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Summer 2007, vol 5 no 2

This Elusive Tanka World
by Sanford Goldstein

A seemingly endless bombardment of views on tanka has appeared during the last months of 2006 and continues into 2007 on Google's Tanka Roundtable. I did participate, but for the most part I read and mulled. This tanka dissection included content, syllabication, aesthetics, and design on the printed page. Other areas appeared, and I feared tanka would explode at any moment, even as I realized tanka is a hard nut to crack, a hard form to conquer. Occasionally recalling Takuboku's essays at the end of the nineteenth century (he died in 1912), I felt relief, but only sporadically. A participant said he did not know what a tanka was but that he could recognize one when he saw it.

A discussion of two poems by Larry Kimmel really startled me. I say two poems, but actually it was a single poem that changed its line format and spatial qualities in the second version. Only a few word changes appeared in the latter, the first poem printed in Fire Pearls (edited and published by M. Kei, 2006):

her breast fits
like a fruit in the curve
of the small guitar--
and I would be her Picasso
some Spanish afternoon     (p. 43)

But in Kimmel's Blue Night (Winfred Press, 2007, p. 50), the same poem is transformed, though the words remain nearly the same:

Woman Playing Guitar

Her breast
like a fruit

in the curve
of the small guitar,

and I
would have been
her Picasso,

Spanish afternoon.

A number of Tanka Roundtable participants felt this second version could be labeled a tanka. Tanka, instead of its usual five lines, could be scattered in various divisions down a page. Worried, I e-mailed Larry on January 18 to ask about this assertion. He has allowed me to quote from his response: ". . . if I had encountered my own poem first, as I used it in Blue Night, I would have thought it a free verse poem."

Amelia Fielden, in response to an e-mail from me on this problem, calls herself a "semi-traditionalist." She too has allowed me to quote her response: "I definitely want to preserve 5 lines. And I prefer to adhere to the S/L/S/L/L rhythm with a strong final line, but flexibly. I do not believe 31 English syllables is the way to go because the sound unit differences between Japanese and English make 31-syllabled English tanka heavy and wordy. Therefore, I advocate 21+/- English syllable structure, again flexibly. Most of my tanka are 3/5/3/5/5 or a mixture of 3 or 4 syllables in short lines and 5 or 6 in long lines. I very, very rarely write a line of 2 or of 7 syllables (and never 1 or 8, which I feel are unbalanced lengths); I consider the 'inverted pyramid' structure, i.e. a very long first line tapering down to 1 or 2 syllables in line 5, is not in the true tanka tradition."

What I came away with in these dramatic and demanding discussions is the radical voice of change among many of the participants. This desire for change resembles Western culture's passion for the new, the innovative, the transforming power of immediate time.

I have lived with tanka for forty-four years, and while I was at first a minimalist and later an adherent of short long short long long, which I do not always follow, I felt my tanka commitment remained steady even if it varied in rhythm and line length. My early tanka and my present tanka have a foundation in Takuboku's definition of tanka as diary which reveals the changes in the emotional life of the poet.

One can make changes in content, changes in line length, changes in syllabication, but the core of tanka remains the same. It is a democratic form as it allows for many changes within the five-line structure and maintains that any subject is suitable for tanka. Michael McClintock's splendid introduction to variety in tanka structure in The Tanka Anthology (Red Moon Press, 2003) offers ten examples of tanka manipulation within the five-line format (see pp. xxvi-xxxvii). He analyzes ten types of variation. Example 1 shows the 5-7-5-7-7 lines flush with the left margin; example 2 has the 5-7-5-7-7 pattern with the last two lines indented; example 3 has the last three lines indented, thus reversing the three-two structural division of traditional tanka; example 4, says McClintock, offers the first two lines as strophe, the next two lines placing a word on the fifth line as antistrophe, and the rest of the final line as "a kind of epode" (p. xxxii); example 5 is a staggered five lines which, McClintock says, visually assists the lifting movement of a bird in flight; example 6 has a haiku-like effect in its first three lines while the two concluding lines offer "a personal reflection or response" (p. xxxiii); example 7 is a minimalist tanka whose pivot juxtaposes two images without either transition or punctuation; example 8 is what McClintock calls tumbling/minimalist, tumbling from six syllables in the first line to one in the last, a kind of imageless haiku or even senryu; example 9, a free-form poem that might easily be classified as kyoka; example 10, lines expanded as they move from a physical representation to a metaphysical one, the lines staggered first from left, next to middle right, third to left margin, fourth to far right, and fifth, one letter to left below line four. These examples reveal how even the five-line form can be varied, manipulated, take on other poetic forms and still remain tanka. McClintock's analyses of these 10 poems are more analytical than I have made them, so those who feel too confined by the five-line form should check these poems in The Tanka Anthology.

