Posts Tagged ‘Part II’

Tanka Introduction for the Curious, Part II

January 7, 2018

Japanese Lovers II


Like the lithe bowing

Of a maple sapling

My heart turns to you,

Yearns for those nights long ago

When pale skin challenged the moon.

Lady Nyo




Today the standard form is generally noted to be (in syllables) 5-7-5-7-7.  This is both in English and Japanese.  (Translations of Japanese into English don’t necessarily fit this rule, but usually a reading of the tanka in the original Japanese will be of the 5-7-5, etc. format)

It is said that this format is the most natural length for a lyric poem expressing emotion for the Japanese.

However, earlier tanka, (and tanka as a name didn’t come into being until the 19th century in the poetry reform movement) was called waka, and the earliest  examples could be 3,4,6, in ‘syllable’ progression from the first line.  But syllable in English doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing in Japanese poetry.  Onji is more a ‘mora” like a sound than a syllable.  (This part can be disputed)

More to the point, tanka is actually not one poem, but two. It’s a combination of two poems, or thoughts, etc.  The first three lines are called  Kami-no-ku  (upper poem). The lower poem…the last two lines of 7-7 is called Shim-no-ku.  They are joined together by that middle 5 syllable pivot line, called  kakekotoba.

The kakekotoba is an interesting invention.  It is a pivot or bridge between the two main poems.  It should be part of the upper verse AND the lower verse in thought or poetry.  The pivot line is both the last image and end of the upper verse as well as the first image and beginning of the lower verse.  Both poems, read divided…the top from the bottom, should be able to stand on its own.

In my example on the top, the first three lines could be a poem in its own right:

 Like the lithe bowing

Of a red maple sapling

My heart turns to you.

(you can see the ‘haiku’ form of it which raises a question…)


Taking the bottom lines and topping them with the pivot line:


My heart turns to you,

Yearns for those nights long ago

When pale skin challenged the moon.


This is not the finest example but it’s about as best as I can do right now.  Oh!  Tanka usually has no punctuation.  However, English-speaking poets feel stronger in their poetry with punctuation.  I find that true for myself, even writing tanka and haiku.


This last unit of 7-7 is used as a repetition or summary of the top poem.  I think of this shim-no-ku  more as a re-enforcement or continuation of the sentiment of the whole poem.


To further complicate the form of tanka, it usually contains a Kigo which is a word that reveals the season without making it plain.  Or not. In the example above, perhaps the ‘red maple’ gives a hint of the season, but I wasn’t carrying that ‘rule’ in my head when I wrote this tanka.


I don’t want to set up stumbling blocks to the thrill of composing tanka for modern, English speaking poets.  These are the forms that many learn in the beginning, and perhaps later discard.  But it’s good to learn them and to try to formulate your tanka in the classical sense.



Savannah Birds


As to rhythm in tanka, there are two distinct rhythmic parts (top and bottom) separated by a major stop at the 12th onji.  Then the rhythm starts out again to the end of the poem.

Basically, in reading a tanka out loud it is done in 2 breathes:  the first three lines complete the first breath and the last two, the second breath.  However, this is more applying to Japanese than English poets.



There isn’t any in Japanese poetry.  It would be too simple as most Japanese words end in one of the five open vowels.  But that shouldn’t dismiss the poems of other poets who do use a rhyming scheme in their works.




Things changed with the passage of centuries but nature, (especially the moon), seasons and their lifecycles, the rustle of leaves, the sighing of the wind, the crickets, frogs, reflections of the moon in the frog-pond.   Expressions of love and devotion, yearning, mourning and love loss, plum blossoms, cherry trees, death poems, praise of Emperors, poems upon aging, illness, things of an personal interest, were some of the topics of ancient tanka. They still stand for tanka of today. Saigyo came along and added the ‘common element’ by his writing of fishermen, prostitutes, nuns (sometimes the same thing…) laborers, beside the moon and nature, and certainly we read his very personal expressions of longing, loneliness, and self-doubt.

Tanka has that pointed ability to embrace every topic, but to compress, to distill or refine our words and work.

Later in the 19th century jiga-no-shu, poems about the ego, were beginning to be written. There was a poetry reform movement around 1900 in Japan where many new developments in tanka and haiku were read.  A nascent women’s movement developed from the writings of one woman poet, Akiko, who wrote ‘uninhibited compositions of sexual passion and love, and this came from the core of her poems, called jikkan, which means writing from the emotions that the writer is actually experiencing.  Since this was confusing to me when I read this early in my study of tanka, I think I have come to an understanding.  Then, in 1900, the forms were more ‘polite’….though you will read a lot of bitching in classical tanka!….and to write about direct emotional experience would possibly be new?  But in a way this denies the beautiful poems of Komachi, Shikibu, etc.  Well, maybe I don’t have a clue here.


