Posts Tagged ‘tanka’

“Seasons Change” haibun

May 31, 2020


(Watercolor above by author below)

For Frank Tassone….a wonderful haiku writer.

I love Haibun form, and I love to ‘answer’ the Haibun with other forms like Tanka and Haiku.  In this time of complex stress….it’s good to have this before my eyes.

Lady Nyo

Haibun:  Light filtering ….Seasons Change


Autumn wind startles–
Lowered to an ominous
Key—Ah! Mournful sounds!
The fat mountain deer listen-
Add their bellowing sorrow.


The gingko filters the sunlight, the ground a crescent- printed cloth fit for a yukata.  It hits my hands and feet, creating white scars that do not burn.  I welcome the sun.  My bones grow thin.

This passage, from summer to fall, eternal movement of Universal  Design, counts down the years I have left.  There is so much more to savor.  Two lives would not be enough.

Tsuki, a beggar’s cup too thin to fatten the road, still shines with a golden brightness, unwavering in the chill aki wind. The Milky Way reigns over all.


Sharp moon cuts the sky

The fierce wind from the mountains

Disturbs dragonflies.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2020



















“Seasons Change” ..a haibun.

July 19, 2019


(“Canada Geese”, watercolor, Jane Kohut-Bartels)


Utilizing Tanka form and Haiku.


Autumn wind startles–
Lowered to an ominous
Key—Ah! Mournful sounds!
The fat mountain deer listen-
Add their bellowing sorrow.



The gingko filters the sunlight, the ground a crescent- printed cloth fit for a yukata. It hits my hands and feet, creating white scars that do not burn. I welcome the sun. My bones grow thin.

This passage, from summer to fall, eternal movement of Universal Design, counts down the years I have left. There is so much more to savor. Two lives would not be enough.

Tsuki, a beggar’s cup too thin to fatten the road, still shines with a golden brightness, unwavering in the chill aki wind. The Milky Way reigns over all.


Sharp moon cuts the sky

The fierce wind from the mountains

Disturbs dragonflies.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2019

Tanka Presentation For The Curious

May 18, 2019

Man'yoshu image II


I wrote this essay for a now-gone poetry group.  Poetry groups blossom and wither, but there is always something you learn.


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  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 Shikibu 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 travelled 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 voyageur.   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







What is Poetry to the Japanese?

April 25, 2019

Sesshu painting

This is  part of a study  I have been involved in for a number of years.   I first came across Japanese forms of poetry a  few years ago  (forms of tanka, haiku, waka (think tanka) , choka, etc..and my favorite, renga.  (I can’t get my ‘head’ around sedoka yet, the classical ‘head repeating’ poems…)

I have  published  tanka/haiku in my first book, “A Seasoning of Lust”, and have the four part “Lady Nyo Poems” making the rounds.  (Lady Nyo is a character I developed in an unfinished novel “The Kimono”.  I like her mouthiness so I have adopted her for the blog.) Recently, I was contacted (because of the book) by a Japanese Tanka anthology and asked to submit some tanka.  I did, very flattered.

In 2015 I published “Song of the Nightingale” and I relied heavily on the study of the Man’yoshu.

I have read that in ancient Japan, a woman was not considered educated (we are talking about a particular class of women here, noble families and court women) until she had composed, memorized and published (or could recite) 1000 verses.

It’s this:  In order to ‘know’ the literature or to write in these classical forms, you have to know something about the whole of Japanese literature.  That’s a lifetime of particular study in of itself.  But all this can be broken down into 5 main factors:  the role and pattern of literature in Japanese culture as a whole; the Japanese (and its changing system) writing system; the social background to literature and finally, the underlying world-view  to life/death/religion and philosophy.

(Over the years I have made a stab at these things above, but the stab has to be more than a pinprick.)

By tracing these factors and seeing how they interrelate, you can get a more orderly view of  the development of Japanese literature.  It’s not just a question of ‘forms’ of poetry, but  of  much deeper philosophical material.

