Tanka poetry refers to a Japanese 31-syllable poem, traditionally written as a single, unbroken line. The word "tanka" translates to "short song." Similar to haiku poetry, tanka poems have specific syllable requirements. They also use many literary devices, including personification, metaphors, and similes to allow ample visualization.
Let's dive a little deeper into the art form and then enjoy some examples of tanka poetry for a better picture.
In the 7th century, tanka poetry was so popular that nobles in the Japanese Imperial court would participate in tanka poetry competitions. These poems were also tender little keepsakes at the start of a romance. Two lovers would sneak away in the night to be together and send a tanka poem to one another the next morning to express their gratitude or love.
Traditional Japanese tanka poems consist of 31 syllables written in a single, unbroken line. In English translations, the tanka tends to take on a five-line form, which brings us to this important note. As you study tanka poetry, you'll notice it bears a resemblance to sonnets.
Midway through a tanka poem, there's a change in perception. In a sonnet, it's called the volta. In a haiku, there's typically a "turn" between lines two and three. As with a sonnet, the change occurs as a transition from examining an image to examining a personal response. Here's a little more on the different types of poems.
Tanka poems are, again, similar to haiku poems in that they often discuss the same topics of emotions, seasons, nature, love and sadness. Let's meet five of the masters.
Takuboku Ishikawa was born in 1882, in the Iwate prefecture of Japan. He dropped out of school at 16 to become a poet and is touted as a master of the tanka poetry. He published his first collection of poems at 19 and moved to Tokyo in 1908 to become a part of the bustling literary scene. Sadly, he died young, at the age of 30, from tuberculosis.
Here's a sample of one of his poems:
Lying on the dune sand
this day I recall
the anguish of my first love.
Machi Tawara is a contemporary Japanese poet, writer, and translator. She's credited with revitalizing tanka poetry for modern audiences. She was born in 1962, in the Osaka prefecture in Japan. In 1981, she graduated from Waseda University with a degree in Japanese literature. Today, she manages to combine modern subjects with classic Japanese poetic forms. She has her own website, The Chocolate Box.
Here's a sample of one of her translated poems:
Cherry, cherry cherry trees begin to bloom,
and bloom is over --
In the park where nothing (it seems) ever happened.
Masaoka Shiki was born in 1867 in the Ehime Prefecture in Japan. He was born to a samurai class family. His maternal grandfather was a Confucian scholar. Although Shiki was a major figure in the development of haiku poetry, he also wrote extensively on the reform of tanka poetry.
Here's a sample of one of his poems:
The bucket's water
poured out and gone,
drop by drop
dew drips like pearls
from the autumn flowers.
Mokichi Saito was born in 1882 in what is now known as Kaminoyama, Yamagata, Japan. He was both a poet and a psychiatrist. Saito graduated from Tokyo Imperial University Medical School before joining the psychiatry staff of Sugamo Hospital. Upon his death, Saito had published over 17 poetry collections, totaling more than 14,000 poems.
Here's a sample of one of his tanka poems:
Coming to a wall,
a lacewing Mayfly
is clinging to it --
the sheer transparency
Of the wings, their mournfulness.
Tada Chimako was born in 1930 in Fukuoka, Japan. She spent most of her childhood on Tokyo, in the midst of World War II. Chimako graduated from Tokyo Women's Christian University, where she studied French literature. Then, she moved on to Keio University to continue her degree in literature. She was a critically acclaimed writer, including haiku and tanka poetry.
Here's a sample of one of her poems:
The hot water in
the abandoned kettle
still carrying the resentment
of cold water.
It's never too early (or too late) to embark on a love of tanka poetry. Let's explore the work of a few elementary school students learning the artform, starting with an anonymous, young writer whose work was published on Edu.Pe.Ca:
Pretty colored trees
That are orange, red and yellow
In the Autumn air
An old barn by the water
With a white fence around it.
This example from Shadow Poetry was written by Dendrobia.
A cool wind blows in
With a blanket of silence.
Straining to listen
For those first few drops of rain,
The storm begins in earnest.
Also from Shadow Poetry is this tanka poem by Can Sonmez:
Subtle hints of spring
In the wet bark of the tree
Dew dripping from leaves
Then runs down the russet trunk
Pools round the roots and is drunk
Here's one more example from an anonymous little poet on Poetry for Kids:
Crash at two A.M.
I opened my bedroom door
A white cat ran by
Startled by the clanging fall
Of the treat jar's metal lid
Poetry paints life through colorful verses and enigmatic imagery. Why not see what you can paint with your pen and paper? Although tanka is a beautiful art form, you can also try your hand at any of these other types of poetry? You can even let your hair down and dabble in a little free verse from time to time. See which form captivates your spirit. Happy painting!