Tanka — is there an Australian Style?
Julie Thorndyke

first published in Eucalypt e-news no 28 February 13th, 2011

  Belonging to a critique group such as Tanka Huddle has many advantages in learning about the conventions of tanka and developing an individual style. One of the interesting things I enjoy about the exposure to poems from other poets in the draft and formulation stage of writing is being able to observe how “fashions” in punctuation and line breaks, line length and syllable count, and such like, arise and fade away. I notice this in my own poems, as well. Sometimes I will be “in love” with a short, sharp verse style — or at times the musicality of the sustained, longer phrase.

As well as the Tanka Huddle I critique with a select group of international tanka writers by email, and have had the privilege of co-editing Eucalypt with Beverley George. In these situations I have had the opportunity to read and reflect on a great number of poems by many individual poets. The Tanka Splendour competition which I entered for several years also gave us the opportunity to review a large number of poems. I state this only to show that my reading of tanka poetry has been wide enough to embolden me to think about making some generalisations about style.

In the introduction to String of Beads: complete poems of Princess Shikishi, Hiroaki Sato writes:
If thousands upon thousands of poems are written
in a short, restricted form ,… in the end many are
likely to resemble one another. (Sato 1993 p.23)
Given the number of short, five line lyric poems being written today in English under the general name of “tanka”, I wonder if within this increasing volume of work we can begin to identify trends and styles, and consider whether there is a recognisably Australian version of this popular short form poem?

There is certainly a readiness in Australian tanka poets to rely on native, local and uniquely southern hemisphere imagery. This comes naturally, as we live and write in our local environment with our eyes and ears open. Although the beginning tanka poet may be tempted to focus on classical images of rain, clouds, the moon, fallen leaves, blossoms and so on, once she has confidence to look for poetry in the scenes of her own life, and move away from making pale copies of existing texts (as an artist will sketch at a gallery from the old masters) the imagery will naturally flow on.

So in Australian tanka we have beach scenes, much sand and surf, restless tides, flood, fire and extreme weather, but little snow and ice. Flowing rivers and dry creek beds. Scorched gardens and old fences. Trees that may be friend or foe. Native fauna and domestic animals. Children seem to appear often, illness and loss are common themes. Love is often dealt with in humorous tones and a direct, clear-eyed view of death, not lacking in compassion, is evident. There isn’t space here to cite examples, so you will have to trust me on this. So much for the themes and imagery. But what about other elements of style?

Our syllables are likely to be well under the 31 limit, with a growing understanding of the differences between Japanese and English linguistics influencing this choice. Our line breaks are likely to follow the short, long, short, long, long pattern, but not slavishly. Punctuation is minimal – we are likely to begin with none, and put in a comma or a dash if it will add the meaning. We like words that do the work of ten strong men, and leave out any word that doesn’t pull its weight in the telling of the story, but is mere padding. A single word might indicate the reality of drought, fire or flood. We like the hint of a narrative—without explaining too much. We like to leave the readers some room to follow the narrative thread that has been dangled tantalisingly before them.

It could be said that if there is an Australian style of tanka is comes directly from the fact that there are a few key figures in the Australian poetry scene championing tanka, and that most of us have been mentored by these few people, namely Janice Bostok, Beverley George, Amelia Fielden. And that through their contact with tanka and haiku writers in the UK and USA, Japan and Canada, the influence of other particular overseas poets has been strong. Since many tanka poets have come to the form via haiku, writers such as John Bird in the haiku field also have had a large impact on taste and style. The interchange with Japan in translation projects of modern Japanese tanka into English has undoubtedly strengthened the position of Australian poets to follow a “pure” version of tanka that follows classical principles, rather than the “no rules” approach to tanka as short free verse.

As I indicated before, a short rant like this doesn’t allow room to quote a wide selection of supporting examples. But I would like to indicate from the work of a couple of key Australian poets, whose work will be familiar to all, a couple of interesting tendencies. Beverley George, in empty garden, has presented a collection of tanka remarkably homogeneous in style and theme. In these poems, always a “you” is being directly addressed. An understood “we” is the subject of the poems that indicate loss, love and intricacies of human relationships. “Us” is the problem, the point of writing, the thing the poet seeks to understand. The direct, passionate voice puts me in mind of philosopher Martin Buber’s I-Thou dialogic principle. (see k, Michael, "Martin Buber".)

Direct address to “you” as in the Empty Garden poems heightens intimacy and greatly lessens the distance between the poet and the reader, resulting in poems of high potency and impact. In a country built over vast distances, where absence is a recurring theme, this ability to speak concisely and with great emotional clarity to the missing “significant other” holds great, if subconscious, appeal for the Australian poet.

Not all tanka are “poems about you”. In Two Minds, by Amelia Fielden and Kathy Kituai, shows us two other styles of writing. Amelia has also helped us by naming them in an article (Fielden, A. 2009. About tanka and its history). They are jiga no shi – “poems about me” and shasei – “word paintings” or “poems about the world”.

In jiga no shi, “I” is the subject, not you. I (the poet, or the persona adopted in fictional poems) is the subject. I do this, I observe that, an object reminds me of something else, makes me feel sad/happy/lonely/etc. The effect is less sharply focused on emotion, we are hearing a monologue rather than a direct plea. In the "you" poems, both the poet and the person addressed are in the “frame” of the picture; in the “I” poem, the poet is alone.

One step further away, is the shasei poem, where neither “you” nor “I” are in the frame, but an aspect of the world is gently rendered as a visual image. The poet is describing something important but is not in the picture at all. These might be the hardest of all to render effectively, relying on careful word choice and the eye of the poet to identify what is beautiful and unique about the scene.

Poems of urgency, poems of acceptance, poems of quiet beauty, this is what I see in the growing power of Australian tanka.


Fielden, A. 2009. About tanka and its history. Tanka Online. www.tankaonline.com
Fielden, A. and Kituai, K. In two minds. Baltimore, Modern English Tanka Press, 2008.
George, Beverley, empty garden. Sydney, Yellow Moon, 2006.
Sato, Hiroaki. String of Beads: complete poems of Princess Shikishi. Honolulu, University of Honolulu Press, 1993.
Zank, Michael, "Martin Buber", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/buber/

copyright © Julie Thorndyke February 2011

 top  articles index  home