To some eyes, tanka seems too simple, sometimes falling into platitude. Japanese poetry depends on the subtlety of its effects.   It is a poetry of sensibility.  And according to Kenneth Rexroth, (One Hundred Poems From the Japanese) If these effects are extended and diluted, the sensibility easily degenerates into sentimentality. (And this was a problem with many (most…) of the Victorian translators. They devolved into sentimentality, kicking sensibility aside for effect.  Except for Arthur Waley.  I LOVE his translations.   In part because he translates the structure of the tanka….2sd line/ 4th line, etc. showing that when we read a Japanese tanka, it isn’t like we perceive:  The lines read differently.  Waley was the place where I began my study and language.  Anyone who likes a good translation should read him for myriad reasons.  That’s not to take anything from Keene/Burton/etc.  They are all good. 1/8/18)

A poetry of sensibility no longer seems as strange as it did.  If you think of a poet like Emily Dickinson, Whitman, you see this ‘immediate experience’.

And further from Rexroth: “Classical Japanese poetry is read in a slow drone, usually a low falsetto; this is the voice is kept lower and more resonant than its normal pitch, with equal time and stress on each syllable. And this is quite unlike spoken Japanese.”

Somewhere I read the way to compose tanka was to grab a lover, a friend, break off a plum branch and contemplate, grab even your wife!, and dig deeply into your soul.


Tanka can be a deep, contemplative statement of observation, declaration, etc.  In other words, today tanka can incorporate any theme.

Basically, I have said nothing (or little) about Japanese aesthetics in tanka.  That is a fundamental and important study for anyone who wants to compose tanka instead of some lovely freeverse.  My tanka suffers from that ‘disease’ but it sometimes hits properly.  This study is a life time study (yugen, sabi, mono no aware, etc.)  and I have only begun. I am hoping that someone much more versed in this important subject of aesthetics will contribute to this presentation.



Finally, tanka means “short (or brief) song”.  To me, it’s a colorful burst, a declaration, like a songbird trilling in the dead of winter.  It can startle us, shock us, it can be memorable, like that sudden burst of birdsong.

But the real essence is the myriad possibilities of creativity with tanka.  Don’t get too hung up in form, or trying to understand all the ins and outs of classical tanka.  I believe even the greatest poets learn and abandon some of them to fly beyond a cultural standard.

I want to end with some poems, some tanka from “Love Songs from the Man’yoshu” one of the most influential books I have come across, and one of the most erotic in poetry. I will also offer my own tanka.


Have fun with tanka. It will enrich the soul.


Lady Nyo


Man'yoshu image II

Image from “Love Songs from the Man’yoshu”


From the Man’yoshu, 8th century anthology.  (Man’yoshu means “The Collection of a Thousand Leaves”)


“Tonight too

Does my woman’s pitch-black hair

Trail upon the floor

Where she sleeps without me?”



“As I stay here yearning,

While I wait for you, my lord,

The autumn wind blows,

Swaying the bamboo blinds

Of my lodging.

—Princess Nukata (8th century)


“Thick and fast stream my thoughts of you,

Like the layers

Of endlessly falling snow

Upon the cedars.

Come to me at night, my man.”

—The Maiden Osata Hirotsu

“Your hair has turned white

While your heart stayed

Knotted against me.

I shall never

Loosen it now.”



“Oh for a heavenly fire!

I would reel in

The distant road you travel,

Fold it up,

And burn it to ashes.”

—The Daughter of Sano Otogami


“I dreamed I held

A sword against my flesh.

What does it mean?

It means I shall see you soon.”

—Lady Kasa


“The flowers whirl away

In the wind like snow.

The thing that falls away

Is myself.”



“Brave man like the catalpa bow

That, once drawn,

Does not slacken—

Can it be that he is unable to bear

The vicissitudes of love?”



“I shall not take a brush

To this hair that lies

Disheveled in the morning,

For it retains the touch

Of my dear lord’s arms that pillowed me.”





The tanka to the end is mine, some published in “White Cranes of Heaven” by,  Spring, 2011. And also in “A Seasoning of Lust”, 2sd edition,, December, 2016.

Shooting star crosses

Upended bowl of blue night


Fires up with excited gaze!

A moment– and all is gone.

I wander the fields

Snow covers barren soil

Sharp winds play pan pipes

A murder of crows huddle

Black laughing fruit hang from limbs


A mourning dove cries

It is such a mournful sound

Perhaps a fierce owl

Has made it a widow.

Oh! It breaks my heart, her cry.

Like the lithe bowing

Of a maple sapling

My heart turns to you,

Yearns for those nights long ago

When pale skin challenged the moon.



This grim November

The month of my father’s death

Always bittersweet.

My memories float, weak ghosts-

Haunting the fog of life.


So lonely am I

My soul like a floating weed

Severed at the roots

Drifting upon cold waters

No pillow for further dreams.

Season of silence

Muted nature frost bitten

Black limbs empty, still

A vast field of whiteness

No music comes from the wind.


The full moon above

floats on blackened velvet seas-

Poet’s perfection!

But who does not yearn for a

crescent in lavender sky?


Perhaps a strong man

Should not offer love without

Having love returned

But this grieving warrior

Still finds his love growing


(this last tanka is from “Song of the Nightingale”, 2015,, by Jane Kohut-Bartels)

Jane Kohut-Bartels (who is also Lady Nyo)

Copyrighted, 2018

Song Book cover


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