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Summer 2009, vol 7 no 2

Take Five: Best Contemporary Tanka
edited by M. Kei, Sanford Goldstein, Pamela A. Babusci, Patricia Prime, Bob Lucky, and Kala Ramesh
A Review by Johnye Strickland


According to the Introduction, Take Five is the first book devoted to an attempt by the editors to read every English-language tanka published in a given year in order to select "the best." The editors read over 14,000 poems in over 100 venues, narrowing that number to 2,000 poems to be considered, and finally to 321 individual tanka as well as several tanka sequences and tanka prose pieces, composed by 138 poets.

The editors did not attempt to define or limit what was considered tanka, but instead read anything that was presented (presumably by the authors or other editors) as tanka.

Nonetheless, M. Kei does present ideas about what constitutes tanka in the contemporary sense, as opposed to traditional Japanese form-defined tanka. He makes a point that five lines is a convenient, as well as a conventional, way to present tanka in English, and is appropriate for what he says is the "fixed form" of tanka—a "pentafid form" consisting of "five poetic phrases," which do not correspond to "grammatical phrases," though there is "no consensus on exactly what a 'poetic phrase' is" (Introduction, pp. 17, 19).

The book includes minimalist tanka (though only a few poems included are written in this way). For example:

I am
I am not
I am
as I walk in & out
of mist

A.A. Marcoff (p. 22, 121)

and the classic five-word poem by Jim Kacian


(p. 30, 97)

which has been suggested to be to tanka what Cor van den Heuvel's classic one-word poem was to haiku. (It has also caused a bit of a stir from tanka poets and critics who favor the traditional Japanese form of S/L/S/L/L, where the S stands for "short" lines and the L for "long", replacing the earlier tradition of 5/7/5/7/7 sound units, which do not work well for most Western languages.)

It is rather exciting to be living in a time when there is so much interest in English-language tanka, which inspires lively discussion about what tanka is, or can be, or should be or not be. Especially if one is a literary historian and does not have an investment in the outcome, other than to observe it and enjoy the process of reading and writing in the various forms, or styles, currently on display.

Take Five is not restricted in subject matter for tanka either. There are poems about death and dying, war and peace, sex and violence, as well as those about relationships and the everydayness of living.

For example:

that I hear my doom
so easily
how young he looks
the oncologist

Dave Bacharach (p. 48)

long winter hours . . .
in my parents' absence
I feel the "his" and "hers"
slip away from the humidor,
the sewing machine

Jeanne Emrich (p. 71)

holding him
through all the hospice nights
you won't be here
to love me when I'm dying

Amelia Fielden (p. 76)

glass chimneys
amid the Auschwitz smoke
I watch
sparks of light flash
as each soul expires

Linda Galloway (p. 81)

out there
in this war-torn world
people who
collect stamps, press flowers
gather shells at daybreak

Beverley George (p. 84)

last night
dark birds pecked the edges
of my dreams
all day I keep looking
at the unplugged phone

Michael Evans (p. 75)

This poem by Michael Evans is one of my favorites. I happen to know that it was inspired by an actual dream, which adds to the depth of meaning for me. In addition, birds are an important part of the tradition of dream interpretation as well as folklore and literature in the Western tradition, from the time of the Ancient Greeks to the present. And isn't this one of the things many contemporary Western tanka poets talk about—the desirability of finding ways to make tanka (and haiku) relevant to Western culture, rather than restricting Western poets to the Japanese cultural tradition that is unfamiliar to those who have not spent years studying it? Isn't it possible for it to be a both-and situation, rather than an either-or?

This book presents interesting, well constructed short poems as tanka if they have been presented as such by their authors. The forms in which they appear are diverse, as are the subjects. Each poet speaks in his/her own voice, in this attempt to show the world what English-language tanka is considered to include at this point in its developing history.

The editors deserve to be applauded for this undertaking, and readers should be appreciative of the opportunity to see what they have agreed to call "the best tanka of 2008."


Take Five: Best Contemporary Tanka
edited by M. Kei, Sanford Goldstein, Pamela A. Babusci, Patricia Prime, Bob Lucky, and Kala Ramesh
Modern English Tanka Press 2009
P.O Box 43717, Baltimore, Maryland 21236
ISBN 978-1-935398-08-0     $16.95 USD
Front Cover art, "Cobalt-Blue Series 1," 2009 by Pamela A. Babusci