A few weeks ago, a fellow writer-blogger asked me what a tanka is. For those perusing this blog who may be unfamiliar with the term,and also wondering what it is that I've been posting, a tanka is a "short poem" with a long, interesting history. The word is used in both the singular and plural (poem and poems) and applies to both genre and form. Its Japanese origins and relationship with waka, translating to "Japanese song," go back around 1300 years or so; the more-familiar haiku is several centuries younger. In English, tanka consist of five fairly brief lines. There have been some colorful discussions, maybe small wars, in the English-language tanka (ELT) community over the exact particulars of the ELT form. An ELT isn't just any five-line poem, that's for sure, but it's tough to define in a meant-to-be-brief blog post. There are certain characteristics, to do with both structure and flavor, that seem to make it what it is. By the way, a 31-syllable poem is not a good or accurate description; the use of as many as 31 English syllables can result in fairly cumbersome tanka. Japanese tanka cannot simply be mimicked in other languages. Perhaps "we" shouldn't even call our non-Japanese versions "tanka," but here we are. To learn more, as well as read lots of examples, check out several of the sidebar links I've provided in this blog. Current ELT writing styles are all over the place. Myself, I'm most drawn to those poems that are lithe, concise yet lyrical, deceptively simple, and fresh, and that make use of natural contemporary speech. I attempt to write the bulk of my own in a "traditional" short-long-short-long-long line-length pattern, though my subject matter and approach may not always be thought of as traditional.
At any rate, the worldwide ELT community seems to have expanded fairly rapidly over the past several years. Composing tanka can be a challenging yet addictive pastime. P.S. Quite a few small, quality journals exist that either are dedicated to ELT or otherwise feature it. Still, the time may be ripe for additional tanka-friendly 'zines, especially since one not long ago shut its doors and another one or two have been on hiatus. Anyone out there up for the task?
He will miss the seasonal change, subtle as it will be: the first two waves of chill. He will leave when humid air still knocks against skin like angry beads and the jasmine draws in its final bees for the year— And will be gone while the oleander begin their hibernating droop and the hibiscus expose frameworks of thinning bones. He will not know the needle’s drill into tame, unsuspecting flesh, or the restive landscape of waiting for results— But will return in time to witness the expected conflagration: scarlet berries on the yaupon.
—Loch Raven Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2005
The berries on our city yaupon tree (pictured) would turn bright red during November. Here in this rustic place where we now live, the clump of native yaupon by our driveway already is loaded with red berries.
Something I've finally learned in life is to try a little less and stay a little mussed up (well, I may have gone overboard with the last part). I enjoy discovering beauty in the rustic or ramshackle, in plants some may call weeds, in things or even people discarded by others. And I'm drawn to poetry that may be a wee bit askew, while shedding light on our imperfect selves. Thought I'd share this link to a lovely brief essay by Erin Coughlin Hollowell: "The Art of Imperfection in Poetry (and in life)" (with her permission). And here's another essay from her Being Poetry blog that I can identify with, about neat poems versus those with ragged edges: "Headfirst into the Picture Window—Risk in Writing."
roadside daisies vibrant in my hand— at home this vase unable to contain their wildness golden wings of a butterfly . . . it flees after grazing the edge of my shadow —A Hundred Gourds, 1:4, Sept. 2012
They're not nearly as prolific as they were this summer, and the blooms are smaller. But it's early October, and still there are wild daisies at the edge of the woods.
A couple more kyoka, or kyoka-like tanka, from Prune Juice: she warns me not to let the cat get out, her old Persian that barely even moves an inch an hour I cringe at my reflection . . . the charm with which he offers to bash out all our mirrors —Prune Juice, Issue 9, July 2012