! “The moon floats on wisps Of clouds extending outward Tendrils of white fire Blanketing the universe Gauzy ghosts of nothingness.”

    It is beautiful to read, I read it twice. xx


  4. ladynyo Says:

    Hi TR! That is one of my favorite tanka and it is probably the first tanka I wrote. LOL! Everything else seems to have degenerated from that first one. LOL!

    Tanka should feel good in the mouth. I think that one does, and besides the imagery, it has an appealing ‘mouth-feel’.

    Thank you, TR….for reading and your lovely and encouraging comment.

    Love, Jane


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