A tanka poem is an important form in Japanese poetry. These poems are made up of five units which after translation into English, usually take the form of five lines. They follow a syllable pattern of 5-7-5-7-7, similar, and yet longer than a haiku. There are two parts, the initial 5-7-7 known as the kami-no-ku or upper phrase, and the second half, 7-7, known as the shimo-no-ku or the lower phrase. Together, the poem is thirty-one syllables long.
History of Tanka Poems
The tanka poem is one of the oldest forms of Japanese poetry. It originated in the seventh century and became the preferred form of the Japanese Imperial Court. There were “tanka contests” that were put on and participate in by the nobles. These poems were short enough to allow for quick composition but long enough to allow for adequate emotional expression. They dealt with subject matter that ranged from nature to love.
History shows that these poems were often written by lovers to one another. An anthology of Japanese poetry, Ten Thousand Leaves, that dates to 759, contains around forty-two hundred poems written in the tanka form. Today, tanka poetry is considered to be one of the most important forms to originate from Japan. While it is less popular with English speaking writers than the haiku, it has been much more influential in the wider history of poetry.
Examples of Tanka Poems
Example #1 The Works of Lady Murasaki
Best-known as the author The Tale of Genji, Lady Murasaki was a lady-in-waiting at the Imperial court in Japan during the Heian period. The novel is considered to be one of, if not the first novel that was ever written. It was completed sometime between 1000 and 1012. The novel contains somewhere around 400 individual tanka. Here is one of the many tanka in the novel:
a single robe
yet the two sleeves
are wet with tears
on one side bitterness
on the other affection
The first phrase contains a clear statement about the world and the storyline in which the poem appears. The second comments on that statement and adds subjective emotions.
Example #2 Two stars deep in heaven by Yosana Akiko
One of the best-known poets of the post-classical period, Akiko wrote a number of tanka, may of which were quite scandalous for the time. Her first collection was published in 1901 and was titled Dishevelled Hair. Here are a few lines from ‘Two stars deep in heaven’:
Two stars deep into heaven
Behind the nighttime curtain
These first three lines make up the “kami-no-ku” or upper phrase. They are followed by two more that come after the turn.
Example #3 Tanka by Amy Lowell
Very few English language poets have successfully attempted to write poems in the tanka form. Amy Lowell is one of the few exceptions. In these five lines, she speaks on traditional imagery, that of nature. She chose to move the position of the turn in these lines. Rather than having it fall after the first three, it comes after the first two. Then, there is another transition into the fifth line. Here are the first two lines of the poem:
Roses and larkspur
And slender, serried lilies;
She uses several poetic techniques in just these lines before continuing on to the second half of the poem. In it, she addresses “you,” an unknown listener. She asks if these features of the landscape are “worth your attention” The poem ends with the line:
Consider it, and if not—
This single line is a great example of another technique, a cliffhanger. It leaves the reader without a resolution to the question.