And there’s the rub.  Most Western poets have little knowledge or patience with this research and crank off what they believe to be the ‘classical’ forms.  I have done that myself.  However, there are very strict ‘rules’ for the forms, all these forms, and there are reasons for this to be so.

The Japanese sentence order reflects the Japanese sense of cultural order, and it is quite natural that what is true of culture as a whole is true of literature also.  I also believe perhaps this is reflected in a rather small land mass (4 islands actually) with a high population.  In those physical/social cases, you need rules and they spill over into the discipline and ‘restrictions’ of literature.  The Japanese, to our way of thinking, aren’t  disorderly.  They have a particular sense of discipline in many spheres of social and political life.  This is bound to show up in literature and the arts.

Recently I bought Shuici Kato’s “A History of Japanese Literature, The First Thousand Years”.  Just a casual persual of it shows me how much, after a few years of study of form and writing verse, how much I really don’t know.  But this will make a dent in my ignorance.

It better.  Westeners are freewheeling pirates, some believing that the dribbles from their pens are worthy of broad notice, bending or distorting classical forms because they think this is modern, and basically sneering at the forms that lay the basis of a 100o years of  some particular poetry.  This is just arrogance and narcissism.

It does nothing of merit except to show the childish temper tantrums of ignorance and bites them in the ass in the end.  And the middle.

Learn the classical forms first…become a better poet…and then do your personal riffs.  It’s not that these forms are in concrete, immutable for the ages, but understand first why they developed and why they developed from a better understanding of that particular culture.

There is another book I recently bought:  “Love Songs frm the Man’yoshu” (Selections From a Japanese Classic”  The illustrations are incredible, and vie with the poetry.

And about these Japanese books.  They are like Jewel Boxes.  To hold one in your hand is a delight.   They are beautifully bound and printed, the colors are brilliant, they glissen like jewels in the sun. One was tied with twine when I received it, and I thought about shibari:  an earlier translation of the word was “to tie the heart”.

This certainly did it for me.  It tied up my heart and mind with the pages of this book.

I am going to post some of my own ‘tanka’ here.  They are hardly classical tanka, only in the 5/7/5/7/7 form.  They violate rules about metaphor, simile, seasons, etc…but they are the best I have right now.  Someday I will throw them away and write ‘real’ tanka, but that will take years.

I ask your indulgence and patience until I learn more.

Lady Nyo


This grim November,
The month of my father’s death.
Always bittersweet.
My memories float, weak ghosts,
Hauntings in the fog of life.


A mind that obeys
And becomes one with nature
Sees through four seasons
Embellished with life forces,
And completes a discipline.


When nature is known
Reason for awe can be found
In familiar sights.
Intimacy at the core—
Astounding revelation!


The full moon above
Floats on blackened velvet seas,
Poet’s perfection!
But who does not yearn for a
Crescent in lavender sky?


Birds fly in the blue.
All is gray upon the earth,
Heart stopped with sorrow.
White cranes lifts off calm waters,
My heart tries to follow.


In this single branch
Of a wintry holly,
A hundred word hide.
A thousand blushes appear.
Do not overlook the thorns.


Lithe-bodied, she climbs-
She has now mounted my soul!
Clinging with strong legs
Her breasts pressed against me,
Shaping an intangible thing.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2008-2019

A few favorite tanka….

October 9, 2018


(Oil, “Dusk”, Jane Kohut-Bartels, 2002)



Mist drifts in waves

Ribbon-ing maple branches

The rising of moon

Make Egrets shimmer silver-

Gauzy ghosts of nothingness.



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.


How could I forget

The beauty of the pale moon!

A face of sorrow

Growing thin upon the tide

No one now visits me.



The full moon above

floats on blackened velvet seas,

poet’s perfection!

But who does not yearn for a

crescent in lavender sky?

Autumn wind startles–

Lowered to an ominous

Key—Ah! Mournful sounds!

