This month, we’ll explore the ancient Japanese form called the tanka. This lesser known form might be thought of as haiku’s quiet older sibling.
What Makes a Tanka
Tanka was practiced in classical Japan as a form of linked verse. One poet would write a three-line poem of 17 syllables and give it to another poet. The second poet would add two more 7 syllable lines for a total of 5 lines and 31 syllables. The last two lines often provided a turn or counterpoint to the first three lines, much like the ending of a sonnet. The complete form, then, would look like:
You might recognize the 5-7-5 part of the tanka as the precursor to haiku!
Here’s a striking example of tanka, by Sadakichi Hartmann, from the early 20th century.
Winter? Spring? Who knows?
White buds from the plumtrees wing
And mingle with the snows.
No blue skies these flowers bring,
Yet their fragrance augurs Spring.
In the 17th century, Basho developed haiku and brought the 17 syllable part of the tanka form to its highest level. His poems focus on the natural world and the passage of time.
Maybe the best way to understand the tanka is to try it. Here are three haiku: two by Basho the master, and one by me the eager student. Because they are haiku, they already contain a “turn,” but we’ll use them as our foundation anyway.
I come weary,
In search of an inn—
Ah! these wisteria flowers!
–by Matsuo Basho, translated by William George Aston
The old pond, aye!
And the sound of a frog
leaping into the water.
–by Matsuo Basho, translated by Basil Hall Chamberlain
West Hill clouds hang low,
caught up in fir branches,
a veil between two worlds.
–by Kortney Garrison
Take one (or all!) of these haiku and add two more 7 syllable lines to the three already given. Open up a conversation across the centuries through your poetry. Think about taking the poem in another direction or deepening the given theme. If you’d like to offer a haiku that you’ve written, I’d love to add a few lines. Let’s practice poetry as collaboration.