Tanka: 'the myriad leaves of words'
Beverley George

a Eucalypt article

Tanka is an engaging form of poetry which allows us to record the most essential of human emotions and responses poetically, distilling our experiences into five lines when we write this genre in English.

Japanese tanka are composed of 5 phrases of Japanese moji (sound units) in the pattern 5-7-5-7-7. Their rhythm comes from the breath pauses after each phrase when they are read aloud. They are usually, but not always, written in one vertical column.

Originating 1300 years ago, tanka remain popular in Japan and can record everyday experience as well as more significant events.

The original name for tanka was waka, which means Japanese song. In the late nineteenth century, several distinguished poets questioned the lack of originality and adherence to outmoded diction in the waka that was being written. To indicate their desire for reform, they renamed it tanka meaning short song or poem. The broader interpretation encouraged adoption of this genre by an expanded audience outside of Japan.

Makoto Ueda, translator and editor, writes: 'On rare occasions, the term waka is used interchangeably with tanka. The standard practice in today's Japan is to reserve the former term for the thirty-one syllable poems written prior to the tanka reform that started in the late nineteenth century. In other words, tanka is modern and modernized waka.'

The Origins of Tanka: Waka in the Heian Era

It is common practice to write an explanation of the genre and then provide examples. Reversing this, I would like to begin with two examples of early waka so that you can discover, or re-read them, on your own terms first.

Why did you vanish
into empty sky?
Even the fragile snow,
when it falls,
falls in this world.

Izumi Shikibu [974?-1034?]
tr. by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani1

How invisibly
it changes color
in this world,
the flower
of the human heart.

Ono no Komachi [834?- ?]
tr. by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani1

Poetry played a dominant role in Heian culture. The first of a series of imperial anthologies, the Kokinshu; was published circa 905. The preface by Ki no Tsurayuki, translated here by Laurel Resplica Rodd with Mary Catherine Henkenius, defines the themes that dominated the poetry of the Heian and later periods:

'The poetry of Japan has its seeds in the human heart and mind and grows into the myriad leaves of words. Because people experience many different phenomena in this world, they express that which they think and feel in their hearts in terms of all that they see and hear. A nightingale singing among the blossoms, the voice of a pond-dwelling frog' listening to these, what living being would not respond with his own poem? It is poetry which effortlessly moves the heavens and the earth, awakens the world of invisible spirits to deep feeling, softens the relationship between men and women and consoles the hearts of fierce warriors.' 2

Tanka, with the exception of tanka sequences or tanka strings, do not usually have titles. But Japanese poets sometimes use a prose headnote. For Izumi Shikibu's waka reproduced above, the head-note reads 'Around the time Naishi [Shikibu's daughter] died, snow fell, then melted away.' The references to the physical aspect of death ' cremation' and to the spiritual acknowledgement of human transience, are so delicately composed that the mother's anguish resonates in our minds a thousand years later.

Transience is a recurring theme in Japanese poetry. The poem by Ono no Komachi may refer to human love: how it can fade without the other being aware - for some time anyway - that this is happening. Perhaps it also refers to change in a broader sense. While the natural world constantly demonstrates change in the forms of dawn, dusk, falling leaves, lengthening or shortening days, the human heart changes its emotions secretively, hidden from the view of others and sometimes surprising even the self.

People new to waka are often surprised by their relevance to matters that trouble or delight the human heart today. These lyrical utterances were written with truthfulness, intimacy and a compression of language that made their message all the more compelling and enduring. As Jane Hirshfield writes, 'The brief poems [of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu] serve as small but utterly clear windows into those concerns of heart and mind that persist unchanged from culture to culture and from millenium to millenium.'1

In Heian court life, poetry played a daily and significant role. Poems were written to mark every significant event, both public and private. The success or failure of a night of love was not ratified until a poem arrived from a lover the following morning. In the love poetry of this period we read often of the 'overlapping of clothes'. This pragmatic method of staying warm by interleaving the discarded clothing over both the lovers often resulted in a garment or accessory being inadvertently left behind. This led to a whole sub-genre of waka, as in this one to a visiting monk:

I think
you may have briefly forgotten
this fan,
but everyone must know
how it came to be dropped!

