Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Spring 2008, vol 6 no 1

Four Decades of My Tanka Road: The Tanka Collections of Sanford Goldstein
by Sanford Goldstein
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


A tanka is more than a five-lined poem with a definitive schemata dancing like a ballerina across a stage made of moon and paper. A short poem, tanka is an often misunderstood art. And as with many forms of Japanese expression, what appears to be simple and easy to comprehend to the Western mind is instead a richly textured word painting with deep meaning. Sanford Goldstein has taken the time to study and explore the genre for over forty years and to pay homage to the culture that created it. A celebrated translator who has lived in Japan for decades, Goldstein understands the intricacies, nuances, and delicate brush strokes indigenous to the tanka genre. Tanka to him is a lifelong walk, "a diary of the emotional changes in one's life."

Goldstein is not full of himself yet is a demanding teacher. He has no patience for mediocrity and sees tanka as a tangible expression that should be understood and grounded in reality. I corresponded with him for a short time last year asking him to critique and tutor me. Needless to say, it was a humbling experience. I learned much from him. He didn't mince words and was blunt, telling me like it is. One cannot grow under the tutelage of a politician. And he is no politician. Goldstein is honest, believes in paying one's dues, and expects the genre to be taken seriously. He accepts nothing less.

With the publishing of Four Decades of My Tanka Road: The Tanka Collections of Sanford Goldstein, the world will get to know this tanka master in an intimate, personal way and be exposed to a model for poets to emulate and study. Says Randy Brooks on the book's back cover, "Sanford surrenders himself to the tanka way: "as if life/will settle/it all/I drink my coffee/write my poem."

never did he want
to marry, only the sister
now gone these ten years;
he sits before the soft drink
and imagines their endless dance

Goldstein's is not the tanka of a man obsessed with formula and safety. His output is musical, multi-layered, and never the same. "Sometimes I feel that critics of tanka are more obsessed with the tanka's 31 syllables (often fewer or often more) than with its content. Many of my earliest tanka might be called minimalist, and I remember translating a poem in Tangled Hair (#100) in which I used "We" as the only word in a single line — how the critics leaped on that one! Yet often over the years I have had tanka that reached fifty syllables or more. But two critical readers pointed out that I ought to have more syllabic control in my collection, and I realized they were right. I am grateful to them, for these dramatic encounters demand stylistic restraint." A refreshing statement from the man M. Kei (editor of Atlas Poetica) accurately labels "The Grand Old Man of Tanka." A true master never sees himself as a master and is always looking for ways to better his craft. Such is the poet, scholar, and translator Sanford Goldstein. Says noted translator and poet Amelia Fielden, "Though he is the consummate poet, Goldstein's language is characterized by simplicity, clarity, warmth, and often a gentle humor, which invite the reader into his life at every stage of its journey."

Goldstein recognizes the musical tonality of tanka. Tanka are not assemblages of thoughts laid down craftily with well chosen words to form a word painting. Says Goldstein, "The melody of tanka, its music, goes beyond that of the traditional pattern of 5/7/5/7/7. It always seemed strange to me that when a Japanese recites a tanka or recalls it from memory, the words come out rapidly in the monotony of regulation time. Yet when I once heard Akiko Yosano read some of her poems on tape someone gave me, her voiced soared, and the rhythmic sound was actually like singing. I have tried to walk through my tanka with the awareness of music, the varied tanka world having a varied music . . . staccato or soaring or bleak or contrapuntal."

Enter Sanford Goldstein's world:

never thought
could sew
until my wife's
evening fingers
from my hut door,
I too join
this rain
on green leaf
I toss out
a theory
in this Zen hut,
but how real
the brown rice ball in my hand
along the corridor
where once he wheeled her,
other patients pass —
they look down, mouths screwed wordless
knowing where this cramped road leads


Four Decades on My Tanka Road:
The Tanka Collections of Sanford Goldstein

by Sanford Goldstein
Modern English Tanka Press
ISBN 978-0-6151-8005-2