Tanka? Okay, I Can Do That




I check
to see what’s sprouted
we’re separated now
by the life span
of squash and cucumbers


on the way
to see the apple blossoms —
I admire how
your story changes
with every streetlight


(Ribbons: Tanka Society of America Journal, 7:1, Spring 2011)




Tanka. I keep mentioning tanka in what I know is this extremely skeptical tone of voice. I spent a long time trying not to think about them. I think I was having a hard enough time trying to understand haiku (not that that process is or ever will be over for me) and seeing these tanka things, which looked kind of like haiku but were the wrong length and sounded very different, confused me. And kind of annoyed me, too, because a lot of them (although not, by any means, as high a percentage as I used to think) are flowery and dreamy and romantic and … I’m not. Flowery, dreamy, romantic things usually just make me want to go balance my checkbook or something. Or throw up. (Yes, I am a fun date. Thanks for asking.)

So I was all grouchy about tanka and didn’t even want to learn anything about it, which is unusual for me because generally I want to learn everything about everything, and the sooner the better. I sneered at and winced about and cast aspersions on tanka … and then, at some point this winter, I started writing it. Still without having the slightest idea what it actually was. Don’t ask me what that was all about. I think I was just having one of those days where haiku seemed too short. You know those days. Where you’re like “Seventeen syllables? Max? Give me a break.”

I wrote a bunch of these things and eyed them warily, and then heaved a weary sigh and went crawling humbly around the web to find out what I had done. I was thrilled to find this essay about the origins of tanka by Jane Reichhold, because it’s very funny and made me feel like maybe I didn’t have to worry so much about tanka but could just enjoy it:

“From tanka’s long history – over 1300 years recorded in Japan — the most famous use of the poetry form of tanka was as secret messages between lovers. Arriving home in the morning, after having dallied with a lover all night, it became the custom of well-mannered persons to write an immediate thank-you note for the pleasures of the hospitality. Stylized into a convenient five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 onji, the little poem expressing one’s feelings were sent in special paper containers, written on a fan, or knotted on a branch or stem of a single blossom. These were delivered to the lover by personal messenger who then was given something to drink along with his chance to flirt with the household staff. During this interval a responding tanka was to be written in reply to the first note which the messenger would return to his master.

Usually under some pressure – the writer had probably been either awake or engaged in strenuous activities all night – to write a verse that related, in some manner, to the previous note, that expressed (carefully) one’s feelings, and which titillated enough to cause the sender to want to return again was not an easy task. Added to this dilemma was the need to get the personal messenger on his way with a note so written that he couldn’t know exactly what was what but that the beloved would understand and appreciate. Then the giggling servants would get back to work.

“…Looking at tanka history it seems that the only infallible way of writing great tanka is to have an affair. Go ahead! Do it now. But that doesn’t mean that it must be a behind-the-bushes affair in the no-tell motel. Let yourself fall in love with anything or anyone you want to. It can be nature, a scene, a place, an activity, persons; your own kids, grandkids or even – your mate, or just life itself. Whatever feels good and right for you.

Because of their original use as a way of privately expressing emotion and especially between friends and lovers unhappy because they are separated, the feelings expressed in traditional tanka were usually either longing for better time, more faithful lovers, younger years or grief because of old age, lack of lovers, or hard times. You get the picture. When reading a great many tanka you realize you are hearing a lot of bitching. For some writers this is just the outlet for which they have been looking.”

— Jane Reichhold,  “Tanka for the Memory

So that was my first tanka breakthrough. My second happened when I humbly sent a bunch of my lame tanka off to be edited by Aubrie Cox, who graciously refrained from telling me I had no idea what I was doing and with her magical touch lightly and deftly transformed the least lame of them into something that a tanka editor might not be too appalled to see appearing in his or her inbox. The two above are the first I had accepted for publication. It felt pretty weird, I have to tell you. “Wait — I’m not a tanka poet. Am I? Oh God. I guess I am. Can I go throw up now?”

I’ve gotten over it, though. For one thing, I’ve actually read a lot of tanka since then, and a lot of it I like a lot. Also, some of my best friends are wonderful tanka poets, so I’ve really had to force myself to examine my unwarranted prejudices. If you get this issue of Ribbons, for instance (which I highly recommend you do), you will find the following stupendous tanka by my buddy Margaret Dornaus of haiku-doodle gracing the back cover, and being wonderfully and lovingly dissected inside the journal by its editor, Dave Bacharach:

at Toad Suck
I contemplate syllables
and old ponds
like a child puddle-jumping
loudly through soft falling rain

— Margaret Dornaus

And right next to it you will find another stupendous tanka by Jeffrey Woodward (Haibun Today editor extraordinaire), which Bacharach has deliberately placed in counterpoint with Margaret’s:

but with a slight tang,
the rejected
and twisted little
apples of Winesburg

— Jeffrey Woodward

Even I have to admit that there is nothing romantic, dreamy, etc. about either of these tanka, and that they are, in fact, quite brilliant and thought-provoking poems that just happen to be two lines longer than your typical haiku and to be attempting something rather different though not entirely unconnected. If you’re looking for a better explanation than I or probably anyone else but R.H. Blyth could provide of what exactly that something is, check out this essay by Don Wentworth over at Issa’s Untidy Hut, which gives us plenty of Blyth for our delectation.

