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Definition of Tanka

An unrhymed Japanese poem consisting of five lines of 5/7/5/7/7 (5 kana in the first line, 7 kana in the second line, 5 kana in the third line, 7 kana in the fourth line, and 7 kana in the fifth line) totaling 31 kana.

General thoughts on Tanka

Tanka is generally written in two parts. The first three lines is one part, and the last two lines is the second part.

Tanka in English is relatively new, so there are not as many guidelines as with haiku and senryu. You may include kigo (season words), but it is not necessary.

One exercise for beginners is to write a haiku and add two more lines.

However, tanka is not really a longer haiku, and should not be thought of as such. While tanka does use many of the same elements such as juxtaposition, concrete imagery, and is usually centered around nature, tanka is less constrictive.

You may use metaphor, simile, and many of the other devices generally not used in haiku or senryu. You may show a more personal and emotional viewpoint.

If tanka were seen in a book that contains only Japanese poetic forms, they would be easily recognizable. However, if the same poems were seen in a freestyle poetry book, they may be confused with any other five line poem.

English tanka has not totally found its voice.

Three ways to write tanka

There are three basic ways to write tanka.

1) Write 5 lines of 5/7/5/7/7. Just replace one syllable for one kana. Most English speaking writers do not do this, as there are too many vast differences between the Japanese and English language.

You are certainly free to do this, however, your tanka will be about one-third longer than the Japanese tanka. There are some Japanese who think this is the only real way to write tanka, but there are others who feel that making English writers adhere to the form serves no purpose.

2) Write 5 lines of 31 syllables or LESS, following the short/long/short/long/long form. This way, your tanka will achieve the same basic effect as the Japanese tanka.

3) Write 5 lines of 31 syllables or LESS, letting the poem dictate the line length. You are free to experiment more with this last option.

Everyone who writes tanka must make their own personal decision on which form they want to use. Some experiment with all three forms and find their own paths.

Examples of tanka (#3)

in her rocker, failing eyesight--
knotted fingers stitch the eyes
on yellow gingham dolls
just for me

in the gloaming. . .
finding peace in indecision
day and night pass
each other, pale blues
fade into darkness

I have only discussed tanka in the simplest of terms. For more in depth information on tanka or its history, feel free to see the links on this page for more information.

Tanka Links

bullet   Tanka
bullet   Tanka Society of America

Article written by Kathy Lippard Cobb. All Rights Reserved

For more information or questions, please contact: Kathy Lippard Cobb

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