Tanka in English is an increasingly popular short verse form, and is adopted from the waka (pre-1900s) and tanka (post-1900) poetry traditions of Japan. Indeed, outside of Japan, tanka are nowhere more robust and popular today than in the English-speaking world.
While poets continue to experiment, the contemporary tanka in English may be described as typically an untitled free-verse short poem having anywhere from about twelve to thirty-one syllables arranged in words and phrases over five lines, crafted to stand alone as a unitary, aesthetic whole—a complete poem.
In the early stages of adaptation (1960-1980), most English-language tanka poets imitated the Japanese models and strictly adhered to a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure and pattern of short/long/short/long/long lines deduced from them. Over time, the majority of tanka poets set aside the 5-7-5-7-7 requirement and explored a more resilient free-verse approach. A similar pattern occurred, though somewhat earlier, in the development of English-language haiku. Today, the 5-7-5-7-7 formal structure still appears, but far less often; the free-verse, five-line form dominates.
As tanka editor for Simply Haiku, I am looking for English-language tanka written in contemporary idiom, grounded in contemporary experience, which display a high standard of craft and a good understanding of both tanka tradition and potential for tanka as a short, powerful form of poetry in English. I am most interested in tanka that exhibit personal style and an individual voice. Poems may follow the formal 5-7-5-7-7 syllables-per-line structure or use the familiar free verse approach. I often suggest that the poet let form follow content: Integrate and fuse the two.
Please do not submit individual tanka with titles; however, a tanka sequence of up to six poems should be supplied with a title, as for a multi-stanza poem. Use fresh language and imagery—strive for the poem that surprises and delights. For examples, study the tanka in the current issue of Simply Haiku, and contained in the various archived issues. I will also consider skillful translations of modern Japanese tanka for occasional use; for such projects, please query me first about your ideas. Submit 10-20 tanka and a brief biographical note within the body of the email (no attachments), with "Simply Haiku Tanka" in the subject line, to MchlMcClintock@aol.com.
Ample print and online sources exist for learning more about tanka poetry—its history and role in the great literature of Japan, the contemporary milieu, and the new directions tanka is taking as a premier form for the short poem in English.
As a final note, the membership of the Tanka Society of America (TSA) includes tanka poets (new and established), scholars, editors and publishers, critics and reviewers from all over the world. For more information, including how to become a member or subscribe to their print quarterly the Tanka Society of America Newsletter, visit the TSA Web site.
- Michael McClintock
2003/2004 Simply Haiku