Finding Clarity, #Tanka

This week for our poetry challenge it was “theme week.” It was Ken Gierke’s (Riverlogr) turn to pick the theme. He decided on the phrase, “finding clarity.” What a great choice!

Let’s talk about Tanka poetry this week. Many poets think this form is comprised of five lines, and 31 syllables. That’s true up to a point. As with most syllabic poetry, the syllables are disputed in poetic communities.

Some poets write their Tanka poetry as if it were one continuous thought – like a string of prose. That is not the case with Tanka or Gogyohka poetry.

Tanka poetry originated from the Waka, which in Japanese means poem or song. Tanka poetry does not rhyme.

There are five lines, each line consisting of a short, long, short, long, long rhythmic count.

For simplicity in this challenge, and because we are all perfecting our craft, we use the 5/7/5/7/7 syllable count. (However, if you want to write your poetry with less syllables, that works for me).

Remember, the syllables in a Tanka in English can be shorter sounds, as they are written in Japanese. For that reason, you will see most Tanka poetry with a smaller syllable count. The syllable count is not really an issue, however a Tanka rhythm of short, long, short, long, long that distinguishes it from a short poem (Haiku or Senryu).

Download the current issue of Cattails: A Journal from UHTS HERE. Read the winning entries, and count the syllables (copy and paste into Howmanysyllables.com). You will see many of the forms are written correctly with less syllables. These are winning entries.

The Pivot

One of the most important aspects of the Tanka poem is the pivot. Usually found in third line, the pivot signifies a transition from examining a mental image being shared in the poem, to examining a personal response to that mental image.

Mono-No-Aware

The second aspect that is necessary in a Tanka poem is the idea of Mono-No-Aware.

Mono-No-Aware is a Japanese concept that asks the poet to examine the bittersweet realization of the transient nature of all things. It is the understanding that everything is temporary.

In Buddhism and in Asian culture there is the awareness of the transience of all things which heightens an appreciation of their beauty and evokes a gentle sadness at their passing. That is the emotion you want to insert inside your Tanka poetry.

Mono-No-Aware results in an “a-ha” moment for your reader. Take this winning poem from the Cattails Journal, pg. 61:

a Picasso print

catches the evening light

after sixty years

the colors of our youth

fade to a mottled grey

Cattails Journal ©2019 Susan Constable, Canada

“After sixty years,” is the pivot. Do you see how that phrase applies to your understanding of the first two lines, and then also to the last two lines?

The Mono-No-Aware is the comparison between the Picasso print and how the colors of their youth have faded. That is your A-HA moment!

Finding Clarity

a coral sunset
impressions left on pale clouds
finding clarity
when I listen to the wind
echoes of the masquerade

©2020 Colleen M. Chesebro

This poem is written in the 5/7/5/7/7 format. Do you see the pivot? The Mono-No-Aware moment is when I realize that the colored impressions of the sunset are echos of the masquerade… everything is only an illusion of light.

Get BUSY and write some syllabic poetry!

44 thoughts on “Finding Clarity, #Tanka”

  1. What a lovely poem paired with a stunning image! Appreciate the useful tips, I enjoy learning more about forms before the big reveal at the end. And the ending, wow, just thinking about it makes me think it would make a brilliant book or song title! 🙂

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  3. Love your tanka! I never really wrote all that many tankas before but since I started following you I’m finding I love to write them as much as I love writing haikus. Thanks so much for inspiring me! <3

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