for a moment of joy or moments no one pays for, i give myself a ‘jornal’. this makes me rich. try it.

Tanka? Lady Nyo replies to my plea (and tanka from haikuverse to here)

Two reasons why this re-post but more: First, at Red Dragonfly, my friend Melissa Allen’s blog, in her Lucky 13 edition of haikuverse, I read an intense discussion on tanka. I’ve been a tanka-pretender of late because a few of my tanka-ish (because they are in truth free verses) poems have been quite successful. Reading more on it though pulled me in deeper into the mist, into fog/understanding fades/–smoky white thickens. (By the way, if you wish to grow and expand as a haiku poet, follow Red Dragonfly, on my blogroll, especially her flights in the haikuverse.)

Second, I met Lady Nyo in cyberspace, at One Stop Poetry to be exact, through my post the other day, which I’ve pulled out here to include her reply to my plea that she take a look at my tanka. She kindly did and what a lesson I got using my tanka. My ignorance or better yet, bull-headedness, not paying attention to details of what I read about the art–honestly, I often gloss over most discussions and plunge straight into the poems–was bared. Her discussion of tanka through my attempts in this post has waken me up, bolting upright to seriously study it. Arigato gozaimas, Lady Nyo!

Here is my Valentine post of 5 after-the-classical tanka and 3 of my-own-version of modern tanka:

Could these five tanka attempts I wrote after rereading cover to cover Thomas Gurgal’s Japanese Tanka: The Court Poetry of a Golden Age mentioned twice here and Lady Nyo’s almost intimately written background on tanka writing be tanka? Lady Nyo and the tanka book I found at the Vancouver Public Library describe tanka written during the Heian dynasty. It’s the topic today on One Stop Poetry where I’m posting the following tanka. I did imagine myself as a lady of the court, scribbling notes for a lover but still I’m not certain. Could these be tanka?

The roses you sent
I kissed each petal like lips
your vows blossoming–
Were you here I would ask again
Is your love unlike roses?

In my hand your note
takes wings with my heart
I fly to you tonight–
Will the moon you promised
meet me among stars I bring?

We sit under stars
skidding in the hemispheres
you make me wish
I whisper to the willows this:
Bring his wish to the winds

Before I knew you
I wrote a poem on love
now you declare love
I am losing my poem
in my fluttering heart

Will you be sad
you ask me like a songbird
singing to no one
you took my name and my heart
neatly tied in your knapsack

Three tanka–my own–of which I must ask the same question, could this be tanka? My subject is the same, yes, it’s on love but not courtly love. I also followed the structure but just can’t be certain. Would you tell me?

driving into fog
our hearts in our hands–
same hands
scribbling secret codes
our midnight whispers

under frozen skies
oriole songs fill a dome–
divining our dawns
the path our suns travel
distances our longing defy

the full moon stalls
listening to midnight whispers–
skidding stars
spark the skies our eyes
on nothing else but ours

Lady Nyo’s reply to my plea:

I want to clear something up. Tanka isn’t only about love: it’s a vehicle to carry a message about mourning, praise, grief, death (as in Death Poems from Samurai) observations on nature, etc. So we should broaden our attempts at tanka to partake of so many themes.

I think these top 5 are very much in the tanka form. As to spirit? Yes, they are.

However, I do see a difference in the Court tanka, the more immediate tanka in something like the “Man-yoshu”…where the romantic sentiment is a bit more complex. It’s just different and this is hard to explain without a study of it.

But we aren’t Heian court women poets…we are modern women poets, and that ‘sensibility’ is very different I believe now.

The last three are lovely freeverse to me. What is missing here is the syllable count: 5-7-5, etc. If you read the romanji script…the original Japanese tanka, you see, by sounding it out that these tanka follow this form. They don’t necessarily stray from it because it is a discipline and has a purpose.

Tanka is to be read in two breaths. However, the top five very much carry correctly that important Kakekotoba, that pivot or bridge between the top poem (Kami no ku) and the bottom poem (Shimo no ku)

This is what is most hard (well, one of those hard things) in tanka to pull off…the unifying but also the recognition of tanka being actually TWO poems.

It takes a lot of work, process and study to begin to be ‘easy’ in this formation.

But we will get there. This is a good start.

Lady Nyo

We continued our discussion at Lady Nyo’s weblog (click on the blogroll) on the ‘elusive’ spirit of tanka as well as haiku. Next Tuesday at One Stop Poetry, Lady Nyo has promised to discuss the ‘two poems’ in a tanka.


February 17, 2011 - Posted by | critique/self-critique, free verse, poetry, tanka | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Alegria,
    There is as much debate over English language tanka as there is over English language haiku. Yes, the classical form does follow 5/7/5/7/7 syllable; yes, it has a pivot line; yes, it, like haiku, includes a reference to nature. But Eng. Language Tanka often has a freer style; in fact, there are some who claim that all 5-line poems are some form of tanka. You can find all kinds of lively conversations on the subject, as well as many great examples of tanka at

    Best, su hermana

    Comment by Margaret Dornaus | February 18, 2011 | Reply

    • Gracias para el informacion, mi hermana!

      Yes, I’ve been reading the debates going on. Thank you for your reassuring summary ‘that all 5-line poems are some form of tanka’! Thank you also for the website you shared. I’ll access it right now.

      Hope you enjoyed President’s Day!
      Su hermana

      Comment by alee9 | February 19, 2011 | Reply

  2. How lovely to find this blog, and the discussion on tanka!

    Personally, I don’t think all 5 line poems are tanka. There is much more than pivot line, top and bottom poem, the kigo word or reference that makes up tanka. There is also something called ‘spirit’.

    But those are the great discoveries of a deeper study of tanka. But frankly, some of the ‘free-ist’ tanka I have ever read is from the very earliest sources….8th and 9th century tanka, especially from the great “Man’yoshu”. Saigyo wasn’t from this time, but even a short reading of his tanka gives one an idea how much this poetry is loved and so universal.

    Willow in the Rain, from Saigyo…

    Tangled even further
    its the wind
    that dries them–
    threads of green willow
    wet with rain

    Ah! how much freer can a tanka be! But the point is this: it is Good that poets are attempting, writing, studying tanka and the marvelous and deep history of Japanese literature whence from tanka has sprung.

    Lady Nyo

    Comment by ladynyo | May 27, 2013 | Reply

    • Huge thanks to you, Lady Nyo!!! You’ve inspired me, really. Since this blog post, I’ve ben studying tanka and writing more. It’s a great form and it suits more of my thoughts. I’ll post some of my recent published here for you with pride like a pupil would go back to the master…me to you!!

      Comment by alee9 | June 3, 2013 | Reply

      • LOL! First, I am hardly a master of tanka…but thank you!

        I am so glad that you are taking up tanka again. You are correct! It’s a wonderful form for so many sentiments….and I love it best, too!

        Please SEND me your tanka as sometimes I can’t get to other blogs, it’s a matter of my computer….it’s cranky.

        And, again, I really encourage you to continue your study. It took me 5 or more years to get my head around this ancient form, but my heart took to it immediately.

        My very best to you!

        Lady Nyo

        Comment by ladynyo | June 3, 2013

      • …but you are, Lady Nyo!! I really love how you bring in the soul of the court tanka into your work. I think that’s how it should work but I also understand that the form has evolved. Yet, I still would like to get into what’s no longer current…imagining the intricacies of secrets between lovers inside palace walls. And which I believe therein lies your mastery. Yes, I’ll send you my published tanka so far and some still a-forming. Thanks so much again!!

        Comment by alee9 | June 4, 2013

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