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Spring 2005, vol 3 no 1

 

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 feelings, 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, more financial 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. So necessary was a body of esteemed works to which one could refer (and be inspired) that the emperors decreed the collection of anthologies beginning around 700 AD. 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 point.

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 beginnings 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 yet 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 ideas to a form and admiration when another person is able to do it better than we have.

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 gives it a better name. We aren't Japanese and we come from 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 nature, 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 of 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 here 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 from the love we can find no other way to express. It could be our thanks to the universe. Thanks for the memory.


Jane Reichhold, 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


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