Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
Contents Archives About Simply Haiku Submissions Search
Spring 2009, vol 7 no 1

English Tanka: How is it Different from English Short Verse?
by Kozue Uzawa

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 tanka.

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)

hisakata no
hikari nodokeki
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
spring, but
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.

Short tanka:

summer thunder
just another
shocker                 (Lp Camozzi: 7 words; 15 syllables )

who was it
left first—
the moon
and I
left together                 (Susan Mary La Vallee: 11 words; 13 syllables)

Long tanka:

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)

Standard tanka:

forty years
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)

I thought
you’d never say
“I love you”
you did
but it was not enough                 (Natalia L. Rudychev; 15 words; 16 syllables)

frisky as all get out,
her boyfriend smiles
at me—
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 lengths.

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.


Gusts: Contemporary 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 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).