For even more tanka information, Tanka Online and American Tanka are good places to look, and Charlotte Digregorio has recently written an essay on her blog that is a good, brief introduction to the subject. Besides Ribbons, the print journals Moonbathing, Eucalypt, and red lights publish tanka exclusively; bottle rockets publishes it among other Japanese verse forms, and so does the online journal Notes from the Gean. I’m probably forgetting someone. As I so often do. Feel free, as always, to tell me what I’m missing.


[Note: If you subscribe to this blog, you are not imagining things. Another version of this essay appeared a few days ago. It was an accident — it wasn’t finished yet — and I promptly deleted it. Sorry about the confusion.]



10 thoughts on “Tanka? Okay, I Can Do That

  1. Melissa:

    Thanks for writing about tanka! This is very helpful. I wish there were more publications of tanka. There are so many for haiku!

    By the way, I like your tanka, especially the one about apple blossoms.

  2. Melissa! For someone who’s not a gardener, you certainly have captured the essence of the vegetable patch! I love both your tanka, but am especially drawn to the “life span of squash and cucumbers” . . . What’s not to love (am I allowed to use that word?) about that? Just this morning, after yesterday’s devastating tornadoes whipped dangerously close to us, yellow squash blossoms in my garden reminded me of how fragile life can be. (Okay, I know I’m getting dangerously soupy here.)

    Anyway, thanks for putting the tanka experience into perspective with master Jane’s excellently irreverent comments on the subject. I particularly like that last bit: ” . . . When reading a great many tanka you realize you are hearing a lot of bitching. For some writers this is just the outlet for which they have been looking.” I concur. Here’s one of mine that seems to fit that bill:

    for meaningful work
    between jobs
    the chef spends his time
    hand-feeding the birds
    –Simply Haiku, Spring 2011

    Best, Margaret

    • Yeah, that sentence of Jane’s is one of my favorites written about any kind of poetry. I often feel like I’m doing that with haiku, too, of course.

      I will whisper quietly that I had to look up the germination schedules of those plants in order to make sure I wasn’t embarrassing myself by grouping them together…never grown either of them, ahem. (Well, okay, I guess my husband has planted cucumbers and we’ve had a few come to fruition, but I didn’t have much to do with the process.) It’s all part of my elaborate pretense of knowledgability. In reality I am woefully ignorant in so many ways that I despair of ever catching up, so I just write poetry to make it seem like I know what I’m doing.

      Love that tanka, as I do all your tanka. Can’t wait to see what you’re going to come up with next!

  3. I always enjoyed reading tanka but didn’t try writing them myself until I went to a workshop 18 months ago. I’m finding it a wonderful form to work and play with. I love this description by Yoel Hoffmann from his book Japanese Death Poems:

    “Most tanka contain two poetic images. The first is taken from nature; the second, which may proceed, follow, or be woven into the first, is a kind of meditative complement to the nature image. Tanka produce a certain dreamlike effect, presenting images of reality without that definite quality of “realness” often possessed by photographs or drawings, as if the images proceeded directly from the mind of the dreamer. The tanka poet may be likened to a person holding two mirrors in his hand, one reflecting a scene from nature, the other reflecting himself as he holds the first mirror. The tanka thus provides a look at nature, but it regards the observer of nature as well.”

    In all my reading up about tanka around the web I never came across them having been traditionally used as secret messages between lovers: I like it!

    walking to work
    they kiss
    before parting:
    the nurse turns left
    the doctor turns right

    (Kokako 13, Sept 2010) – Something I witnessed during one of my long hospital stays last year, and now it seems much more apt 🙂

    Kirsten x

    • Oh…that is a great, great tanka, Kirsten. How wonderful that you were able to be so observant and perceptive even in the middle of illness and stress.

      I had “Japanese Death Poems” out of the library for most of the semester but I returned it without reading most of it (no time); now I have to get it out again to see what else I was missing!

  4. Education and inspiration, all delivered with my first cup of coffee. I confess, I feel both jealous and challenged when I read your posts. So much knowledge, success and good poetry . . . my own writing feels so rough in comparison. Oh well, enough whining. Too early for that. Back to coffee, reading and writing. 😉

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