Tuesday, July 22, 2014

To the Lighthouse: Somonka, A Pair of Corresponsive Tanka

[A} dialogic mode is an important characteristic of haikai. Poetry as a form of social exchange in Japan can be traced to the mondôka (dialogue songs) in the Kojiki (Record of ancient matters, 712).  In Japan’s earliest poem collection, Manyôshû (Anthology of ten thousand leaves, 749), two of the three major poetic categories-- zôka (miscellaneous poems) and sômonka (corresponsive poems) -- often were written as greetings, congratulations, or extemporaneous exchanges on specific occasions. The dialogic tradition of poetry continued in renga  and, when haikai no renga emerged, remained one of the basic features of the genre. Although before the rise of the Shômon solo composition of  a sequence (dokugin) was not uncommon, composition of haikai has been primarily collaborative in nature.

-- Peipei Qiu, Bash and the Dao: The Zhuangzi and the Transformation of Haikai, p. 61

The term somonka, "corresponsive poems" (often love exchanges; Qui, p.214), is one of the three major categories borrowed from Chinese anthologizing practice, especially from Wen Xuan, for organizing the Manyôshû poems. Poems are placed under this category in nine out of its twenty chapters (Edward Kamens, Utamakura, Allusion, and Intertextuality in Traditional Japanese Poetry, p.250). In courtly Japan, noblemen and noblemomen wrote elegant tanka to each other on a moment's notice. This style of paired courtship or love poems became increasingly popular. The following tanka were sent back and forth between a nobleman named Mikata No Sami (Active C. 700) and his young wife, the daughter of Omi Ikuha (N.D.):

Tied up, it loosens,
untied, it's too long
my love's hair --
nowadays I can't see it --
has she combed it together?

Everyone now says
my hair is too long
and I should tie it up --
but the hair you gazed upon
I'll leave in tangles

(Trans. by Stephen Addiss, The Art of Haiku: Its History through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters, pp. 19-20)

Somonka have been called relationship tanka or simply love tanka mainly because many of them are "expressions of the longing of one person for another" (Kamens, p. 250). Although most somonka appear in pairs of corresponsive tanka, this term is also applied to soliloquies. Below are three contemporary examples of solo somonka written by Sergio Ortiz and Chen-ou Liu:

Life, Death, and in Between

the dead
gather missing limbs
and tear
at the human heart
they love its fragrance

I know
the smoke of my breath
and who I am
my pulse, the embraces,
the feeling of health

Sergio Ortiz

(Editor's comment: The contrasts, such as perspectival, tonal, ..etc., are well explored through the effective use of the link-shift technique and the thematic framing of the opening and closing lines:

the dead
they love its fragrance

I know
the smoke of my breath
the feeling of health)

My Jisei  ("death poem")
for Dylan Thomas

drunk with the starry void
I flap my arms...
standing on the ground, alone

my rage
against the dying of the light --
Calliope comes
in search of me
I write the first line: my rage

Shot Glass Journal, 4, 2011

The Past Is Not Even Past

The Starry Night
hangs on my attic wall ...
with the eyes
that saw drunken darkness
he painted me in blues and grays

a sickle moon
at the attic window . . .
layer by layer
Vincent's ghost peels
the crust from my night

Chen-ou Liu


  1. Chen-ou
    This is so much more thorough a background and study of the somonka form than is found online, even at "poem hunter". The discussion of the inclusiveness of the cooresponsive forms in haikai, and that the somonka reaches back even into Chinese literature is welcome.
    Your examples show the versatility of form, syllable count, and broadness of love as the topic.
    A van Gogh fan myself, I found your touching tribute somonka moving.

    1. Dear Jan:

      Generally speaking, tanka and haiku derived from Japanese court poetry, which was greatly shaped by the Chinese poetic tradition. According to Judith N. Rabinovitch’s "Dance of the Butterflies: Chinese Poetry from the Japanese Court Tradition," the composition of Chinese poetry (kanshi) in the Japanese court dates to the mid-seventh century. During the Heian age (794-1185), kanshi emerged as one of two preeminent poetic genres employed by aristocrats, scholar-officials, and priests… over the centuries it developed into one of Japan’s most enduring literary forms. Kanshi continued to flourish in Japan through early modern times, remaining vital down to the Taisho era (1912-1926).”

      Many thanks for your encouraging comment.

      Have a nice weekend.