Izumi Shikibu [974?-1034?]
tr. by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani1

Waka could be used as a form of polite rebuttal or to put someone in their place but often they were passionate poems of loss and longing as in this:

No way to see
on this moonless night?
I lie awake longing, burning,
breasts racing fire,
heart in flames.

Ono no Komachi [834?- ?]
tr. by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani1

A Question of Translation

Any considered discussion of tanka raises the issues associated with translation, the limitations and difficulties of importing a genre into another language and thereby into another culture. One of the most positive aspects of translation is that it can maintain awareness of the original work. The translation will almost certainly be influenced by contemporary literary preferences of the importing language. But the remaking of translations takes us back each time to the original source and keeps the work 'alive'

In her essay on translation, The World Is Large and Full of Noises, Jane Hirshfield writes:

'By asserting that things worth knowing exist outside the home culture's boundaries, translation challenges society as a whole. Translated works are Trojan horses, carriers of secret invasion. they open the imagination to new images and beliefs, new modes of thought, new sounds. Mistrust of translation is part of the instinctive immune reaction by which every community attempts to preserve its particular heritage and flavor: to control language is to control thought'. And still translation occurs, playing an essential role in the innumerable conversations between familiar and strange, native and import, past and future, by which history and culture are made. It is integral to the way seed ideas and language strategies move out into the world, the new contending with the old until the translated works are either rejected or naturalised. After sufficient time, shapes of thought and sound originally alien may themselves become the revered heritage, as certain exotic trees have come to be treasured in their new countries. 3

There are many instances of 'naturalised' poetic forms in English. They include the Italian sonnet and terza rima and the French triolet, villanelle and ballade. Together with those poetic forms based on models from the ancient Greek and Roman legacy such as ode, idyll and epic they have long since established an English identity. Yet they must have entered the language via translation.

A convincing argument for the adoption of tanka into foreign utterances lies in this form's versatility. A tanka poem can capture the essence of human emotion and it can also be demonstratively used as a form of diary writing to chart the more pedestrian aspects of our lives, as well as significant events.

Rilke wrote of the 'Unsayable' that stands behind all words. In doing this he acknowledged that some adaptation must occur to bring a poem into an accessible state within the importing language. The essence should remain but the translated form must engage the senses and have meaning for the reader.

Another decision for the translator is how best to convey the 5-7-5-7-7 asymmetrical rhythm of the Japanese tanka to an English readership, untrained to hear its music. Most translate the one-line 5-phrase poem into five lines. Sanford Goldstein, who is sometimes referred to as the father of tanka in English, usually translated tanka into 5 lines too, but notable exceptions are his translations of Takuboku Ishikawa's Romaji Diary and Sad Toys. Takuboku wrote these poems in Romaji (Roman letters) arranged in three lines. This made the reading of the diary inaccessible to his wife and a number of his friends who may have been hurt by his unflagging honesty. Goldstein's translations reflect the original structure. An example:

Thought it somewhat alien to me,
The terrorist's sad heart,
But some days how close it feels! 4

Other exceptions are Kenneth Rexroth's occasional use of four lines to translate Japanese tanka and Hiroaki Sato's adherence to one-line translations.

No discussion of translation of tanka into English, however brief, should fail to mention the role of some of the great translators of the haiku form in the 20th century, notably R H Blyth, W J Hackett and William J Higginson. The scholarship and dedication they brought to making haiku available in English has greatly influenced the way we view the possibilities for tanka.

Modern Tanka

It might seem abrupt to move this discussion from the Heian period to the end of the nineteenth century, but with some notable exceptions, waka remained virtually unchanged over many centuries. One of the exceptions is evident in the Shin kokinshu imperial anthology of 1205 in which the selected 1,978 poems exhibited mastery of 'classical allusion, wordplay and symbolism.'

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries other genres evolved, such as renga (linked writing). It was from hokku, the first verse of a renga that set the time and place and complimented the host, that haiku derived. This starting verse was developed by Matsuo Bashõ [1644-1694] into a poem with its own identity, although it wasn't known as haiku until Shiki renamed it in the late nineteenth century.

Waka continued to decline until by the nineteenth century most of what was written clung to stereotyped images and lacked originality. This was the criticism levelled at it by the poets Yosano Tekkan (1873-1935) and his wife Yosano Akiko (1878-1942). Akiko was the author of a famous anthology of love poetry titled Midaregami (Tangled Hair). Together, they produced a poetry magazine, Myõjõ, which greatly influenced Japanese poetry in the early twentieth century.

