Thursday, 5 September 2019

Some Tanka Poetry History

Tanka may be defined in several ways, but this often lyrical, five-line, 31 syllable poem, derived from the Japanese Tanka and its predecessor, Waka, continues to attract poets around the world.

The Tanka, like the Haiku, is a short poem of a set number of syllables (5,7,5,7,7) per line, written to capture a single moment or emotion. 

One of the oldest Japanese forms, Tanka originated in the seventh century, and quickly became the preferred verse form not only in the Japanese Imperial Court, where nobles competed in Tanka contests, but for women and men engaged in courtship. 

Tanka’s economy and suitability for emotional expression made it ideal for intimate communication; lovers would often, after an evening spent together, write a Tanka to give to the other the next morning as a gift of gratitude.

During the Heian period of Japanese culture (700-1100), it was a social requirement to be able to instantly recognize, appreciate and recite Japanese and Chinese poetry. It was around this period that short forms of poetry grew in popularity over long forms of poetry. The rigid lifestyles of the time carried over into the art and every poem had to have a specific form. 

In many ways, the Tanka resembles the Sonnet, certainly in terms of treatment of subject. Like the Sonnet, the Tanka employs a turn, known as a pivotal image, which marks 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.

Today in Japan poetry is still read widely, and millions of Tanka are composed every year. 

Over the last decade writing Tanka in English has become popular worldwide.

The composition and translation of Tanka in English began at the end of the 19th century in England and the United States. 

Translations into English of classic Japanese Tanka dates back to the 1860s in the US and an early publication of originally English Tanka dates to 1899. In the United States, the publication of Tanka in Japanese and in English translation acquired extra impetus after World War II, and is followed by a rise of the genre's popularity among native speakers of English.

Join us next time for a profile of Shiki the poet, essayist, and critic who revived the Haiku and Tanka in 1900.

Visit to see English Tanka poetry printed as gifts onto t-shirts, tote bags, cushions, aprons, greetings cards, tea towels and mugs. 

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