Saturday, October 21, 2017

To the Lighthouse: Sensing Tanka: Perceiving Life Beyond the Ordinary

(First presented by David Terelinck at Bowerbird Tanka Group meeting #6, March 20 2011 and reprinted by kind permission of the author)

Much excellent tanka we read today is possibly perceived to be so because of how it involves the senses. People can relate to reading poems that bring to life the senses that we use on a daily basis. We respond to visual cues, auditory tugs, and the flavour of individual tanka. We listen acutely for the sound of the tanka, and the sounds within the tanka.

But as writers, when we pen tanka, do we consciously think of how we are actively bringing the senses into our poetry? Is this an automatic response; second nature to us? Or do we carefully consider the specific aspects of how we craft the words that convey each sense in our writing. Do we consciously choose the words that best convey the sense we are evoking in our writing? Are we searching for specific sensory imagery to connect with the reader and heighten the sensual awareness of our writing?

And do we consider the second and third level senses – those that we may not initially think of when someone talks of human senses? Those that are beyond the traditional five.

In considering these questions, and the importance of sensing tanka, we have to adequately understand what the senses are

Defining the Senses:

There is no firm agreement among neurologists as to the number of senses. This is due to the differing definitions of what constitutes a sense. One definition states that an exteroceptive sense is a faculty by which outside stimuli are perceived. An example of this is a sense organ such as the ear or nose that receives and responds to stimuli originating from outside the body. The limitations with this definition come when one looks further within the body on a cellular level, and how the body responds to internal stimuli (such as chemical or mechanical responses of particular organs).

Another definition categorises human senses into groups such as chemoreception, photoreception, mechanoreception and thermoception. Again, this can be seen as a self- limiting definition that is restrictive in that it does not include categories for accepted senses such as pain and sense of time.

A broadly acceptable definition of a sense would be "A system that consists of a group of sensory cell types that responds to a specific physical phenomenon, and that corresponds to a particular group of regions within the brain where the signals are received and interpreted. " Disputes about the number of senses typically arise around the classification of the various cell types and their mapping to regions of the brain.

There are between nine and twenty-one human senses, depending on who you ask, and how they define a sense. It is generally agreed that nine is the minimum. These are touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing (known as the 5 basic senses), and thermoception, nociception, equilibrioception, and proprioception.

The Basic Five Senses:


Sight or vision is the ability of the eye(s) to focus and detect images of visible light on the retina in each eye, and determine varying colors, hues, and brightness detected by each retinal receptor. There is some disagreement as to whether this constitutes one, two or three senses. Neuroanatomists generally regard it as two senses, given that different receptors are responsible for the perception of color and brightness.

    fed up with winter
    I look through a marble:
    red sunset,
    the rings of Saturn,
    bubbles under thick pack ice
                                     Ingrid Kunschke (GUSTS No. 12, 2010)

This tanka coveys the concept of the sense of sight in several ways. The author is initially looking for something brighter in her life (fed up with winter). This leads her to look into a marble. In doing so she sees worlds beyond her own that exist both inside the marble, and outside in the real world.


Hearing or audition is the sense of sound perception. Since sound is vibrations propagating through a medium such as air, the detection of these vibrations, that is the sense of the hearing, is a mechanical sense because these vibrations are mechanically conducted from the eardrum through a series of tiny bones to hair-like fibers in the inner ear which detect mechanical motion of the fibers within a range of about 20 to 20,000 hertz, with substantial variation between individuals.

    strumming on the roof
    refrains not played during drought
    am I humming
    in the identical key
    farmers will be singing?
                                     Kathy Kituai (Straggling into Winter, 2007)

In this tanka Kathy gives us a feast of sound – hum, sing, key, refrain. And the considered use of 4 ing-words gives a lyrical and musical quality to the poem that makes it sound pleasant, very much like the ping of rain on a galvanized roof.

    for three dawns
    the faint call of tundra swans
    through a drifting mist –
    once more I replay your
    last message on my machine
                                     Linda Jeannette Ward (Scent of Jasmine and Brine, 2007)

In this tanka Jeanette presents two sounds that are both opposed and linked. Opposed in that one sound is alive and animated (the tundra swans call), and the other is mechanised (a voice recording on an answering machine). Yet at the same time these sounds are linked by their haunting quality, and the inability to see or pin down the instigator of the sound.


