Today is syllabic Tanka day. It is a day set aside to honor those poets writing syllabic Tanka in English. Syllabic Tanka means Tanka that follow the traditional syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7; a total of thirty-one syllables which mimics the traditional syllabic structure of the original Japanese.
Tanka has a written history of about 1400 years. The first written Tanka appears in the Kojiki, the ancient cycle of legends that tell of the origins of the Japanese people. Ever since then Japanese poets have taken to the Tanka form. Over its 1400 years of written history the syllable count has remained the same. Techniques have changed, modes of constructing the lines have had their day, topics have been dwelled on and new ones added, but the form has remained the same for all this time. That is something truly remarkable.
Tanka has come to English language poets only recently. Even though Tanka is much older than Haiku, it is less well-known outside of Japan. But there are poets who have taken to the form. Here is an example from George Knox:
Red-tailed hawk flying
From tee to tree for days now
Making such shrill cries . . .
I’m hearing it in my dreams
And I read they mate for life
(From the Tanka Anthology, “Wind Five Folded”, edited by Jane and Werner Reichhold, page 98)
I admire the way Knox takes us on a journey through three realms. The first is the realm of nature: the red-tailed hawk and its cry-filled flight. The second is the world of dreams. And the third is the world of human culture: “I read . . .” meaning the world of books. That’s a lot to encompass in just three lines, yet Knox does this deftly.
Knox focuses on a traditional Tanka topic; love and separation from a loved one. In traditional Tanka anthologies this topic is treated extensively. But in traditional Tanka this is almost always about human affection and humans parting from each other or otherwise being separated (due to official duties, due to love of another, or due to death). Knox sees this topic in nature and thereby contributes a different perspective, or rather broadens our perspective on the pain that separation can bring.
Here’s a second Tanka from the poet Yeshaya Rotbard:
A stillness so still,
No blade, leaf, to twitch or lift,
Just a cricket’s trill,
Not enough to move the air,
But enough to stop and stare.
(“The Calligraphy of Clouds” by Yeshaya Rotbard, page 104)
Rotbard titles his Tanka which is unusual for Tanka poets. But it is consistent with western poetic tradition and it is, I think, a valid option. Notice that the title is a genuine title in the sense that it gives us added information; we wouldn’t know that this is a night scene by just reading the Tanka itself. In a way, one can think of a title for a Tanka as a sixth line of undetermined length.
Notice also how Rotbard incorporates rhyme into the Tanka form. Rhyme is not used in Japanese poetry. But it is a significant element of English language poetry and song and many of Rotbard’s Tanka incorporate rhyme. Rotbard’s use of rhyme give his Tanka the feel of a folk song. Notice how the closing couplet, with its parallel construction, and its regular rhythm, its 3 + 4 construction, has a musical, melodic, feeling to it.
I admire the simplicity of this Tanka. It is a simple nocturnal landscape, but is amazingly spare in details. Most of the information is negative; the leaves and grass are not moving. The one piece of positive information is the sound of the crickets, a kind of energized silence. I think all of us can enter into this Tanka because this experience of stillness is something is something all of us have experienced. By leaving out too much detail, Rotbard allows us all to enter into this Tanka. It draws us in as we finish the scene based on our own lives and experiences.
Tanka is still making its way in the west. It is a rich and rewarding form. Slowly, a body of syllabic Tanka is being built in the English language.