This month on All Nine we celebrate the tanka form, along with its cousins kyoka, waka, and other non-Western five-line poems. But before we get the party started, let’s define our terms. For the following definition of tanka, I am indebted to the Tanka Society of America:
Draft definition form the Haiku Society of America definitions committee led by William J. Higginson (published in the HSA Newsletter in early 1994):
“TANKA. The typical lyric poem of Japanese literature, composed of five unrhymed metrical units of 5,7,5,7,7 ‘sound symbols’; tanka in English have generally been in five lines with a total of thirty-one or fewer syllables, often observing a short, long, short, long, long pattern. Tanka usually need no titles, though in Japanese a ‘topic’ (dai) is often indicated where a title would normally stand in Western poetry. In Japan, the tanka is well over twelve hundred years old (haiku is about three hundred years old), and has gone through many periods of change in style and content. But it has always been a poem of feelings, often involving metaphor and other figurative language (not generally used in haiku). While tanka praising nature have been written, and seem to resemble “long haiku,” most tanka deal with human relationships or the author’s situation. In the words of Sanford Goldstein, “behind the scene is the autobiographical moment of the poet’ (‘Tanka Off the Back Burner,’ Frogpond,XV:2 Fall–Winter 1992). The best tanka harmonizes the writer’s emotional life with the elements of the outer world used to portray it.”
I have found a great affinity for writing tanka (or five-line poetry) because, as is indicated in this definition, it is a “poem of feelings”, dealing with “human relationships.” Although reserved on the outside and leaning toward introversion, I am deeply emotional and wired as a relator. I stumbled on this form mainly through Twitter poets who also write haiku. I’ve kept with it because, quite simply, I love it.
This small container for expressing a slice of the human experience frees and constrains at the same time. Five lines can pack a punch without manipulation – you’re in and out quickly, and if you haven’t conveyed your point by the thirty-first syllable, you never will (or you need another form). For me, it keeps my poetry from getting maudlin or overly emotive.
My early tanka followed strict 5-7-5-7-7 “rules”. Here are two examples from 2009:
We don’t know how to
say goodbye, so we polish
our shoes, trim our nails,
put on our best bowties and
cry without shame, beyond words.
ceiling stares down with dead weight,
Monsters play at politics
behind eyelids until dawn.
These days I’m more inclined to the “thirty-one or fewer syllables” guideline as more of a suggestion for the five-liner. For example, here are three from the past few months:
On my knees
pressing soil over and around
mint, dill, basil –
How I try to
remember the dead.
as it spills
by cheek and tongue –
I am torn.
the unfinished puzzle
reminds me of nothing
Some may prefer my earlier rule-following attempts, and I like them for what they represent for me: A new foray into an ancient frontier. But the more recent five-liners feel less forced to me, more “authentic” – to use an over-used and often misused word.
I say authentic with intent, though. These days, I am less concerned about rules of the form and performing for readers and critics, and more interested in recording for myself the connection between body, emotions, spirit, and others (human or otherwise) in any given moment.
Will you join me and the other muses at All Nine in our tanka journey? Add your own authentic “autobiographical moment” in the comments section here or on the All Nine Facebook page.