Friday, October 3, 2008

Tanka Fun

Tanka is a Japanese style of poetry that's been around for about 1300 years! The name means "short song" and was originally intended to be chanted with music. In the traditional form it is composed using 31 syllables in 5 lines of 5,7,5,7,7. The third line is often pivitol, meaning it can act as an ending verse (of the first 3 lines) and a beginning verse (of the last 3 lines) at the same time. Since Japanese and English have little in common these traditional rules are not so binding for the English writer. It is the essence of the tradition that is sought after. I read somewhere once that Tanka is like Haiku with commentary. It is also compared to a verbal snapshot of a situation with clarification. Oh, and Tanka do not have titles unless the author has a string of them together to form a sequence.

I enjoy the traditional but especially like to write and read the experimental. Below is a traditional example without the strict Japanese syllable counts. The third verse is pivotal. It is a snapshot of a situation where the person thinks that he did not win his promotion because of his disability. He does not even consider the fact that it may be something as basic as the way he chooses to dress. Isn't that just like us?

He is disabled
smart and capable
not promoted again
he storms away
in that wrinkled shirt

The next example follows a similar pattern. The picture it captures may seem melodramatic but is in fact quite true.

I see Jesus
hanging on the cross
my crimes pouring from His flesh
I walk away
free and clean

The next three are experimental and I would probably be criticized by experts (of which I am not) for being too abstract. Still, I like them so they stay! The third line is not pivotal. The first describes a moment of trying to fathom the depths of how well God knows us and is inspired by Heb 4:12.

There is a place
between the bone and the marrow
that keeps the essence
of all the things
there are no words for

The second is a true incident captured in my memory forever. Words do something to us don't they?

You called me ugly
and I
will never
believe you didn't mean it

Lastly, this Tanka is a snap-realization that I am capable of falling in the immediate moment after betting my life that I never would!

I knew my own soul
when I anchored it on a flimsy stick
stretched it towards the flame
and watched it fall
straight away into the dirt

So there you have it. Why not try and put some of your own moments into a Tanka capsule? You can search out sources on the internet to get a better understanding. American Tanka is just one of my favorite places.

You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of joy in your presence.
Acts 2:28

Photo: Pink Clematis, taken by my husband Warren in our back yard.


  1. You had me at "Tanka is a Japanese style of poetry..."

    So when you bend the rules about the syllables, are you doing so in some particular way? Staying true to 31 syllables but not specific divisions... or just writing a series of five line poems with a turn in line three?


  2. Hi Mark,
    As with Haiku the syllable count is pretty flexible. It's mostly a rhythm thing with me... a moment captured in 5 lines. As with everything, there is plenty of argument for and against strictness.

    Thank you for commenting!