Professor Haruo Shiruane, of Columbia University, writes of another influence on Japanese poetry of the time, the impact of western realism which was later transported back to the west as something very 'Japanese'.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), who greatly influenced the modernisation of haiku as well as tanka, promoted the principle of shasei, meaning 'sketch from life'. He and his followers published 'an objective, descriptive type of tanka that depended more on observation than on imagination.'

For those interested in reading about tanka reform in the twentieth century, Makoto Ueda's introduction to Modern Japanese Tanka, provides a concisely written, informative overview.5

Tanka in the 21st Century

Poets writing tanka in English usually write them singularly, or as a sequence but another option is to keep a tanka diary. A trend amongst a growing number of young people in Japan is to exchange tanka by cellphone. The small poem sits neatly on the screen. This practice has the immediacy of early waka in the Heian period, when poetry was part of daily life.

Interest in writing tanka in English is probably keenest in the US, with New Zealand, the UK, Canada and Australia following at a slower pace.

The following are modern examples of tanka:

purple swamp hen
uses the footbridge to cross
unlike I who have
no way to help you make
the transition to old age

Janice M Bostok (Australia) 6

between sun and shade
a butterfly pauses
like none I've seen,
who ever falls in love
with someone they know?

Michael McClintock (USA) 7

death's door
for most of my life
shut tight
until you passed through
and left it ajar

Michael Thorley (Australia) 8

saying farewell
the wind feathering
your hair,
hearing that cough after
I've closed the door

Jenny Barnard (Australia) 8

six months
after she's gone
drinking from her mug
the camomile tea
no longer bitter

Max Ryan (Australia) 9

in this white-stringed
fragile world of wheelchairs
and tapping fingers,
I watch their pale faces
my friend playing piano jazz

Sanford Goldstein (Japan) 10

after your visit
I left our cups on the bench
untouched ?
not wanting to wash away
the last of the afternoon

Michael Thorley (Australia) 10

a night of stars
over the jack pines
growing older
no give in my neck
to view them all

an'ya (USA) 8

leaving home
fog over the harbour
makes all shapes one
I carry a thin mist
into the warm building

Patricia Prime (New Zealand) 11

shot with snowflakes
my image in the window
all a-tremble
I hug myself, the pain
of never-ending war

Kirsty Karkow (USA) 12

open along the path
yellow by yellow?
the colour of this new day
loosened in my hands

Maria Steyn (South Africa) 13

Tanka in Australia

It is more than three decades since Janice M Bostok began a sustained engagement with haiku and tanka. Finding little support and interest in Australia in the 1970s, she forged a network of connections overseas which included such luminaries as William J. Higginson, Michael McClintock and Elizabeth Searle Lamb. Encouraged by their responsiveness, Janice continued to study Japanese poetic forms and developed her own distinctive style of writing them in English.

Janice uses tanka to express her 'emotional surges':

than the haiku joy
this tanka love
which now has me
obsessed 6

In writing this, Janice recognises that poets in Japan usually choose to write either tanka or haiku. Many poets writing tanka in English discovered the genre subsequently to exploring haiku, so often they write both. It does require a different mind set. However, as Martin Lucas, editor of the UK journal Presence points out, the advantage of writing tanka after learning the discipline of haiku is that the shorter form may align the poet better with the elements of the Japanese poem than if they came to it from too loose an association with English free verse.

Janice's tanka have a sensual, vulnerable quality. She writes with a clear, original voice that draws the reader into her experience:

a bird's chest
fluffed against fine rain
collects drops
which gently roll off
like old hurts leaving me6

the long night caressing you
in dawn light
a young cock crows
still not getting it right 6

Over the last several years, Amelia Fielden has made a noteworthy contribution to the tanka scene. Recently retired as a professional Japanese translator, she also writes original English tanka. Amelia has published five books of Japanese tanka in translation, bringing the work of several significant contemporary Japanese poets to our attention. She is working on a sixth. Four collections of Amelia's own tanka poetry are also available. The most recent of these, Still Swimming, is in the form of tanka diary, a classical Japanese practice. All of these books were published by Ginninderra Press in the past four years ? a prodigious effort.

Amelia's report on a poetry event in Japan in which 3,756 tanka were composed in less than two hours was published both in The Tanka Journal [Japan] and in Yellow Moon 17 Winter 2005.

