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.


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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. ❤


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 use a pivot, the meaning should apply to the first two lines, as well as the last two lines of your Tanka.

“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.

Punctuation is used at the discretion of the poet writing the Tanka poem.

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

First, I start developing the theme of my Tanka. In this case, it is autumn. I’m talking about my feelings and observations:

In my solitude –

Most deeply sensed in autumn

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

Trees of red and gold

The last two lines are where I use a simile. These 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.

Begin shedding summer’s clothes

Stating that harvest is near.

Here is the final product:

In my solitude –

most deeply sensed in autumn,

trees of red and gold

begin shedding summer’s clothes

stating that harvest is near.

©2017 Colleen M. Chesebro

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.

Have fun and continue to experiment with the Tanka. If you have questions, email me at colleenchesebro3@gmail.com.

Now, get out there and write some Tanka poetry. ❤