Reprint ~ Jane Reichhold, Tanka for the Memory
From tanka's long history--over
1300 years recorded in Japan--the most famous use of the poetry form of
tanka was as secret messages between lovers.
Arriving home in the morning, after having dallied with a lover all night,
it became the custom of well-mannered persons to write an immediate thank-you
note for the pleasures of the hospitality. Stylized into a convenient five
lines of 5-7-5-7-7 onji, the little poem expressing one's feelings was sent
in special paper containers, written on a fan, or knotted on a branch or
stem of a single blossom. These were delivered to the lover by personal
messenger who then was given something to drink along with his chance to
flirt with the household staff. During this interval a responding tanka
was to be written in reply to the first note which the messenger would return
to his master.
Usually under some pressure--the writer had probably been either awake
or engaged in strenuous activities all night--to write a verse that related,
in some manner, to the previous note, that expressed (carefully) one's
and which titillated enough to cause the sender to want to return again
was not an easy task. Added to this dilemma was the need to get the personal
messenger on his way with a note so written that he couldn't know exactly
what was what but that the beloved would understand and appreciate. Then
the giggling servants would get back to work.
In a society that accepted
the fact that married men could, would and will dally, the chore of writing
those morning-after notes was raised
to an acceptable
art. A woman who could cope, after being wakened from a well-deserved
sleep, with pen, ink and words was assured of more lovers (and hence,
support) than the gymnast on the mattress. So revered became tanka--and
so eager were men and women to improve their own works--that contests
were regularly held for the purpose of writing and reading of tanka.
was a body of esteemed works to which one could refer (and be inspired)
that the emperors decreed the collection of anthologies beginning around
Thus, there are preserved in Japanese, more tanka than any other poetry
form in the world. Yet, here in North America, the interest has only
begun to gather momentum.
If you've enjoyed reading and writing haiku, you will probably luxuriate
in tanka. Here the writer gets two extra lines--and long ones at that!--plus
the go-ahead to write about one's feelings! For a society such as ours,
where people are encouraged to express and explore their feelings, tanka
seems better fitting as a poetry form than the more popular haiku.
Okay you say, let's try it. What are the rules? There aren't many at this
point which have been given to us in English. We've seen the syllable
and line count. Over the centuries there have been changes in styles regarding
where the line breaks should be. For a while it was after the second line,
later after the third line. Capitalization and punctuation have been at
the mercy of translators; so the rules one follows with haiku are a starting
For nearly a thousand
years there has been only a little written about the use of the "pivotal image." The
idea was that somewhere in the third line would be an image that could
relate--or link--to both the upper
two lines, which were to be on one subject and the lower two lines written
on another subject. Haiku writers will recognize this concept and be quickly
able to use it to add the best two last lines. Haiku writers will also
probably find in their [work] published as such, but which, make great
for a tanka. By linking the images in the lower two lines with the first
two over the understanding radiated by the third line, it is possible
to find a new way of thinking of all three (or more) images.
We have a translation
of Fujiwara no Teika's admonishment believed to have been prepared for
a prince in
1222, "In emotion, newness is foremost:
look for sentiments others have yet to sing, and sing them. In diction,
use the old: don't go further back than the Three Anthologies . . ." (meaning
the Kokinshu, the Gosenshu--951 AD, and the Shuisbu--1005 AD).
Anna Holley, whose tanka were published in MIRRORS
II:2, is the classic
example of a writer who follows this advice. As you read Holley's work
you will feel as if it was written in Japanese a thousand years ago, and
her ideas and linkages are completely modern.
If you don't write haiku in 5-7-5, you probably won't write tanka in 5-7-5-7-7.
Though, in a recent letter on the subject, George Ralph, who has a set
of tanka in this issue, wrote that he enjoys the discipline of the syllable
count and tries, as much as he is able, to stick with it. We have to admit
that the factor of wits (trying to say something within a prescribed manner)
is the half of the poem that balances inspiration (those glorious streams
of words falling on our ears). If one does not or cannot give the inspiration
a form it comes out either in gibberish or the next easiest step, everyday
narrative often labeled free verse. There is challenge in fitting our
to a form and admiration when another person is able to do it better than
An adaptation of the haiku rule of short-long-short lines extended with
the two long-long lines is possible. There are those who begin the tanka
with the long-long lines.
Everything will be
tried and we will graciously allow it to be called tanka until someone
a better name. We aren't Japanese and we come
the land of songs, sonnets and limericks (as well as longer forms of poetry).
Tanka is new to us and we will never write a real tanka as we cannot write,
even in kanji, a real haiku. The best we can do is to be ourselves under
the influence of the tanka genre. Some persons will very soon appear on
the scene saying, "It isn't a tanka unless it has . . .!"
At this stage, I can only say I would prefer that each writer adopt some
rules to begin with. As you write you may discard one or more and adopt
others. The important issue is not the form you use or the fact that you
have used a form (whether it comes from the Japanese, experts or yourself),
but what you are able to do within some kind of limits.
Looking at tanka history it seems that the only infallible way of writing
great tanka is to have an affair. Go ahead! Do it now. But that doesn't
mean that it must be a behind-the-bushes affair in the no-tell motel.
Let yourself fall in love with anything or anyone you want to. It can be
a scene, a place, an activity, persons; your own kids, grandkids or even--your
mate, or just life itself. Whatever feels good and right for you.
Because of their original use as a way of privately expressing emotion
and especially between friends and lovers unhappy because they are separated,
the feelings expressed in traditional tanka were usually either longing
for better time, more faithful lovers, younger years or grief because
old age, lack of lovers, or hard times. You get the picture. When reading
a great many tanka you realize you are hearing a lot of bitching. For
some writers this is just the outlet for which they have been looking.
It is so easy to complain in poetry. I know the world is not perfect.
I know every poet has the right to write what he/she wants to. Conditions
that need to be changed get my letters to congressmen, donations to
worthy causes and a helping hand wherever I can reach. I can't resist saying
that I would hope the progress we humans try to believe we are making
is expressed in our poetry. I want to make a plea for tanka that stream
the love we can find no other way to express. It could be our thanks
the universe. Thanks for the memory.
mother of three children, was born in Lima, Ohio in 1937. She studied
Art and Journalism at Bluffton College, Ohio. An extensive biography
of Reichhold and her work is found on the Aha Poetry Website: http://www.ahapoetry.com/jrbio.htm
Reprinted with permission from Aha Poetry Website: http://www.ahapoetry.com/haiku.htm