Posts Tagged ‘structure of tanka’

“Part II, A Short Introduction to Tanka”

February 18, 2013
A Courtesan's fleeting life of beauty.

A Courtesan’s fleeting life of beauty.

I promised some readers I would post this Part II on Tanka, so here it is. I haven’t rewritten it, but it is just an introduction to this wonderful poetry form. People can use it as a jumping off place for their own further study. It is not meant to be a complete presentation. I have grown a bit on tanka, but still find this useful.

Tanka is refreshing to the mind and heart and fixes that which breaks at times.

Lady Nyo

PART II, Short Introduction to Tanka

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.

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.

Too, according to some theories, tanka is short (31 syllables) because the rhythm possesses magical power; the poems were spells. (Well, some of them could be…) Syllables in such meter would burst out of the throats of a miko or shaman in a state of divine trance, so that the rhythm is itself numinous. Certainly some poems have been used as spells, for bringing down a deity, for propitiating him, for calling forth to a lover, and to this day are still to be found embedded in the tougher soil of Tantric Buddhist rites. Or so writes Arthur Waley in “Japanese Poetry, The ‘Uta’. Believe what you want.

But this I think is true: The thirty-one syllables are but an inner core surrounded by unspoken yet powerful circles of images. These circles, rings radiate outward and pull so much more into the presence of the poem.

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.

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 more expressive 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. Perhaps like a repeated refrain?

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.

After a while, we pick up on seasonal (what I call) ‘markers’. Plum trees (ume) are the first blossoming trees of early spring. (though with Global Warming my red maple is budded out with these clusters of red blossom in January!) Dragonflies and mosquitoes represent hot summer; green tips of wheat in a field, early spring; a cardinal, winter; frogs, summer; golden leaves, autumn; the list is endless, but here, they are all from nature.

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. Too often poets attempting haiku and tanka never attend to the ancient rules and in not learning they miss the important DNA of these specialized forms. What they write (and I have long made this mistake) is nothing but freeverse. Study classical examples; get a feel for them in the head and mouth, and then go further afield. But see the beauty and reason for these rules first.


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. (In haiku, it is one breath.)


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. But is rare and is not favorable to most tanka poets.


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 a 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.

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.

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. (But! They learn them.)

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

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 poems to the end are Lady Nyo’s poems, some to be published in “White Cranes of Heaven” by, Spring, 2011.

Shooting star crosses
Upended bowl of blue night
Fires up with excited gaze!
A moment– and all is gone.

This is the problem!
Do not give over your soul,
it returns tattered.
What tailor can mend the rips?
The fabric too frayed by life.

“Shall an old gray wolf
subdue a woman like me?
“I shall be born soon.
The wolf head I will cut off
and nail the pelt to the cross.”
(Lady Nyo’s Death Tanka, but not dead yet.)

This grim November,
The month of my father’s death
Always bittersweet.
My memories float, weak ghosts-
Haunting in 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.

A late Summer moon
Floats above the conifers.
Autumn is coming.
Do pines know the season turns?
Their leaves don’t fall; do they care?

—Lady Nyo, various tanka and extended haiku.

Jane Kohut-Bartels,
Copyrighted 2011-2013

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