Tanka, a poetry form,  traditional Japanese poetry.

Tanka. The tanka is a thirty-one-syllable traditional Japanese poem. It is customarily written in a single unbroken line. A form of waka or Japanese song or verse, tanka translates as a “short song.” It is better known in its five-line, 5/7/5/7/7 syllable count form.

Tanka’s formula formula: 5 syllables. + 7 syllables. + 5 syllables. + 7 seven syllables. plus 7 syllables.

History of Tanka

Tanka is one of the oldest Japanese forms, tanka originated in the 7th century. It quickly became the preferred verse form at the Emperor of Japan Court. There nobles competed in tanka contests. For noble ladies and gentlemen engaged in courtship, tanka provided a powerful expressive medium . Tanka’s temperance, restraint and appropriateness for muted emotional expression made it ideal for conveing the most intimate of messages. Lovers would often, after an evening or night spent together, often in secret, finished it with a tanka to give to the other the next morning as a tocken of gratitude.

Tanka’s Similarity to Sonnet

In many ways, the tanka resembles the European sonnet, certainly in the way of how it treans its’ ubject. Like the sonnet, the tanka employs a turn, known as a pivotal image. It marks the transition from the examination of an image to the examination of the personal response. This turn is located within the third line, connecting the kami-no-ku, or upper poem, with the shimo-no-ku, or lower poem.

Many of the great tanka poets were women. Such as Lady Akazone Emon, Yosano Akiko, and Lady Murasaki Shikibu, who composed The Tale of Genji. It is fundamental body of Japanese prose that includes over 400 tankas. English-language writers have not taken to this form in the same way they have the haiku, which is far more popular but there are several important exceptions. Among them Amy Lowell, Kenneth Rexroth, Sam Hamill, Cid Corman, and Carolyn Kizer.

Many excellent anthologies of translated Japanese poetry exist. Some feature lengthy selections of tankas. Translations by Rexroth, which include One Hundred Poems from the Japanese and One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese, are now considered classics. While the Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, translated by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani, has maintained this tradition.

Additional description of tanka

The following additional definition of the term tanka is borrowed, on the fair use basis, from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch.

The tanka is sometimes separated by the three “upper lines” (kami no ku) and the two “lower ones” (shimo no ku). The upper unit is the origin of the haiku. The brevity of the poem and the turn from the upper to the lower lines, which often signals a shift or expansion of subject matter, is one of the reasons the tanka has been compared to the sonnet. There is a range of words, or engo (verbal associations), that traditionally associate or bridge the sections. Like the sonnet, the tanka is also conducive to sequences, such as the hyakushuuta, which consists of one hundred tankas.

The tanka, which comprised the majority of Japanese poetry from the ninth to the nineteenth century, is possibly the central genre of Japanese literature. It has prototypes in communal song, in oral literature dating back to the seventh century, or earlier. The earliest anthology of Japanese poetry, Man’yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, ca. 759), contains more than forty-two hundred poems in the tanka form. The form gradually developed into court poetry and became so popular that it marginalized all other forms.

Tankas in English

An article about the tanka in Russian. You may have to switch to Russian to read in that language because the site interface is language-dependent.

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