Tanka's emergence in the West is well illustrated in McClintock's introduction to the anthology and M. Kei's essay "A History of Tanka Books in English" (Modern English Tanka, Winter 2006, vol. 2, pp. 167-182). Tanka, in spite of earlier publications from 1900 to 1964 when only 16 books of tanka were published, has reached a wider audience in the West during the last forty years. The interest in tanka has been increasing from 1975 to the present. Remember that the tanka form in Japan, first known as waka, has a history of 1300 years. Of course, it has undergone change over the centuries, but even in the period of great change when tanka was considered dying in Japan, the l880s, Japanese guardians like Masaoka Shiki, Yosano Akiko, Ishikawa Takuboku, and Saito Mokichi and others maintained the form by keeping the 31-syllable structure, the vertical line or second vertical line intact. It was only Takuboku in his two collections who used a 3-line structure even as he kept the 31 syllables.

Professor Seishi Shinoda and I wrote in our introduction to Tangled Hair reasons for the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century changes in tanka. We refer to the court poets over the centuries. These court poets made the Kokinshu (905) their sacred text: "But as time passed, many words and phrases were totally incomprehensible to the mass of readers. Those families versed in the art of tanka capitalized on the inscrutable expressions in these poems and monopolized the field. The prestige of the poetry families was heightened; moreover, the financial rewards were great. For hundreds of years the heirs of these families were initiated into the well-guarded techniques of the art. As a matter of course, poets and their poems were conservative in the extreme.

"In l871 what later became the Imperial Poetry Bureau was established under the Ministry of the Imperial Household, the commissioners of the bureau descendants of these very court poets and their disciples. The commissioners were rigid formalists absorbed in preserving tradition yet quite deficient in creative energy. Until the end of the second decade of the Meiji era . . . poets were completely dominated by the Poetry Bureau School, or, as it was later called, the Old School. The poets of the Old School were removed from the dynamic life of Meiji as it experienced the impact of Westernization. Their poems, deficient in real feeling, were concerned only with the beauty of nature. Suddenly aware of the rapidly progressing materialism of the new age, the Old School poets began to feel something of its impact and tried to adapt their art to the new era. But inadequate in talent and sensibility, they were unable to keep pace with the times, even though they introduced into tanka the telegraph and the railroad. Their newness never went beyond mere subject matter" (Tangled Hair, Purdue University Studies, 1971, pp. 1-2).

Why, I wonder, when most tanka poets in the West today have been writing tanka a mere two years or five or even ten, would they want radical change? Perhaps part of the reason is that the tanka is a form that cannot be easily mastered. The short space of five lines requires an economy and language that lift the tanka to new planes of lyrical pleasure or sadness or thought or cleverness. One can arrange these poems in five lines, syllables counted to 31, as Father Lawrence did or James Kirkup is doing, without creating good tanka. The eternal challenge is to work with the form and see what the poet can come up with.

My decades-long love-affair with tanka makes my views on tanka old-fashioned, certainly not bold. For more than a decade during that time I was a follower of Zen, more like an outsider as I went through the various steps with my wife. I never felt that a moment might come when stepping on a brick or thunder-struck by the words of a Zen master, I might achieve enlightenment, but I did learn that the world is co-causal, that every good brings forth its opposite, that every change is often a step backward, that no definition remains steady because the world is perpetually changing. No matter. Zazen continues and the koan continues and the Zen neophyte fails and still goes on.