Taste or gustation is one of the two main "chemical" senses. There are at least four types of tastes that "buds" (receptors) on the tongue detect, and hence there are anatomists who argue that these constitute five or more different senses, given that each receptor conveys information to a slightly different region of the brain.

The four well-known receptors detect sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, although the receptors for sweet and bitter have not been conclusively identified. A fifth receptor, for a sensation called umami, was first theorised in 1908 and its existence confirmed in 2000. The umami receptor detects the amino acid glutamate, a neurotransmitter commonly found in meat and in artificial flavourings containing monosodium glutamate. Another taste sense for ginger, mild chilli, and olive oil is perceived as a peppery tickle at the back of the throat (which senses polyphenols in unprocessed olive oil).

Note: that taste is not the same as flavour; flavour includes the smell of a food as well as its taste.

    into my mouth
    the ruby glow
    of raspberries . . .
    the taste of Valentines
    he picked for me
                                     Linda Jeannette Ward (Scent of Jasmine and Brine, 2007)

    we don’t need the Amaretto
    your mouth
    hint of smoke
    yet sweet as the water
    of mountain rivers
                                     Claudia Coutu Radmore (Your Hands Discover Me, 2010)

LJW has effectively used the words ruby glow to add an extra dimension to the taste of raspberries. On their own, the reader would arrive at the standard taste expectation. However, the use of ruby glow elevates the taste to something beyond the ordinary.

CCR has succinctly and effectively described the taste of Amaretto in terms that would leave no reader unsure, even if they had never imbibed of it, of its unique taste.


Smell or olfaction is the other "chemical" sense. Unlike taste, there are hundreds of olfactory receptors, each binding to a particular molecular feature. Odor molecules possess a variety of features and thus excite specific receptors more or less strongly. This combination of excitatory signals from different receptors makes up what we perceive as the molecule's smell. In the brain, olfaction is processed by the olfactory system. Olfactory receptor neurons in the nose differ from most other neurons in that they die and regenerate on a regular basis. The inability to smell is called anosmia. Some neurons in the nose are specialized to detect pheromones.

    autumn rain
    the coat I haven’t
    worn in
    over a year
    still smells of her
                                     Dick Whyte (Twenty Years Tanka Splendor, 2009)

    you gaze at blooms
    of black-boughed cherry trees
    I am entranced
    by the smoke of cooking-fires
    drifting up through sturdy pines
                                     Beverley George (Empty Garden, 2006)

Dick Whyte’s tanka speaks of smells from the past, from memory. Yet there are smells of the present-day in this – the autumn rain, and a coat that is likely infused with its own slightly musty smell from not being used. The suggestion of these scents adds a deeper level of meaning to this tanka.

Beverley George’s poem is highly suggestive of smell without the direct mention of specific scents. But anyone who has sat around an outdoor campfire used for cooking would easily recall the scents this evokes. Similarly the smell of sap and bark from towering pines.

    the scent
    of frankincense and myrrh –
    you would have liked
    the highly polished timber
    and admired the workmanship
                                     David Terelinck

The very specific use of scent in this poem is used to effectively anchor this tanka in place and setting.


Touch, also called tactition or mechanoreception, is a perception resulting from activation of neural receptors, generally in the skin including hair follicles, but also in the tongue, throat, and mucosa. A variety of pressure receptors respond to variations in pressure (firm, brushing, sustained, etc.). The touch sense of itching caused by insect bites or allergies involves special itch-specific neurons in the skin and spinal cord. The loss or impairment of the ability to feel anything touched is called tactile anesthesia. Paresthesia is a sensation of tingling, pricking, or numbness of the skin that may result from nerve damage and may be permanent or temporary.

    it hasn’t stopped
    where your hands
    slid all over me
    a deep humming
    like the aftersound of bells
                                     Linda Jeannette Ward (Scent of Jasmine and Brine, 2007)

LJW expertly manages to weave two senses, rich with meaning, into the one tanka. However, neither overpowers the other. Each complements and elevates to raise the sensual awareness of the entire poem.

    day in the garden
    two under the same shower
    we slide into bed
    nothing between us
    but the outstretched cat
                                     Beverley George (Empty Garden, 2006)

Beverley George says so much about touch through alluding to it, but never mentioning it directly. It is this absence of specific words that ensures the sensation of touch is heightened. The first line suggests that the gardeners, through a whole day outside, have been exposed to the touch of sunlight, perhaps wind or breeze, the feeling of their hands in soil. In the shower they have the sensation of water cascading over their naked bodies before sliding between crisp linen that rides over their skin.

