Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Tanka

by Maria Claudia Faverio

The tanka (originally called waka, "Japanese song") has been the most popular form of Japanese poetry for more than 1,200 years. 90% of the 4,500 poems in Japan's oldest anthology (Man'yo-shu, Anthology of 10,000 Leaves, ca. 759) are in this form, as well as 991 in the second oldest anthology, the Kokinshu (Collection of Ancient and Modern Times, ca. 905), which was considered the sacred book of court poets. The tanka received imperial patronage and produced generation after generation of court poets. It is also believed that at that time one's desirability as a lover was often determined by the quality of one's tanka. Tanka were written on all occasions and were concise and evocative, like haiku (the tanka is older than the haiku though, as the haiku was actually born from the first three lines of the tanka). They were essential for the good reputation of a person and were often accompanied by a gentle symbol like a branch or a flower.

Tanka are still very important: each year, on New Year's Day, the Emperor of Japan and his family join the commoners and write tanka with them on certain topics. In a magnificent ceremony, a selection of these tanka are then chanted before the Royal Court and preserved as national treasures. In Japan, the tanka is also a vital part of the Noh theater plays, where it is used in the form of prayers or 'talking with the gods'.

In 1871 what later became the Imperial Poetry Bureau was established under the Ministry of the Imperial Household, a school of rigid formalists obsessed with tradition and lacking any form of creativity. This formalism didn't change until the impact of Westernization about 15 years later.

Dissatisfied with the way the tanka was deteriorating, poets sought other poetic forms beyond the traditional 31 syllables in the form 5-7-5-7-71(which are usually in only one or two lines in Japanese2), and the tanka was attacked in several essays. This in its turn caused a new reaction, and younger poets tried to rescue the tanka through innovation.

In The Reform of Tanka (1887), Yoshiyuki Hagino suggested to modernize its diction and to give greater freedom to its style.

In February 1893 Naobumi Ochiai founded the Asaka-sha (Brotherhood of Asaka), a society of tanka-reformists, whose most remarkable rebel was Tekkan Yosano, who overtly attacked the technical triviality and effete formalism of the Old School and advocated a "manly" poetry that gave vent to personal feelings and passions in a simple, plain language.

In November 1899 Tekkan founded the Tokyo Shinshi-sha (The New Poetry Brotherhood of Tokyo) and launched the magazine Myojo (called Myojo after the star Venus3). Akiko Yosano (one of its members) became one of the most significant reformers of the tanka and later married Tekkan. Akiko's most famous book is Midaregami (Tangled Hair) with 399 tanka, 115 published for the first time. Midaregami owes its name to a tanka Tekkan had dedicated to Akiko: "To you I present / this name / suited to autumn, / Lady of the restless mind, / of the tangled hair". The implications behind Akiko's use of "tangled hair" are those of a complex and intense pattern of beauty, sexuality, and insanity.

Akiko glorified the female body, the emancipation of women, sympathized with the downtrodden, attacked priests and moralists. Her tanka pictured women at lonely inns, at home, in the fields, in temples and cities, and involved the most different human types. She transformed the tanka into a personal and dramatic vehicle for a great variety of psychologically difficult situations involving pity, hate, suffering, love, death, and madness. This gradually led to the reestablishment of the tanka, particularly with Takuboku, who wrote: "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." Takuboku's tanka refer to ordinary life, daily occurrences, like in the following two tanka:

I work, work

And still

No joy in my life.

I stare

At my hands.

Dying of thirst

But too weary

To reach over

And pick up

An apple

Akiko also sang her own body, something which was (and is) very unusual, as self-glorification has always been considered un-Japanese. She also used the tanka as a sort of diary.

Fragrant the lilies

In this room of love,

Hair unbound,

I fear

The pink of night's passing.

In my bath -

Submerged like some graceful lily

At the bottom of a spring,

How beautiful

This body of twenty summers.


Asking nothing,

Two women and a man

Parted with a nod

On the sixth of the month.

Many of the most significant contemporary tanka poets are women, some of which I would like to briefly introduce here.

Fumi Saito's tanka explore the philosophical dualities of reality and art of the 1960s, the contrast between God's universe and the world of the poet, and transform traditional seasonal images into surrealistic impressions.

On my frozen nerve

There is a place

Where a red canary


To perch.

She died of breast cancer in 2002 (at 93) and could still write a tanka about her illness:

Having lost the mound
of one breast, my chest is like
a field. - O, skylarks,
come and visit, with the hare,
and the worms, and the insects.

Meiko Matsudaira conveys a voluptuous nostalgia in a fine, decorative language.

The days of my twenties

Come back to me

With a glint of

Heat-haze weariness!

Scratches on enamel.

Motoko Michiura combines the thoughts of Marxism and the student movement with traditional seasonal images, like tear gas and the smell of lemon in the following tanka:


Rising from my breast

Hidden to protect me

From tear gas:

The smell of lemon.

Yuko Kawano emphasizes family life, the life of a wife and a mother:

Giving birth or being born -

Either the ultimate sorrow.

Just the same,

I turn the light out

At night.

Machi Tawara and Amari Hayashi write colloquial tanka.

Machi makes use of overt abstractions and interweaves them with philosophical reflections:

Fireworks, fireworks

Watching them together -

One sees only the flash,

The other,

The darkness.

Amari's tanka are full of beautiful graphic images:

You could pluck the cosmos

If you slept with a hundred men:

A girl laughs

In the fields.

Finally, Ei Akitsu's tanka show a fresh, peculiar humour combined with down-to-earth images:

Ah, women

Walking with ovaries

Hanging inside -

The wind blows, the bamboo groves

Cry from within.

These are obviously only a few examples. The tanka will certainly continue to be popular in Japan, and it is becoming more and more popular outside Japan, like the haiku. Both the haiku and the tanka deserve their popularity - for their freshness, originality and delightful insight.


Mostow, Joshua S., Pictures of the Heart, 1996 University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu

Akiko Yosano, Tangled Hair, 1987 Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo, Japan

Maria's Tanka:

by Maria Claudia Faverio

The grass is teeming

with ants too curious to stay

in their nice little nest -

the world in a grain of sand

is far too narrow sometimes.

The wind is furious

this morning, unruly curls

cover my wet face

on the white mare galloping

into the tunnel - last neigh.

Listen - I want my

coffin to be big enough

for a book of poems,

a canvas, some oil colours,

and a parasol - is it OK?

Step dance of full moon -

will the frogs in my backyard

ever stop their lament?

The wizard of Oz swings his

baton on the wind-swept stage.

In unison with

sound, rain, and artless sunshine,

I chant a forgotten

mantra, broken syllables -

bye-bye nightingale, bye-bye.

The sunrays hugging

the tireless sky are more than

a casual binge of

beauty. Look, look at the eyes

of the charioteer, how they sing!

What if a little pawn

started to dance a wild tango

on the chessboard of

the world? Would the king dance along?

Checkmate to mediocrity!

1 In English tanka, this rule is flexible (the same as with haiku) because of the different structure of the English language. It has sometimes been adapted to just short-long-short-long-long, and sometimes even to five lines of arbitrary length.

2 The Japanese speak of "phrases" for lines and of onji for syllables: because of the familiarity of the natural syntax of the phrases and more specifically of the tones used in the Japanese pronunciation, Japanese tanka can be written in only one or two lines.

3 Tekkan chose this name to emphasize that he wanted to bring the light of the morning star to the darkened world of the tanka

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