How to Write a Tanka Poem in English

As many of you already know, I love structured poetry. This includes the Haiku, the Tanka, and the Haibun. I like to think of myself as a student of these poetic forms. Learning to write them correctly is an art form in itself. I think that’s what appeals to me the most, the arrangement of the syllables.

One of my favorite poetic forms is the Japanese Tanka. These poems are untitled and do NOT rhyme. A true Japanese Tanka counts thirty-one sounds because they don’t count syllables in Japanese Haiku or Tanka.

“The word Haiku, for example, is two syllables in English, but three sounds in Japanese.” (mandy’spages.com) Click on the link to learn more about the Japanese Tanka structure.


Life is likea cup of tea

For the poets who follow my weekly poetry challenge, we will follow the 5/7/5/7/7 syllable structure. Your Tanka will consist of five lines written in the first person point of view. This is important because the poem should be written from the perspective of the poet.

Also, if you wish to give your Tanka a title that is up to you. I want to follow the rules as close as possible without taking away your creative genius.

Dialect and the way you pronounce words, where you live, is important. Count your syllables as you speak the words or use the syllable counter found HERE. (HowManySyllables.com)

I am not the poetry police! My aim is to offer a challenge where poets can write and share their work. ❤


“Tanka (firstly known as waka during the Heian period from 794-1185 CE) which means “Japanese poem or song”, is presently known as “tanka” having been coined by Master Masaoka Shiki in the late 19th century in an effort to bring traditional Japanese poetic forms into the modern age. It is a non-rhymed nature poem consisting of 5 lines down total with a short, long, short, long, long rhythmic count. The concept of mono no aware or the pathos of existence is frequently a key element in all Japanese poetry, but particularly in tanka.

http://www.cattailsjournal.com/definitions.html

What is “Mono no Aware” or the “Pathos of Existence?

Wikipedia says:

Mono no aware (物の哀れ), literally “the pathos of things”, and also translated as “an empathy toward things”, or “a sensitivity to ephemera“, is a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常 mujō), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.

Wikipedia.org

This phrase comes from the Japanese word mono (物), which means “thing”, and aware (哀れ), which is an expression of measured surprise (similar to “ah” or “oh”), translating roughly as “pathos”, “poignancy”, “deep feeling”, “sensitivity”, or “awareness”.

Thus, mono no aware is often translated as “the ‘ahh-ness’ of things,” life, and love. 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.

In his criticism of The Tale of Genji Motoori noted that mono no aware is the crucial emotion that moves readers.

Wikipedia.org

Tanka in English consists of five lines which follows a 5/7/5/7/7 syllable structure. Tanka should be written in the first person as it reflects the perspective of the poet.

Don’t forget to include sensory details to your Tanka. You want your reader to feel your words with all five senses (and sometimes, their sixth sense, too). Use lyrical intensity in the first three lines of your Tanka poem. Establish the theme of your poem with your choice of words.

SHOW, DON’T TELL

When writing a Tanka, the third line is considered your “pivot,” but feel free to let it happen anywhere, or to exclude it. It is not mandatory. If you do use a pivot, the meaning should apply to the first two lines, as well as the last two lines of your Tanka.

The tanka somewhat resembles the sonnet in terms of treatment of subject. Like the sonnet, the tanka employs a turn, known as a pivotal image, which begins 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. (Paraphrased from Poets.org)

“Great tanka can be figuratively read both, forward and backward.” (mandy’spages.com)

The last two lines of your Tanka are where you use the metaphors or similes that complement the first three lines. Click the links and look up the meanings to these words. They are important.

Use words you are comfortable with in everyday speech. Avoid ending your lines with articles and prepositions.

Additionally mandy’spages.com shares:

Each line of the tanka is more of a phrase rather than a sentence.  Do not begin the lines with uppercase letters, nor end the lines with a period.  Restrict your use of punctuations as far as possible.  Avoid ending each line with an article (an, an and the) or a preposition.  Articles and prepositions tend to weaken the quality of the tanka.  When you read the tanka aloud, the five lines should connect as one poem rather than detracted phrases.  Therefore rather than trying to describe the theme in five different ways, stick to a specific imagery.

Imagery and Contrast: 

The first three lines of the tanka should make up the first part of the imagery. The lines should flow and read easily.  That third line acts as a pivot, which gives shape and form to the lyrical aspect of the tanka.  In addition, it allows the reader to read the poem in the reverse order. The last two lines complement the first three.  They can be metaphors, similes or oxymoron juxtaposed in place to bring the poem to life. mandy’spages.com

Diction and Phrasing:

Use natural English.  Tanka is known for its simple, yet lyrical construction.  Avoid ending each line with articles and prepositions.  Each line should be independent phrases: the punch line at the end.  

Senses:

Make use of the five main senses when writing tanka.  Rather than telling the reader that a mountain is tall and high, it might be better for you to describe it by its smell or sound.  Perhaps explain how the perfume of the fresh, lofty air beckons you climb to the top.  On the other hand, describe how the sound of the twigs crackling under your feet brings life to the mountain forests. Descriptions of sound, smell, taste, hearing and touch bring life and song to a tanka.

HOW I WRITE A TANKA POEM

The best way to write poetry is to commune with nature. Get up from the computer, put down your phone, and literally go outside and experience the world.

Photography and art are another way to stimulate your creative writing genes. Many times, I like finding a photograph and letting my mind wander over the image. (Pixabay.com is a great place to find inspirational photos that are part of the public domain and free for commercial use with no attribution required).

I write down everything I see in the picture and use my five senses to record my observations.

Let’s take this image below:

These are my observations about the photo:

It’s autumn

Leaves of red, orange, and gold

Autumn is the dying part of the year

Summer is over

Autumn reminds me of the harvest moon

Leaves are like clothes for trees

Falling leaves signal the shedding of summer’s clothes

Harvest the bounty of the summer season

I’m sad that summer is over

First, I start developing the theme of my Tanka. In this case, it is autumn and I describe what I see.

Trees of red and gold

Shedding summer’s finery

Next, I pivot in the third line to describing how fall makes me feel:

like tears of mourning (how the dead leaves look as they fall to the ground)

The third line is where I use a simile. The next two lines directly reflect on my first observations in line one and two. Yet, the pivot line is directly related to what those trees remind me of in the last two lines.

a farewell to the summer

no end to my discontent

Here is the final product:

trees of red and gold
shedding summer’s finery
like tears of mourning
a farewell to the summer
no end to my discontent

©2019 Colleen M. Chesebro

This Tanka can be read forwards and backwards and reflect directly on the pivot line: like tears of mourning.

Remember the difference in writing a Tanka is that you employ the use of a simile or metaphor at the end of the poem. You don’t do that when writing a Haiku.

Now, let’s write some Tanka!