a couple sits on a rock looking out over a lake

What is a tanka poem?

By BBC Maestro

The tanka poem is a type of classical Japanese poetry. It’s perhaps not as well-known as its close cousin the haiku; however, it’s a beautiful form of writing and definitely worth exploring.

The word “tanka” translates as “short poem” or “short song”, which gives you a good idea of its genre. It doesn’t have to rhyme, but its syllabic rules and structure are strict. These create a framework for clear, concise writing that has its own elegance and occasionally wit. 
We’ll take a closer look at what is a tanka poem, along with a few tips about writing your own.

What is the tanka poem format? 

A tanka poem has 31 syllables. Historically, the tanka was written in an unbroken line; however, the modern Japanese version is formatted as a three-line poem. The western version is different again, with the 31 syllables split over five lines. 

If you’re writing in English, here’s the format of a tanka poem: 

  • Line 1: 5 syllables
  • Line 2: 7 syllables
  • Line 3: 5 syllables (looks familiar? So far, it’s a haiku)
  • Line 4: 7 syllables
  • Line 5: 7 syllables 

The way the content of the poem is structured is also prescribed. The first three lines are descriptive (this section of the tanka is called the kami-no-ku, the upper phase), while the final two lines are more reflective (called the shimo-no-ku, the lower phase). The pivot happens during or after line three, a change in perspective that’s similar to the ‘volta’ in a sonnet.  
With only 31 syllables to achieve a description, a turn and a reflection or observation, the poet has to be very careful with which words they choose to use. However, there’s no need for any punctuation at the ends of the lines in a tanka poem. 

The origins of the tanka poem 

An old form of Japanese poetry, we hear of tanka poems as far back as the seventh century, where tanka contests were held at the Imperial Court. However, these ‘short songs’ weren’t confined to the elite, as composing poetry was seen as a pastime for anyone and everyone in medieval Japan. Lovers exchanged little notes written in tanka form, which is really rather lovely. 
Love remains a popular theme in modern-day tanka writing, along with other evocative subjects like nature, places, time and relationships. 
The tanka is similar to another traditional Japanese poetic form, the waka. The difference here is that the waka is divided into three sections rather than two, with the final fifth line able to stand on its own. 

Some tanka poem examples 

The best way to appreciate the tanka poem is to read a few. Here are some examples of tanka poems, from medieval Japan to modern America. 

Tanka – Ono no Komachi (825-900) 

Here’s an early example of a tanka, dating from the 9th century. The format is followed in the original Japanese; however the translation sacrifices the rigid form for the beauty of the words used. The switch here happens between the description on the fading blossoms and a rumination on the passing of time. 

Colour of the cherry blossoms 
Has already faded away 
While spending in vain 
My life passes 
As I had watched the long rains fall. 

A Spray of Water: Tanka – Tada Chimako 

Tada Chimako is a 20th-century Japanese writer who has written extensively in both tanka and haiku formats. A Spray of Water: Tanka clearly illustrates the description/reflection structure of the form, with that surprising denouement about the water. 

the hot water in 
the abandoned kettle 
slowly cools 
still carrying the resentment 
of colder water 

On Time Tanka – June Jordan 

Later 20th-century Black American poet June Jordan uses the tanka form to create her seven-stanza poem, On Time Tanka. The restrictive format and sharp sentences add a sense of urgency and fierceness to this powerful poem. Here is the opening stanza: 

I refuse to choose 
between lynch rope and gang rape 
the blues is the blues! 
my skin and my sex: Deep dues 
I have no wish to escape 

How to write a tanka poem 

If you want to have a go at writing a tanka, here are some simple steps you can follow. 

  1. Choose your subject. It can be one of the traditional tanka themes like love, the natural world or the seasons. Pick something that you find easy to describe at first, to make those first three lines easier. Your cat, a vase of flowers, today’s weather? 
  2. Plan what your change in perspective or reflective moment could be. Does your cat contemplate you in return? What are they thinking? Are the flowers past their best, and you’re about to throw them away? Does the weather mean you can’t do something you’d planned?
  3. Jot down the tanka scheme so you can’t forget it: 5 – 7 – 5 – 7 – 7.  
  4. One way to compose a tanka is to write the sentence as it comes to you, then gradually whittle it down to the right number of syllables. ‘The cat sat on the window sill looking at birds in the garden’ can become ‘The sill-sitting cat / Is still, contemplating birds’, for example.
  5. Carry on working through the five lines, remembering to pivot on or after line three.
  6. Poet Carol Ann Duffy suggests keeping a “word hoard” in a notebook, jotting down your favourite words and phrases so they’re ready to use when you need them. In a format as spare as the tanka or haiku, having a strong lexicon to work from is invaluable.
  7. Read your tanka out loud. Does it have a pleasing rhythm and flow? If it does, congratulations, you’ve written your first tanka. 

There’s a wonderful challenge in writing to a restrictive format, which encourages you to think carefully about every word you use. Even if you decide that this poetic form isn’t for you, playing with tanka poetry is always an excellent writing exercise. 
To find out more about different poetic forms, explore the BBC Maestro poetry course, taught by Carol Ann Duffy. She takes you through a range of techniques and formats, sharing her own poetry and experiences along the way. 

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