EIF Poetry Challenge #14: Tanka

As we have already explored the haiku form in a previous poetry challenge, this week I wanted to take a look at another Japanese form: tanka. If you thought a tanka was simply an extended haiku, think again! There is a lot more to the form than this. Read on to find out more…

The tanka as a poetic form

Literally meaning ‘short song’, tanka is a form of waka, a Japanese song or verse. It is composed of 31 on, or lexical units roughly approximating syllables (though they are not the same thing). For an example of how on differ from syllables, consider the word haiku: in English, we pronounce this word as two syllables: ‘hai-ku’, but in Japanese, the ‘ai’ is a complex vowel, so the word is pronounced ‘ha-i-ku’ and is comprised of 3 on.

To write tanka in English, we normally divide the poem into five lines with the following syllable pattern: 5/7/5/7/7. This is why you would be forgiven for thinking of the tanka as a kind of ‘extended haiku.’ In truth, it is a little more complicated. The tanka is to Japanese poetry what the sonnet is to English: in the final lines, the poem should perform an ‘about face’ moving from the general to the specific. I found a great example of this in the following tanka:

On the white sand
Of the beach of a small island
In the Eastern Sea.
I, my face streaked with tears,
Am playing with a crab

— Ishikawa Takuboku (source: Wikipedia)

The first three lines (which follow the haiku format) are the ‘upper poem’ (kami-no-ku) and the final two the ‘lower poem’ shimo-no-ku.

Tanka subjects

Historically, tanka expressed both the sentiments of courtly love, and the secrets of clandestine affairs. Lovers would write tanka for one another the morning after a romantic liaison and leave them behind for the other to read. The imaginative possibilities of this are endless!

Modern-day tanka are more diverse in their subject matter: you can write tanka on just about any subject, so long as they follow the form illustrated above. Nature poetry lends itself well to the tanka form. It is also well-suited to reflections upon human nature. This week I have been trying to write tanka for my personal Twitter poetry challenge; look out for these in my Friday roundup of Twitter poetry.

The challenge

Write a tanka on any subject. For the purposes of this challenge, this means a short, five-line poem with an ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ element, and a ‘turn’ from the former to the latter: think of taking the general view and making it personal. Strict syllable-counting is not necessary.

This week’s challenge will be judged by Jane Dougherty, an accomplished poet whose work has been widely published in literary magazines including Visual Verse and The Ekphrastic Review. She has also written some excellent examples of tanka, which you can find on her website.

How to enter

You can enter in any of the following ways:

  • Make a post featuring your tanka and link back to this post.
  • Post your tanka in the comments below.
  • Email your tanka to experimentsinfiction@protonmail.com.
  • Tweet your tanka, tagging @Experimentsinfc.
  • Post your tanka on Instagram, tagging @experimentsinfiction.

The deadline for entries is midnight CET on 26th January. The winners will be announced as soon as possible after this date. Good luck and may the muse be with you!

40 thoughts on “EIF Poetry Challenge #14: Tanka

Add yours

  1. I love reading all of this and learning about it but withoumuch time, if I tried this I would never write a poem… but I love reading alk of yours! ❤️ so impressive!

    1. Cindy, I humbly submit that you’re not giving yourself enough credit. Not that you should poetry – but that you could if you wanted to. Tankas and all the rest!


      1. awwww you are very kind to say that.. I have noticed when I’ve tried a few, it’s been quite fun.
        I continue to write from the flow but maybe at some point I’ll try it out..I appreciate your encouragement David! ❤️❤️❤️🙏🤗

      1. Yes they’re fortnightly on Wednesdays: next Wednesday will be the results of this one; the following Wednesday the next challenge!

  2. Not sure if I’ve got the format right, but here is my entry:


    Although some are left
    Without a final farewell wave
    Living on regardless
    I, sad and broken for some time
    Watch endless dying sunsets

      1. I use Canva on my computer, but I expect it has an app version. I use the free version to design my visual poetry as well as pins and other things. You can find it at canva.com; you will be having too much fun with it in no time! 🙂

  3. I am a tanked-up rhymer
    Tanka’s not my thing
    Tanka here tanka there

    Behave yourself. This is a serious tanka post……

    Sorry Ingrid. Don’t know what came over me?…..

  4. I’ll have a go albeit non-traditional. I think I’ve got the 5/7/5/7/7 syllable count correct. One needs to know that Skip is my kangaroo drinking buddy.

    On the green green grass
    Of a back lawn Down Under
    Grasping a cold beer
    I, and drinking buddy Skip
    Clink glasses, say bottoms up

  5. Not wanting to be outdone by Skip, Dauphy wrote this for you. I’m not sure he’s quite grasped the idea!

    They drive their tankas
    through the mud, tankety tank
    shoot the enemy.
    I’m not scared, I have a bomb
    boom boom boom, boom buddy boom!

    Don’t worry. I’ve sent him for a nap 🙂

      1. Oooh, I love croissants! They were our Sunday morning treat from the local boulangerie when we lived in France. Huge, buttery, flaky mouthfuls of yumminess!

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