My personal favourite from Behind Summer: Japanese tanka poems by Kuriki Kyõko [1954- ] Translated by Amelia Fielden and Yuhki Aya, is the title poem. Possibly atypical in subject matter, it is nevertheless beguiling and demonstrates the potential of tanka for unselfconscious expression and the liberation of human emotion:

behind summer
behind the evening sun
behind sadness,
there must surely
be angels 14

Yellow Moon

I became editor of Yellow Moon in 2000, but the magazine has published tanka since 1997. We have been fortunate that a number of distinguished international tanka poets have participated since the magazine's inception and continue to do so. An international perspective and standard is essential if Australian poets are to write tanka well. My own international network continues to expand and I regularly submit my own work to overseas journals. I am grateful to a number of people around the world with whom I enjoy a robust level of discussion and workshopping.

The winning and highly commended tanka and the judging comments from the international Yellow Moon competition Seed Pearls are published first in Australia in Yellow Moon magazine and a few months later in the Tanka Society of America's print journal Ribbons. This is an opportunity for Australian poets to showcase their work overseas and I am grateful to the editor of Ribbons, an'ya, for publishing them.

Emerging voices in Australian tanka include those of Michael Thorley, Julie Thorndyke, Lisa M Tesoriero, Jenny Barnard, Martina Taeker, Anne Drew, Kathy Kituai, Fay O'Neill, Max Ryan, Alan Smith, Alun Drysdale and Carla Sari. The list is by no means exhaustive. I have further plans for extending the understanding of tanka in this country and expressions of interest are welcome.

Writing Tanka

Because poetry is constantly evolving one should not be too prescriptive about how any genre is written but here are a few guidelines that may help:

The twist or turning point. Although some tanka are written, both here and in Japan, without a break, most tanka do have a turning point or change in syntax, often indicated by an em-dash and sometimes by an ellipsis. This break can occur at the end of the second, third or fourth line and helps to distinguish a tanka from five-lined free verse.
An alternative is to use a pivotal word or a pivotal line, with or without punctuation. A pivotal line is usually line 3 where it can be linked to both the upper and the lower hemistich of the poem.

The subject area is wide open. Anything that affects the human condition can be a topic. The theme of loss and longing formed a large sub-genre of traditional tanka, but tanka can be joyous too.

Rhythm is important. Remember tanka were meant to be sung. The pattern in English is short/long/short/long/long usually in a syllable count between 21 and 31. Read them aloud to make sure that they have music. The rhythm in Japanese tanka comes from its breaking into breath pauses of 5-7-5-7-7 Japanese moji (sound units) when read aloud.

Again because of linguistic differences, some tanka written in English seem to tail off in the last line. Our voices drop away when we are reading them. Or the last two lines are really one line broken into two. But tanka were meant to build and build, line by line, so try for a strong closure.

Phrasing should be carefully considered. Avoid leaving prepositions dangling at the end of a line or other unnatural breaks.

A certain haziness or ambiguity is considered a desirable attribute of Japanese tanka. In English too, it is desirable that these fragmentary poems should suggest or infer, so the reader can interpret them in light of their own experience. 'This reflects not only Japanese grammar, but also a poetic culture in which the experience is felt to be as important as the subjective frame around it; a few lightly sketched phrases can evoke a situation in which the reader is an equal participant.' 14

Linguistic differences. Japanese moji (or sound units) tend to be short and of equal length. They are not the same as English syllables which can be short or long, stressed or unstressed and which may also contain consonant clusters. [A simple example is the English word streaks which has 5 sounds within it.] A basic misunderstanding of this can produce tanka which simply are too long and which do not approximate the light touch of those written by Japanese poets.

The Future of Tanka in English

Michael McClintock, president of the Tanka Society of America, writes: 'Much of tanka's charm and power relates to its directness of expression, and this is one consequence of the form's brevity. The poem has little or no room for the use of contrivance, elaboration, complex argument, or other rhetorical treatment to convey an idea or evoke an emotion. When a tanka makes a political point, reveals some love interest, expresses a philosophy, comments on life, sends a message, eulogizes a dead person, gives advice, or complains about or mocks some aspect of life, it does so with energy and compression' it gets right to the point in a way that is new to the short poem in English 15

Perhaps because tanka has come to English-speaking readers more slowly and often through scholarly discourse, it has not suffered the fate of haiku in Australia, where widespread misunder-standing persists. Paying heed to the origins of tanka and respecting its distinguishing elements can help us to write it with empathy and discipline, and at the highest standard of which we are capable.