When I started sending out my tanka poems in the sixties and seventies, most of them were returned. Haiku was what editors wanted. Perhaps a few of them did not even know tanka existed. Rejection after rejection, but like the Zen neophyte with his endless sitting, I kept sending out my poems, and a few were published in those two decades. When I consider the history of haiku and tanka, they seem to have gone along similar paths. Masaoka Shiki set out to revive haiku and tanka in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Yosano Akiko did the same for tanka. Actually the syllabication of haiku and tanka did not change during the reformation. The language changed with more modern expressions and new content. But the centuries-old forms hung on, as I want tanka to do and even haiku, my enduring hope being to walk with tanka to the very end of the road. Robert Wilson said the same thing to me a few months ago. I know that the limitations of the form frustrate us. In such a small space how can we put down philosophy, complicated feelings, tragedy, pain, joy, all these and more, without making the statement a sentence? Often I have myself wished for Hamlet's verbal diversity--how much he could pack into a short statement. When I felt some powerful mood I wanted to evoke, I knew my own limits. Strange as it may sound, I called on my tanka muse for help, and I called on Hamlet:

again, Hamlet,
you haul me to your heart,
to your precious mouth,
and I feel even tanka
can scale the spectacular     (This Tanka Whirl, Clinging Vine Press, 2001, p. 44)

Sometimes it was Ahab in Moby Dick that I envied for his use of language:

like some forger
of Shakespearean lines,
you mouth even a harpoon-fist
into words     (This Tanka Whirl , p. 10)

As I pointed out in the above tanka, I wanted tanka to have more power, the power of a Hamlet or an Ahab, yet that power had to come from within myself. For years I have relied on my tanka muse, another device that no doubt puts me in the absurd category. In my tanka collection of 2001, I wrote:

lift me,
into Ahab's language,
dark peripheries
surrounded by white          (This Tanka Whirl, p. 10)

In my first collection of tanka, This Tanka World (West Lafayette, Indiana, 1977), I have a final section on tanka. I had been frustrated with having only a few of my tanka accepted in the early years. It was, after all, only haiku that was really known. I was frustrated when I wrote the following:

of petty
on a pretty
page                (p. 49)

Some of that feeling remains today as I go through haiku collections and journals. It seems to me the haiku poets have gone over to the senryu side, and the nature images they create seem unable to resonate. Fortunately I was saved by tanka, for in the early sixties I came across in a journal or newspaper some tanka from Carl Sesar's Poems to Eat, translations of Takuboku (Kodansha, 1966). I was stunned by these economical yet moving poems, and I wrote the following:

the bourgeois
didn't know
it was tanka      (This Tanka World, p. 45)

Molière's suddenly prospering bourgeois, who wants to educate himself, is surprised when his tutor tells him the distinction between prose and poetry. He had been speaking without realizing he was uttering the former.

Often I was dissatisfied, frustrated with trying to get thirty-one syllables, a tanka in This Tanka World revealing my emotional anxiety:

for 31
find the form
in my face              (p. 48)

On the other hand, I was caught up in a series of painful episodes in my life:

a decade
of painful
in this fistful
of poems       (This Tanka World, p. 46)

But through it all I felt a tanka music. That music walked with me wherever I went, cafeterias, school corridors, art museums, lonely Saturday night streets, sleepless journeys. And so it was I wrote in This Tanka Whirl:

drawn to you
and tomorrow and beyond,
my tanka world!                 (p. 38)

Yet the frustration would leap out at any moment:

to cram
this moment
into a tanka
fist                       (This Tanka World, p. 49)

The desire for a stronger tanka in me often appeared:

let the print
be darkest black
the paper coarse
the rough edge
cut this flesh               (This Tanka World, p. 49)

At other moments a gentle feeling emerged:

these tanka
fold, bend
like origami
under this hand            (This Tanka World, p. 50)

I wanted to create honest poems, poems of my own feelings, yet feelings that a reader could feel, tanka that were a part of each reader's experience:

this very air
no rhythm of 31
no word-juggle
only the deep of now    (This Tanka World, p. 46)

But throughout these forty-four years, I felt I had not gone far enough, had not struggled enough with the tanka form as well as with life, the personal emphasis in my tanka still of major importance:

I kept by the shallow water
where I could wade in safety,
and that's the image I'm left with,
the image of one who failed to leap,
who failed to plunge in and through  (This Tanka Whirl, p. 49)

