Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Autumn 2007, vol 5 no 3

Tracks in the Sand: Haiku or Tanka?
A column by George Swede


Those of us who write haiku and tanka take for granted that they are different poetic forms. But how do we explain the differences to someone with only a cursory knowledge of Japanese poetic forms? A good start might be to suggest reading the most comprehensive anthology for each form: Cor van den Heuvel's The Haiku Anthology (1999) and Michael McClintock et al.'s The Tanka Anthology (2003). This might, however, confuse rather than enlighten.

For instance, the most obvious difference involves length—a flip through the pages of each volume would reveal that the typical haiku has three lines and the tanka five. Yet closer study would reveal overlapping criteria in terms of syllable count. According to van den Heuvel, the haiku usually has fewer than 17 syllables, while according to McClintock, the tanka can possess from 12 to 31 syllables. Thus, the haiku is shorter in terms of number of lines, but a tanka can have fewer syllables. Further adding to the confusion is the fact that a number of the haiku in van den Heuvel's anthology have line counts of five, four, two and one, while some of those in McClintock's have two lines followed by a space and then three lines.

If length and form do not provide a clear distinction, then perhaps content does. But here again we find more similarity than differences. Van den Heuvel states that "A haiku is a short poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which Nature is linked to human nature" (p. xv) and in which "Sex, love, and the whole range of human emotions and relationships have now become fairly common themes (xlv)." Compare this to what Michael McClintock says about the tanka: "Nature is never far away; the imagery of tanka in English is in fact impossible without it" (p. xliii) and "Tanka's frequent combination of natural imagery with personal introspection, reflection or confession results in a kind of 'subjective realism'" (p. xlvi). At least in general terms, there seem to be no content differences--both forms can link human nature to nature in complex ways.

Despite these gray areas, we practitioners know that the two forms are not the same and the neophyte who studies both anthologies cover-to-cover will also come to realize this. Our understanding, however, remains largely intuitive. What I hope to demonstrate is a more objective way to distinguish the two forms. My approach will be to examine the extent to which they are interchangeable, that is, the degree to which we can turn one into the other without losing something important. I will illustrate with four examples--the haiku coming from my collection Almost Unseen (2000) and the tanka from my collection First Light, First Shadows (2006).

The Interchangeability of Haiku and Tanka

Two Transformations from Haiku to Tanka

thick fog lifts
unfortunately, I am where
I thought I was

This 16-syllable haiku can easily be recast into five lines:

thick fog lifts
I am where
I thought
I was

Apart from the two extra line breaks, the only other change was the removal of the now-redundant comma, but the content and meaning remain identical.

Let's look at another example:

as the coffin lowers
several watches sound
the hour

We can turn this 14-syllable haiku into a tanka that simulates the coffin entering the earth.

As the coffin
several watches
the hour

The syllable count and content are unchanged, but the meaning has increased in terms of the simulated movement of the coffin.

Michael McClintock would consider both of the resultant five-liners as "crossover tanka" (p. xxxv); that is, they can be considered either as haiku or tanka. His rationale seems to be that the author determines what label will be applied. No wonder a neophyte might be perplexed.

Two Transformations from Tanka to Haiku

The Sunday crossword
with one entry done
left on the park bench . . .
the scent of spring's
first lilac blossoms

Although the tanka has 24 syllables, it can be turned into a haiku with 17 syllables:

Left on the park bench
the Sunday crossword—spring's first
lilac blossom scent

This transformation, however, was not without cost—a telling detail, "one entry done," had to be left out. As a result, there was a loss of content and meaning.

Here is the second example:

Burial of a friend—
in spite of myself
I marvel at
the yellow butterfly
against the blue sky

We can turn this into a haiku by removing lines two and three:

Burial of a friend—
a yellow butterfly
against the blue sky

With this transformation, we can see even more clearly that the two forms are distinct. The tanka contains self-revelation (in lines two and three) while the haiku does not. Again, the transformation resulted in the loss of both content and meaning.


From the above examples, we can draw tentative conclusions about interchangeability. Most haiku can be expanded into tanka without loss of content or meaning (the first two examples). Most tanka, however, cannot be compressed into haiku without suffering such decrements (the last two examples).

Therefore, a major cause of confusion between the two forms results from poets composing tanka that are haiku-like in their brevity. We can detect such tanka with a quick test--compress the tanka into a haiku and see whether any loss of content or meaning occurs. To illustrate, consider the two expanded haiku above—we can turn the resultant tanka effortlessly back into the originals. Such haiku/tanka are the "crossovers" referred to earlier.

McClintock is right--as poets, we decide on the number of lines for our poem and whether to call it a haiku or a tanka. Thus, the illustrations will have little bearing on what we do. For the neophyte, however, they might help to clarify some confusion.