I write tanka in Japanese and in English. Just ten years
ago, most English speaking people didn’t know “tanka”. People often asked me,
“What is tanka?” Now there are many
English tanka poets, and even young people learn about tanka at some high
schools in North America. There are eight or nine (or maybe more than ten)
English tanka journals around the world, and even haiku journals often include
However, probably many people might be wondering now . . .
How is English tanka different from English short verse? If we write poems in
five lines, are they called tanka? Probably yes, probably no. I would like to
clarify these questions.
Before going to English tanka, I would like to explain about
Japanese tanka, which English tanka is based on. The origin of tanka dates back
to the era of Man’yoshu (7~8th
centuries). Man’yoshu is an anthology
of poetry written by emperors, empresses, princes, princesses, court people,
and ordinary people. It was completed about 1300 years ago, taking about 130
years. There are 20 volumes in all, and poems are written in several forms,
such as chooka, sedooka, and tanka. However,
all of them are written using the 5-7 syllabic sequence. In case of chooka (long song), it is written in
5-7, 5-7, 5-7 (repeating as long as you wish and ending with 7), and sedooka, 5-7-7, 5-7-7. Tanka (short song) is, of course,
written in 5-7-5-7-7. Haiku was derived from tanka using the first part (5-7-5)
in the Edo period (17~18th centuries). Those 5 and 7 syllabic groups
are phrases, so 5-7-5 means three phrases and 5-7-5-7-7 means five phrases.
The 5-7 syllabic sequence sounds very rhythmical in
Japanese, and can be easily memorized. In Man’yoshu,
there are many folk songs sung by farmers, fishermen, woodcutters, craftsmen,
young and old men and women. Tanka is the shortest form in Man’yoshu, so I guess tanka poems were easy for people in that era
to sing by heart. Even now, many Japanese people can recite their favorite
haiku and tanka by heart.
Only the tanka form in Man’yoshu
survived, but it was called “waka”
(Japanese song) during the Heian through the Edo period (8th~19th
centuries). During this period, waka was mainly for aristocrats. (Haiku
in the Edo period was for ordinary people.)
Many translators introduced waka/tanka into the English
world in the last 100 years. Earlier translators used 31 English syllables in
their translations following the Japanese fixed form of 31 syllables. For example, let’s read William N. Porter’s
translation of Hyakunin Isshu (A Hundred Verses from Old Japan, first
appeared in 1909).
The spring has come, and once again
The sun shines in the sky;
So gently smile the heavens, that
It almost makes me cry,
When blossoms droop and die. (Tomonori Kino)
haru no hi ni
shizu kokoro naku
hana no chiruramu
Porter’s translation sounds very long because he inserted
some words and phrases not written in the original Japanese waka. This waka of
Kino Tomonori has 14 words as shown in the Romaji version, but the translation
has 29 words! If you try to keep the 31
syllables in English, you have to use so many words.
Japanese and English syllables are quite different. Japanese
language uses a vowel after each consonant. For instance, the word “desk” is
one syllable, but when this word is imported into Japanese, it becomes
“desuku”, using more vowels. Thus the Japanese “desuku” has three syllables.
This means that when we write tanka in English, we have to
use fewer words than some people in the past might have thought. I suggest that
if we write tanka using about 15 words (about 20 English syllables), it would
sound like Japanese tanka. It is easy to memorize and recite by heart.
Without inserting any explanatory phrases, I translated the
waka of Tomonori Kino. I think my translation (15 words / 22 syllables) is much
closer to the original waka than Porter’s translation.
such a peaceful
sunny day of
alas, cherry blossoms
keep falling and falling
By the way, “hana” (flower) in the Heian period (8th
~12th centuries) meant cherry blossoms. Porter misunderstood about
this. Cherry blossoms never droop; they just fall.
Now, let’s see contemporary tanka written by English tanka
poets. I checked Gusts no.8, fall/winter 2008. Most of the tanka are
written using around 15 words in 20 syllables. However, we see very short ones
and very long ones occasionally. I grouped examples into three (short; long;
standard) in order to compare.
shocker (Lp Camozzi: 7 words; 15 syllables )
who was it
left together (Susan Mary La Vallee: 11 words; 13 syllables)
a full moon
rises above the dark hills
its silver reflection
drifts across the lake’s calm face
lies at the feet of my love (Jeanne Jorgensen: 24 words; 29 syllables)
“get together while we can”
a reunion notice came
all the way from Japan
after fifty years in real world
since that innocent graduation (Noriko Sato: 24 words; 36 syllables)
living each day with
the same person—
still newness of it (Edward J. Rielly; 14 words; 18 syllables)
a bit of green
in a sidewalk crack—
i have already
been reincarnated (M. Kei: 14 words; 22 syllables)
you’d never say
“I love you”
but it was not enough (Natalia L. Rudychev; 15 words; 16 syllables)
frisky as all get out,
her boyfriend smiles
a knowing smile
I once knew (Tom Clausen; 16 words; 19 syllables)
It seems that some people are still influenced by the 31
English syllable tanka, and some are influenced by haiku. However, I feel a
surge that most tanka poets will write in the standard length in due course and
stick to it. Tanka is not a free verse. The length is important. We have to
keep the fixed length when we write tanka.
In summary, the differences between English tanka and
English short verse are as follows.
1) English tanka always uses fixed length (about 15 words /
about 20 syllables), while English short verse can be written in varied
2) English tanka is always written in five lines, which
usually has short /long /short /long /long pattern (following the Japanese
5-7-5-7-7 syllable/phrase pattern), while English short verse can be written
anyway you like, and can be written in 3 or 4 lines.
Tanka, no.8, fall/winter 2008. (Tanka Canada).
Porter, William N (1990): A Hundred Verses from Old Japan. (Tokyo: Tuttle).
Sasaki, Yukitsuna (1998): Man’yoshu o yomu. (Tokyo: Iwanami).
Kozue Uzawa is a retired professor, tanka poet, translator,
and editor of Gusts: Contemporary Tanka. She
won the 2007 Donald Keene Translation Prize for Japanese Literature from
Columbia University for Ferris Wheel: 101
Modern and Contemporary Tanka (Boston: Cheng & Tsui, 2006) with A.
Fielden. Latest translation work: Kaleidoscope:
Selected Tanka of Shuji Terayama (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 2008).