I realize I have gone on with my own poems, and I am left, as I often am, even in this essay, with a feeling of my own egocentric quality:

I never carried
a mirror placed Toulouse-like
in my battered cap--
and still from my tanka brush
this cascade of me! and my! and mine!
                                             (This Tanka Whirl, p. 37)

But I am hoping I can get beginning tanka poets and even those decade-long devotees of tanka to see that this five-line poem means living with it, striving with it, confronting it even as they recognize tanka's superior power. Its domain cannot be controlled by formulas, by constant change, though tanka allows everything in terms of content. It is, as I indicated earlier, democratic in its joyous and demanding allowance.

It seems right to end with comments by Takuboku. I had once been called a minimalist poet. My poems were short, did not have the full value of the 5/7/5/7/7, but for the past decade I seem to have gone over to the short long short long long, though not consistently, even as I sometimes strive for 31 or it seems to come almost naturally. The comments I want to quote are from my introduction with Professor Shinoda to our co-translation of Sad Toys. Takuboku's comments often reveal his love of tanka, his travails, his openness to syllabic change, his human need for a form called tanka:

"I used to write 'poems.' It was for a few years from the age of seventeen or eighteen. At that time there was nothing for me but poetry. My mind, which was yearning after some indescribable thing from morning to night, could find an outlet to some extent only by making poems. And I had absolutely nothing except that mind. --As everyone knows, poetry in those days contained only conventional feelings besides fantasy, crude music, and a feeble religious element or something equivalent to it. Reflecting on my attitude toward poetry at that time, I want to say this: a very complicated process was needed to turn actual feelings into poetry. Suppose, for instance, one derived a certain sentiment from looking at a sapling about three meters tall growing on a small plot lit up by the sun: he had to make the vacant plot a wilderness, the sapling a towering tree, the sun the rising or setting sun, and he had to make himself a poet, a traveler, or a young man in sorrow. Otherwise, the sentiment was not suited to the poetry of those days, and he himself was not satisfied" (Sad Toys, Purdue University Press, 1977, p. 31).

Takuboku continues: "Poetry must not be what is usually called poetry. It must be an exact report, an honest diary, of the changes in a man's emotional life. Accordingly, it must be fragmentary; it must not have organization" (p. 33).

"When anything begins to inconvenience us, we had better attempt to boldly reconstruct it so as to remove the inconvenience. It is only right that we should do this. We do not live for others but for ourselves. Take, for instance, the tanka. We have already been feeling it is somewhat inconvenient to write a tanka in a single line. So we should write it in two lines or three according to its rhythm. Some may criticize us by saying this will destroy the rhythm of tanka itself. No matter. If the conventional rhythm has ceased to suit our mood, why hesitate to change it? If the limitation of thirty-one syllables is felt inconvenient, we should freely use lines with extra syllables. As for the content, we should sing about anything, disregarding the arbitrary restrictions which dictate that some subjects are not fit for tanka and will not make one. If only we do these things, tanka will not die as long as man holds dear the momentary impressions which flash across his mind, disappearing a moment later during his busy life. The thirty-one syllables may become forty-one or even fifty-one, yet tanka will live and we will be able to satisfy our love for the fleeting moments of life" (pp. 34-35).

"Each second is one which never comes back in our life. I hold it dear. I don't want to let it pass without doing anything for it. To express that moment, tanka, which is short and takes not much time to compose, is most convenient. Yes, it is convenient indeed. It is one of the few good fortunes we Japanese enjoy that we have a poetic form called tanka. . . . I make tanka because I love myself better than anything else. . . " (p. 38).

". . . now I am writing tanka as if I were writing a diary. Perhaps there are well-written diaries and badly written ones, but the value of a diary does not vary according to the writer's skill. A diary is of value only to the writer, and the value is quite irrelevant to the outsider. 'I felt so and so' or 'I thought so and so'--this is all that my tanka purport now. They have no other meaning, none above that." (p. 39).

Let us preserve Takuboku's wish to guard, through tanka, the precious fleeting moments of our lives.


Sanford Goldstein has been writing tanka for more than forty years and is a co-translator of several tanka collections by famous Japanese poets.