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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 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!