Many know about haiku, that ultra-short form of poetry from Japan that captures a flash of consciousness in only three lines. But a thousand years before haiku came along, Japanese poets developed the tanka form. Tanka is slightly longer—five lines—but it’s significantly different from haiku in the type of moment that sparks it.
Here’s one of my favorite tanka poems, by the great Japanese woman poet Yosano Akiko, who lived from 1878 to 1942 and wrote over 40,000 poems:
if not for women
writhing like vengeful demons
screaming like wild boars
no child of man
would ever be born
(adapted from the translation of Makoto Ueda)
Like haiku, which crystallizes one specific moment in time or consciousness, tanka is about a particular observation of the poet. But unlike haiku, tanka can reach both backwards and forwards in time to include a broader observation, or even a story. How can just five short lines of poetry tell a story? It’s not easy, but with the conciseness of tanka, a poet finds the fulcrum of a story, the moment of truth in that encounter. Here’s another poem by Yosano Akiko from her groundbreaking series of tanka called Tangled Hair about a love affair:
Early evening moon
Over the flowering field,
I felt somehow
He was waiting for me
And I came.
(translated by Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda)
Here the poet describes the moment when she made her choice to embark on a difficult relationship. The image of the evening moon suggests the expectant lover, wishing for her. The flowering field makes me think of the fullness of her love.
I haven’t said anything yet about the rigorous form of the tanka. Each of the five lines must have a specific number of syllables. The order is: 5-7-5-7-7. I haven’t mentioned this because it works beautifully in Japanese, but when English-language translators or poets attempt to duplicate the form exactly, it often takes away from the freshness and the gentle punch of the tanka. Personally, I prefer poems that just follow the spirit of the tanka and don’t count syllables like coins.
Another fascinating side of the tanka is that the poet often sharply splits the five lines between two seemingly unrelated images. The writer does not directly link these two worlds, but leaves it entirely up to the reader to make the connection. Yosano Akiko does this in the poem just mentioned about the evening field and the lover’s impulse. Here’s another example, a thousand-year-old tanka by the 10th century poet Fujiwara no Toshiyuki:
in the Bay of Sumi
waves crowd the shore
even at night
by the corridors of dreams
I come to you secretly
(adapted from the translation of Kenneth Rexroth)
The poet never says that the waves are like him, the lover. He never directly mentions that the shore is a metaphor for his beloved. It’s all just understood. That’s what I love about it! And the fact that the waves are not simply approaching the shore, they are crowding it. It is a little invasive to tell your beloved that you can visit her at night, even when she’s dreaming. The poem acknowledges that, in the midst of a wonderfully romantic moment.
Here are some of my favorite collections of tanka poetry if you’d like to read more:
Kenneth Rexroth, One Hundred Poems from the Japanese
Makoto Ueda, Modern Japanese Tanka
Yosano Akiko, Tangled Hair: Selected Poems from Midaregami