Sensing Beyond the Ordinary – senses beyond the traditional 5.

Balance and acceleration

Equilibrioception, or balance (vestibular sense), is the sense which allows an organism to sense body movement, direction, and acceleration, and to attain and maintain postural equilibrium and balance. The organ of equilibrioception is the vestibular labyrinthine system found in both of the inner ears. Technically this organ is responsible for two senses of angular momentum acceleration and linear acceleration (which also senses gravity), but they are known together as equilibrioception.

This is the sense we need to master as babies and children, in order to walk, and the one that can be severely disabled as adults following physiological injuries such as strokes and other brain trauma.

The following poem encapsulates this sense to perfection. John Quinnett has managed to capture the essence of balance, and the failure of it, very succinctly in these 5 lines:

    watching a toddler
    take his first
    teetering steps –
    that’s how I walked
    after my stroke
                                     John Quinnett (GUSTS No.12, 2010)

    trying to perch
    on the swaying flower
    of a waterweed
    in the middle of a brook
    a butterfly dallies
                                     Mori Õgai (Modern Japanese Tanka, 1996)

Mori Õgai has layered this tanka with the sense of balance. The specific use of perch and swaying give a vivid sensation of balance amongst movement. And waterweed suggests movement and flow, further adding to the richness of this poem.


Thermoception is the sense of heat and the absence of heat (cold) by the skin. There are specialized receptors for cold (declining temperature) and to heat. The cold receptors play an important part in the dogs sense of smell and for telling wind direction. The heat receptors are sensitive to infrared radiation and can occur in specialized organs for instance in pit vipers. The thermoceptors in the skin are quite different from the homeostatic thermoceptors in the brain (hypothalamus) which provide feedback on internal body temperature.

    August with the warmth
    of a Queensland holiday
    in bare feet and wet hair
    I boldly throw off the fleece
    of a Sydney winter
                                     Margaret Ruckert (Eucalypt 9, 2010)

    crossing the bridge
    across the border
    the fire in us
    could have melted
    this steel
                                     Claudia Coutu Radmore (Your Hands Discover Me, 2010)

There is little doubt that these two tanka convey the sense of warmth. The sense of warmth in Margaret Ruckert’s poem is further emphasised with the description of throwing off the cold of a Sydney winter.

Claudia’s tanka turns up the heat to fever pitch and displays, in unmistakable terms, a boiling passion that very little can withstand.


When we touch, we touch to determine shape, texture, feel, warmth, size. We do not touch to determine if there is pain. But pain is a sensation – just like our 5 primary senses of touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing.

Nociception (physiological pain) signals near-damage or damage to tissue. The three types of pain receptors are cutaneous (skin), somatic (joints and bones) and visceral (body organs). It was previously believed that pain was simply the overloading of pressure receptors, but research in the first half of the 20th century indicated that pain is a distinct phenomenon that intertwines with all of the other senses, including touch. Pain was once considered an entirely subjective experience, but recent studies show that pain is physiologically registered in the brain. The main function of pain is to warn us about dangers. For example, we avoid touching a sharp needle or hot object or extending an arm beyond a safe limit because it hurts, and thus is dangerous. Without pain we would do many dangerous things without realizing it. Similarly, emotional pain (although not truly a sense) has the same warning capabilities

    rose arbour –
    sipping perfumed tea
    we avoid the barbs
    that drew blood
    last time we parted
                                     Beverley George (Empty Garden, 2006)

    almost invisible
    on the tip of my finger
    a blue scar
    painfully absorbing
    the glare of summer
                                     Kitahar Hakush? (Modern Japanese Tanka, 1996)

    my blood
    crusts to ochre
    on the page
    your words sharper
    than any paper cut
                                     David Terelinck (Eucalypt 5, 2008)

All of these tanka contain elements that deal with physical pain – thorny barbs from the garden, scars from physical wounds, and paper cuts. And on a deeper level, two of the tanka also relate that physical pain at an emotional level as well – word that cut and cause pain.


