Tanka Day: 2013
Today is the day set aside to celebrate the Tanka form of poetry. It is one of the great traditions of formal syllabic verse. It is a Japanese form that has a written history of about 1400 years. During all these centuries the formal structure has remained the same: a five line (or ‘ku’) form of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, a total of 31 syllables. (A free verse 5-line poem in Japanese is called ‘Gogyoshi’, or sometimes, ‘Gogyohka’.)
Tanka is the seed form for all Japanese poetry. Both Renga and Haiku ultimately have their origin in Tanka and the form remains central to Japanese poetry today.
The transmission of Tanka has been slow, much slower than Haiku. Whereas Haiku is widely practiced in the U.S., Tanka has a much more muted presence. Yet there are poets who compose in the Tanka form. And through the new technologies they publish their work through print-on-demand outlets. I thought this would be an appropriate day to review two new collections of Tanka, both published in 2012.
The first is simply titled ‘Tanka’, it is by Steve Townsend. Townsend’s collection is a set of introspections, thoughts, and landscapes. In tone Townsend reminds me somewhat of James Hackett, though perhaps not as explicitly philosophical. The two poets also have a similar relationship to lineation: I mean that both of these poets are as likely to go beyond the traditional line count as they are to write under the traditional line count. Here’s an example of a long-lined Tanka:
Past the darkest sky
into that infinite universe of stars
I launch my thoughts tonight,
and they fall back heavily to earth
I must go to sleep once again.
It’s a nice portrait of how mental activity can generate sleeplessness. Notice the long count: Line 2 has 11 syllables, Line 4 has 9, and Line 5 has 8. Yet the overall shape of classic Tanka is retained. For Townsend the 5-7-5-7-7 is the center of gravity for the form, but it’s clear to me that he is treating the form as a recipe with variations. I think he does an effective job. Townsend has a sure grasp of lineation. Almost always a line is a secure grammatical unit with run-ons practically nonexistent. In a few of the Tanka the lines are rhyme defined. Here is an example:
Cicadas no longer sing
and the tall trees begin to change
to bright red and gold,
the air has begun to chill
as the sun falls below the hills.
Again, notice the long Line 1 of 7 syllables, followed by Line 2 of 8. Lines 4 and 5 end- rhyme effectively. I think this is well done. I like Townsend’s efforts. The tendency to compose in longer lines gives his Tanka a sense of expansiveness and lyricism that I think you will enjoy.
The second collection is “River of Time” by Robert W. Barker. It is subtitled ‘Six Seasons of Tanka’. The six seasons are achieved by dividing winter into three separate periods such as ‘Early Winter’. This is a Tanka diary. The fact that it is a diary shapes the presentation. What you are going to read are the thoughts and observations one would normally find in a diary, but in Tanka form. It covers one year.
Barker is more committed to the 5-7-5-7-7 and doesn’t deviate from the classic syllable count. One advantage of this is that as you read from one Tanka to another a steady rhythm is generated and they flow easily into each other. These Tanka are, at times, very personal. Here is one called ‘Alzheimers’:
Patiently she sits,
And holds their worlds together,
As he loses his;
Leaving, she turns, touches me,
“Pray you do not die this way.”
Like Townsend, Barker’s lineation is securely centered on grammatical phrasing. As far as I was able to note, run-ons are non-existent. This adds to the sense of rightness and shapes the Tanka well. It is also a good demonstration of how naturally English can be shaped into phrases of 5 and 7 syllables.
Both of these books are short. ‘Tanka’ by Townsend is 63 pages, and ‘River of Time’ is 63 pages as well. ‘Tanka’ has two Tanka per page, while ‘River of Time’ has less than one Tanka per page, with some pages blank. This makes ‘River of Time’ a small collection.
Interestingly, neither of these poets tell us what drew them to the Tanka form. There are no ‘Introductions’ that let us know if they have a history with Tanka and/or Japanese poetry. I suspect that they were introduced to the Tanka form in a class, perhaps a book of forms, or by a friend. And the form resonated with them.
If you are interested in syllabic Tanka in English both of these collections are worthy of one’s attention.
By Steven Townsend
Available at Amazon
River of Time:
Six Seasons of Tanka
By Robert W. Barker
Published by iUniverse
Available also at Amazon