Talking TANKA!

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Most English-speakers are familiar with the Japanese short form of poetry known as haiku; you may have even been forced to write a few of these micropoems in an 8th grade English class. But have you heard, or tried your hand at writing, a tanka?

A quick explanation of the two forms is in order here:

When written in English, haiku poems consist of 3 short lines. Traditionally, the first line has 5 syllables, the second line has 7, and the third line has 5.

Haiku very often describe a scene in nature, as well as the season, leaving the reader with a resonant glimpse of the natural world.

Tanka poems add a 4th and 5th line to the haiku format, of 7 syllables each, for a 5-line, 31-syllable total length, traditionally structured as 5-7-5-7-7. Unlike haiku, tanka are prone to address human emotions. Their five lines often contain two distinct images (a concrete image in the first two lines, and another image that describes a responding human emotion in the last two lines), connected by an idea in the poem's third line (sometimes called a pivotal image) that throws new light on the two main images.

While I always enjoyed reading and even writing a few haiku over the years, I really fell head over heels for tanka when I discovered this form two years ago. Maybe it's the slightly longer syllable count, or the allowance of human emotions, or just the fun and head-scratching challenge of fitting a few ideas into the form, but I have found great pleasure in crafting tankas from tiny moments in daily life.

How often have you have an observation, or an interaction with someone, that is instantly covered over by the next errand? The next time this happens, try writing a tanka to snapshot the moment! You might find out what else it had to tell you or teach you by the time you write those last two lines!

a double rainbow
so steeply curved
that all four of its feet
were stuck in the ground
as if it meant to stay
— Copright 2011 by Deanna Ross

But, you may ask, where to begin? Just let some tiny, almost forgettable encounters or observations from the past week bubble up. If they float to the surface, they just may have something more to say to you through a tanka!

And, by the way, modern tanka writers are taking lots of liberties with syllable (and even line) counts, so don't let the 5-7-5-7-7 thing restrict you...

Japanese student
stays late after class doing
one hundred sit-ups
Far from home, she will not let
her stomach muscles soften
— Copyright 2011 by Deanna Ross

Happy writing, and please post any original tankas you'd care to share below!

Warmly,

Deanna

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