Friday, January 22, 2016

Syllabic Tanka Day for 2016


Today is January 22nd.  I bet you didn't know that this is Syllabic Tanka Day!  Hooray.  It seems fitting that now that I'm plunging into Genji Monogatari, which has hundreds of tanka/waka scattered through the book, that I take a moment to celebrate this form which has been so rewarding for so many poets and readers down through the centuries.  In the anglosphere tanka has not yet taken root; instead what you have are people writing free verse poems (usually five lines) and then labeling them tanka for no clear reason.  That's OK; it's what is happening.  But for those of us who want to really engage with traditional Japanese tanka the syllabic count is essential.  Thankfully a small number of poets are slowly learning the syllabic shape and using it skillfully in English.

Here is a tank from my collection 'Tanka River', a landscape:

The hours before dawn,
Before the sun has risen,
Before the stars fade,
Before the world rushes in,
The hours of the morning calm

And here is one from a sequence on love:

By the ocean's edge
I wait patiently for more
Memories of you,
Riding the incoming waves
Or the last rays of the sun

And here is a tanka from one of the first tanka collections in English, 'Wind Five Folded', edited by Jane Reichhold:

Walking east, I watch
The moon rise, huge, smokey orange,
Almost full, alone.
Walking home, I'm almost used
To you being gone again.

John Gribble, page 65

And another one from 'Wind Five Folded':

Ginkgos are boring
Until autumn golding and
Persimmons taste tart --
The vague words of your language
Often mean less than they seem

Mimi Walter Hinman, page 77

Slowly a cache of syllabic tanka is being written.  My feeling is that the less a poet has taken on the narrow esthetics of official haiku, the more accessible tanka becomes to a poet.  I see tanka as more closely related to the Psalms and to hymnody than to free verse haiku.  There is the same quiet contemplation, the same sense of steady rhythm meant for chanting or singing. 

But to find these tanka you have to look beyond official tanka organizations and magazines because most of them (all?) were started by people committed to free verse and completely allergic to syllabics.  They seem also to have absorbed the nihinjinron based mythos of the specialness of the Japanese language.  But, again, that's OK.  They get to do that.  And we get to connect with the Japanese tradition by counting on our fingers: 5-7-5-7-7.


Jo Balistreri said...

I just found out about your site from Marianne Szyzk--that doesn't look right, ( forgive me Marianne) and I really enjoyed what you had to say and your examples.

Thanks so much.

Norma Margaret said...

Just found your site after reading GHAZAL OF YOURS IN CONTEMPORARY GHAZALS #6
I found your discussion of the ecology of haiku in various anthologies most revealing. I also appreciate the cultural respect that you display instead of assimilation.

Jim714 said...

Greetings Jo and Norma:

Apologies for taking so long to respond. But thanks for your kind words. It's gratifying to get this kind of feedback.

Best wishes,