Monday, October 22, 2012

What in the world are tanka?

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?


  1. A great nutshell definition of the undefinable! I especially like your description of the style you admire: "lithe, concise yet lyrical, deceptively simple, and fresh . . ." Qualities we can all aspire to.

  2. Thanks, Jenny! I'm afraid I left the most "undefinable" part out of my post, instead pointing to the links; otherwise, my post would have been too lengthy. ;) One additional quality I admire, by the way, is authenticity, but I figured that goes without saying...