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Winter 2008, vol 6 no 4

The Tanka Prose Anthology
edited by Jeffrey Woodward
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


The Tanka Prose Anthology begins with a well written, multi-page introduction that alone is worth the price of the book. Penned by the book's editor, Jeffrey Woodward, it offers a well researched explanation of what tanka prose is and isn't, citing examples of the genre in the English language tanka prose community, including Sanford Goldstein's pioneering of the path for others to follow.

The combinations, of prose and tanka, are not haibun according to Woodward, who asserts that haibun consist strictly of prose and haiku. Woodward labels this combination "tanka prose" and sees it as a separate genre rather than an offshoot of haibun.

States Woodward in his introduction:

...tanka prose differs qualitatively from haibun—not only that tanka and haiku differ, but that their prose accompaniment does as well. What precisely this tanka spirit entails is a question beset with many problems and potential controversies. Some poets will cite various Japanese aesthetic touchstones as aware (pathos), wabi (austere beauty) or even yugen (depth or mystery), despite the obscurity, even on its home turf, of the latter. Other poets will perceive the tanka spirit from the viewpoint of common Western critical concepts such as understatement, paradox, overtone or ambiguity. Given an absence of consensus, it would be wise to recognize that poets—many of whom may be content to grasp such matters intuitively—will determine the nature and spirit of tanka by their own evolving experience.

The majority of the tanka prose in this anthology do not feature tanka in the strict sense of the term, as they are not written in the S/L/S/L/L schema that separates tanka from prose poems and gives tanka their meter. This is becoming commonplace amongst English language tanka circles. Perhaps it's time to reclassify this tanka-like poetry as a genre of its own, a cross breed genre incorporating a symbiosis between tanka, Western free verse, and short poems.

This is not to say the poetry and prose in the anthology are bad. Most are very well written. Take for instance the following by Hortensia Anderson of New York. The poetry and prose are brilliant, in my estimation, and deserve to be read again and again:

Maybe You Can Come Home

The black behind the mirror ever alters—
the scent of death permeates all the flowers.

"I shall take rememberings by dismemberings" the
Commandante kindly said "and keep them from you" as he
dragged my loves through white snow leaving a jagged red path
like a ragged scarf in my memory.

His ice blue eyes looked
but his boots kept gleaming.

On a too distant cloud,
the angel of history
folded her wings and wept.

frozen moon
we face the lighted ground
a single file of shadow

The two tanka-like poems and the haiku in Anderson's tanka prose are beautiful, aesthetic, making good use of imagery and meter:

the angel of history
folded her wings and wept.

The prose preceding her poetry is a good example of how prose included with tanka or haiku should be written, and because it contains both tanka and haiku, whether or not to label it a haibun or prose poem, is unimportant. It's equally poetic, makes use of ma and yugen, and draws readers into the poetry's heart, allowing them to interpret Anderson's tanka prose through their own experiential context. Pieces like this are not forgotten after an anthology is read.

This tanka prose poem penned by Patricia Prime is equally excellent:

Tattered Flags

The Bhokar Market, for three days of the New Year
Festival, is the focus of festivities, drama and ritual. Herdsmen
and their families descend from the mountains to celebrate. The
courtyard of the red monastery flutters with tattered flags
bearing Tibetan script.

under the eaves
of a whitewashed lamasery
a band of ochre—
a procession of monks
slowly emerges

Tibetans crowd the streets dressed in their finery: high boots,
fancy waistcoats, gold-braided hats and fur lined coats. They
listen to music and watch plays, interspersed with prayers. Sheep
are tied to the railings. Tables are laden with jewelry, woven cloth,
food, ornaments, statues of Buddha, and bells.

in sunlight
the gilded symbol
of dharma
the ratchet-like rhythm
of turning wheels

I'm welcomed into a family's home. The distempered
farmhouse walls are daubed with drying circles of yak dung to
be used for fuel. Dogs, chickens and grinning children with
wind-burnt cheeks gather in the yard to take a look at the
stranger. Yak butter tea, boiled potatoes and shriveled apples
are served on an embroidered cloth.

A burly man in felt clothing and yak skin hat, takes me into the
prayer room to show me the woven wall hangings. Their world
hangs by a thread, their livelihood almost in ruins.

chanting mantras
to the sound
of temple bells
the crowd standing
in the dust

Anderson and Prime use completely different styles yet both write beautiful poetry and accompanying prose.

Patricia Prime's tanka prose reads like a journal reminiscent in some ways of those penned by traveling poets hundreds of years ago in Japan. It holds the reader's interest, and the last line in the prose, "Their world hangs by a thread, their livelihood almost in ruins" is poignant, the perfect marriage of content and form.

As with most anthologies, a few uneven pieces are included that lack good meter, imagery, etc., but they are rare in this nice anthology. All in all, the book is a good read and the images painted with poetry and prose will be read and reread by those who purchase a copy. I commend Jeffery Woodward for bringing this fine collection of tanka prose into being.


The Tanka Prose Anthology
edited by Jeffrey Woodward
Modern English Tanka Press
ISBN 978-0-9817-6913-4