1The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu: Women of the Ancient Court of Japan, translated by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani. New York, Vintage, 1990 © 1988 Jane Hirshfield, used by permission of the author.

2 Kokinshu: a Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern, translated and annotated by Laurel Rasplica Rodd with Mary Catherine Henkenius. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1984.© 1984 Laurel Rasplica Rodd, used by permission of the author.

3 The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry Essays by Jane Hirshfield HarperCollins Publishers, 1997 © 1997 Jane Hirshfield, used by permission of the author.

4 Romaji Diary and Sad Toys by Takuboku Ishikawa, translated by Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda. Tuttle Publishing, 1985 © 1985 Sanford Goldstein, used by permission of the author.

5 Modern Japanese Tanka: an anthology, edited and translated by Makoto Ueda. NY, Columbia University Press, 1996.

6Songs Once Sung: Collected Tanka Poems 1972-2003 by Janice M Bostok. Flaxton, Post-Pressed, 2004 © Janice M Bostok, used by permission of the author.

7Letters in Time: Sixty Short Poems California, Hermitage West, 2005 © Michael McClintock, used by permission of the author.

8 Yellow Moon 18, Summer 2005 © Michael Thorley; © Jenny Barnard, © an'ya, reproduced here by permission of the authors.

9 Yellow Moon 15, Winter 2005 © Max Ryan, reproduced here by permission of the author.

10 Yellow Moon 17, Winter 2005 © Sanford Goldstein; © Michael Thorley, reproduced here by permission of the authors

11 Yellow Moon 14, Summer 2003 © Patricia Prime, reproduced here by permission of the author

12 Yellow Moon 16, Summer 2004 © Kirsty Karkow, reproduced here by permission of the author

13 Tanka Light September 2001 © Maria Steyn, reproduced here by permission of the author

14 Natsu No Ushiro: Behind Summer Japanese Tanka Poems by Kuriki Kyõko, translated by Amelia Fielden and Yuhki Aya Ginninderra Press, 2005 © Amelia Fielden, used by permission of the author

15 the tanka anthology: Tanka in English from Around the World Edited by Michael McClintock, Pamela Miller Ness and Jim Kacian Red Moon Press, 2003 Introduction, © Michael McClintock, used by permission of the author.

© Copyright Beverley George

[first published in Five Bells: Australian Poetry volume 13 no. 1 Summer 2006 pp. 10-15; and in Tomodachi: the newsletter of the Australia-Japan Society of New South Wales(Inc.) May 2006; and in the online newsletter of the New Zealand Poetry Society - Nau mai, haere mai! as an 'article of the month' October, 2006 and on Simply Haiku Reprints 2010.]

Beverley George’s tanka have been widely anthologised. In 2006 she won 1st prize and an Honourable Mention in the Tanka Society of America’s Annual International Contest and in 2010 1st prize in the Saigyo Awards. Her 2nd prizes for tanka include: The Tanka Society of America’s Annual International Contest 2005; Kokako International Tanka Competition [New Zealand] January 2009 and the 6th International Tanka Festival Tanka Competition [Japan] 2009 Beverley is the past editor 2000-2006 of Yellow Moon and the founder of Eucalypt: Australia’s first journal for tanka only. She was a speaker at the 3rd Haiku Pacific Rim Conference, Matsuyama, Japan in 2007 and the 6th International Tanka Festival, Tokyo 2009; a delegate at Haiku Aotearoa 2008; and convenor of the 4th Haiku Pacific Rim Conference in Terrigal, NSW, Australia in September 2009, attended by 57 full delegates from seven countries as well as many day delegates. Beverley’s tanka collection, empty garden, with a foreword by Michael McClintock, was published in 2006.

She also writes free verse and won the WB Yeats Poetry Prize for Australia and New Zealand for both 2004 and 2005, the Vera Newsom Poetry Prize 2005 and the Society of Women Writers (NSW) Poetry Prize 2006.

Note: The poetry journal, Yellow Moon, referred to in this article ceased publication in December 2006 after 20 issues. Eucalypt, Australia's first journal for tanka only, commenced at this time.
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