A Quick Start Guide to Writing Tanka

by Jeanne Emrich

Tanka, the 5-line lyric poem of Japan is quickly becoming popular in the English-language poetry community. Like haiku, its shorter cousin, tanka usually is well-grounded in concrete images but also is infused with a lyric intensity and intimacy that comes from the direct expression of emotions, as well as from implication, suggestion, and nuance. If you already write haiku and have ever wanted to add commentary to your verses, tanka is the form for you! The tanka aesthetic is broad and all-encompassing. You can write on virtually any subject and express your thoughts and feelings explicitly.

    For an overview of this form, you may wish to browse the other articles and essays featured on Tanka Online, as well as our "Tanka Gallery" which showcases a variety of tanka written by poets from around the world.  Then return here and consider these quick-start steps to writing your first tanka:

1. Think of one or two simple images from a moment you have experienced and describe them in concrete terms -- what you have seen, tasted, touched, smelled, or heard. Write the description in two or three lines. I will use lines from one of my own poems as an example:

 an egret staring at me
 me staring back

2. Reflect on how you felt or what you were thinking when you experienced this moment or perhaps later when you had time to think about it.

    Regarding the moment described above, I thought about how often I have watched and photographed egrets. In fact, they even could be said to be a defining part of my life. My poetic instincts picked up on that word, "defining," and I knew I had a clue as to what my next lines would be.

3. Describe these feelings or thoughts in the remaining two or three lines:

 wondering for years
 what would be
 my life's defining moment

4. Combine all five lines:

 an egret staring at me
 me staring back
 wondering for years
 what would be
 my life's defining moment

5. Consider turning the third line of your poem into a pivot line, that is, a line that refers both to the top two lines as well as to the bottom two lines, so that either way they make sense grammatically. To do that, you may have to switch lines around.

    Here's my verse with the lines reordered to create a pivoting third line:

 wondering for years
 what would be
 my life's defining moment
 an egret staring at me
 me staring back

    To test the pivot line, divide the poem into two three-liners and see if each makes sense:

  wondering for years
  what would be
  my life's defining moment
 
  my life's defining moment
  an egret staring at me
  me staring back

6. Think about the form or structure of your verse. In Japan, tanka is often written in one line with segments consisting of 5-7-5-7-7 sound-symbols or syllables. Some people write English tanka in five lines with 5-7-5-7-7 syllable to approximate the Japanese model. You may wish to try writing tanka in this way. But Japanese syllables are shorter than English language syllables, resulting in shorter poems even though the syllable count is the same. To approximate the Japanese model, some poets use approximately 20-22 syllables and a short-long-short-long-long structure or even just a free form structure using five lines. You may wish to experiment with all these approaches. My egret verse is free form.

7. Decide where capitalization and punctuation may be needed, if at all. Tanka verses normally are not considered full sentences, and the first word in line 1 usually is not capitalized, nor is the last line end-stopped with a period. The idea is to keep the verse open and a bit fragmented or incomplete to encourage the reader to finish the verse in his or her imagination. Internal punctuation, while adding clarification, can stop the pivot line from working both up and down. In my verse, a colon could be added without disenabling the pivot:

 wondering for years
 what would be
 my life's defining moment:
 an egret staring at me
 me staring back

I decided to use indentation instead:

 wondering for years
 what would be
 my life's defining moment
    an egret staring at me
       me staring back
 
A few final tips before you write your first verse: 

    This is a very simplified quick start guide to writing tanka. The more you write tanka and read other’s verses, you will find many variations to the approach presented here. Enjoy the form and remember to share your verses with others!  A great place to start is with a tanka society such as the Tanka Society of America or any of the other organizations coming into existence around the globe. You may also wish to browse our Tanka Online Bookstore.

 

~ This article first appeared online in the short form poetry forum of “The Critical Poet,” http://www.criticalpoet.com/forum/.

 

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