The fat mountain deer listen-

Add their bellowing sorrow.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2018









“Random Tanka”

September 7, 2018




The fire of life

Is love. No exact measure

A whirling dervish

Hands in opposite display

Gathers in the miracle



Sound of frog-cries heard
A pale moon floats above pond
Fresh life is stirring
An early owl goes hunting
Wise mice scatter for cover




Cranes wheeled in the sky

Their chiding cries fell to hard earth

Warm mid winter day

A pale half moon calls the birds

To stroke her face with soft wings




Human frailties

wounds that bleed such heated blood

leave a dry vessel

Without the moisture of love

the clay reverts to the ground




Glimpse of a white wrist

Feel the pulse of blood beneath-

This is seduction!

But catch a wry, cunning smile

One learns all is artifice.




Overhead! Look! cranes,

Sandhills– swirl in broad circles.

Broken GPS?

No matter, their cries fall like

Celestial chiding rain.




The futility

Of love should queer the seeking-

But it never does.

Hopeful, yearning, we are fools

Ignoring our history.




Presence of Autumn

Burst of color radiates

From Earth-bound anchors

Sun grabs prismatic beauty

And tosses the spectrum wide!


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2008-2017


Sesshu painting

“A Few Tanka”

April 15, 2018


(Water color with gold leaf:  “Hummers”, Jane Kohut-Bartels)

Mist drifts in waves
Ribbon-ing maple branches
The rising of moon
Make Egrets shimmer silver-
Gauzy ghosts of nothingness.

Cranes wheeled in the sky
Their chiding cries fell to hard earth
Warm mid winter day
A pale half moon calls the birds
To stroke her face with soft wings.

How could I forget
The beauty of the pale moon!
A face of sorrow
Growing thin upon the tide,

disappearing into dawn.

Autumn wind startles–
Lowered to an ominous
Key—Ah! Mournful sounds!
The fat mountain deer listen-
Add their bellowing sorrow.

I wander the fields
Snow covers the barren soil
Sharp wind plays pan pipes
A murder of crows huddle
Black laughing fruit hang from limbs

Jane Kohut- Bartels

Copyrighted, 2018


“Gauzy Ghosts”……

February 16, 2018


Frank Hubeny, over at is hosting right now and challenges us to write short verse.  Maybe tanka, maybe other forms…but brevity is the key.

Lady Nyo

The moon floats on wisps
Of clouds extending outward
Tendrils of white fire
Blanketing the universe
Gauzy ghosts of nothingness.

A companion piece written the same time….

Shooting star crosses
Upended bowl of deep night
Fires with excited gaze-
A moment– and all is gone.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2018

“A Few Haiku, a Few Tanka”

January 16, 2018
My beautiful picture

Madame Carriere climbed up the second story window but alas!  Was cut back.  In a few years she  grew 20×20 feet.  Amazing rose.  Have replaced her with another one.


Because I am so cold, I thought a few springish haiku and tanka would take my mind off Winter.  It’s not working.


Dogwoods are blooming
The crucifixion appears
White moths in the night.

(Dogwoods are a Southern tree here in the South.  White blooms
having the form of the Christian Cross, with nail heads.  They bloom in the spring  right before Easter. They are a symbol of Christianity in Nature.)

Under the dark moon

I awaited your return

Only shadows came.

The moon, a ghostly

Sliver, sails on a jet sea

Wild dogs howl beneath.

A woman in bed

Kimono revealing breast

Snow on Mt. Fuji

Tibetan earthworms

Bring a halt to all labor.

Here? Fat koi eat well.

Rooster doesn’t crow

Night’s loud thunder and lightning

Ruins his morning voice.

Even the hoot owls

Are silent this stormy night

Wind muffles their cries.


The fire of life

Is love. No exact measure.

A whirling dervish

Hands in opposite display

Gathers in the miracle.


The sound of frog-calls,
In the pond floats a pale moon
Fresh life is stirring
An early owl goes hunting
Wise mice scatter for cover.

Thin, silken breezes

Float upon a green-ribbon

Of spring—pale season.

Scent of lilies, myrtle, plum

Arouse bees from slumber.

Restless and confused,

Birds cry out, sky darkening

Rain lashes, flooding

Freshly planted fields drown

Wind sails red tiles from  roofs.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2018


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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