Magnetoception (or magnetoreception) is the ability to detect the direction one is facing based on the Earth's magnetic field. Directional awareness is most commonly observed in birds, though it is also present to a limited extent in humans. It has also been observed in insects such as bees. Although there is no dispute that this sense exists in many avians (it is essential to the navigational abilities of migratory birds), it is not a well-understood phenomenon. One study has found that cattle make use of magnetoception, as they tend to align themselves in a north-south direction. Magnetotactic bacteria build miniature magnets inside themselves and use them to determine their orientation relative to the Earth's magnetic field.

    the coloured leaves
    have hidden the paths
    on the Autumn mountain
    how can I find my girl,
    wandering on ways I do not know?
                                     Kakinomoto No Hitomaro (tr. Kenneth Rexroth, Written on the Sky, 2009)

    there was a way to the moon
    by a hidden path
    I failed to blaze as a child
    never dreaming
    this need to find it again
                                     Linda Jeannette Ward (Scent of Jasmine and Brine, 2007)


Some people experience a phenomenon called synesthesia in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another. For example, the hearing of a sound may result in the sensation of the visualization of a color, a shape may be sensed as a smell, a colour experienced as a taste, or a sound experienced as a taste. Synesthesia is hereditary and it is estimated that it occurs in 1 out of 1000 individuals with variations of type and intensity. The most common forms of synesthesia link numbers or letters with colors.

    after your goodbye kiss
    the taste
    of chewed-up blues
    played late in the night
    on a saxophone
                                     Linda Jeannette Ward (Scent of Jasmine and Brine, 2007)

    my brush
    is led by clarinets
    and violins . . .
    I’ll paint
    until the music stops
                                     Edith Bartholomeusz (Into the Sun: Selected Haiku and Tanka, 2009)

These two tanka capture the essence of interpreting one sense through another. LJW draws out the taste of music through the touch of lip upon lip. EB manages to convey to notion that colour and shape on canvas is interpreted through music. Both are fine examples of using the sense of synesthesia in tanka.

Time Perception

This refers to the sense of time passing in an individual. It differs from other senses, by virtue of having no clear raw input, such as photons in the case of visual perception or sound waves in the case of hearing. Since time cannot be directly perceived it must be reconstructed by the brain. Humans can perceive relatively short periods of time on the order of milliseconds, or durations which are a significant fraction of a person's lifetime. It is a field of study within psychology and neuroscience.

Although the sense of time is not associated with a specific sensory system, the work of psychologists and neuroscientists indicates that human brains do have a system governing the perception of time. This is a highly distributed system including the cerebral cortex, cerebellum and basal ganglia as its components. One particular component, the suprachiasmatic nuclei, is responsible for the circadian (or daily) rhythm, while other cell clusters appear to be capable of shorter-range (ultradian) timekeeping. The sense of time is altered in some people with neurological diseases such as Parkinson's disease and attention deficit disorder.

Human perception of duration is subjective and variable. For example, time may appear to slow or drag as one eagerly anticipates the arrival of a specific event. A school day may seem endless for a student who is waiting for the bell indicating that school is finished for the day. The traditional proverb describing this effect is "a watched pot never boils".

    and when
    the sand runs out?
    the stillness
    of the hourglass
    and I are one?
                                     Denis M Garrison (Ash Moon Anthology, 2008)

    magpies at dawn . . .
    from across the dateline
    our son
    answers my call
    direct from yesterday
                                     Rodney Williams (Eucalypt 9, 2010)

    I resent
    putting the clocks ahead
    your colour
    so much worse . . .
    every hour is precious
                                     David Terelinck (Ribbons 6:3, 2010)

    dusk settles
    on your twilight existence
    you have forgotten
    that I have ever been
                                     David Terelinck (The Tanka Journal [Japan], No 35, 2009)

All of the tanka above address the sense of time – whether it is passing too quickly, standing still, forgotten, or in limbo between world time zones.


There is no doubt that the use of senses within tanka makes it more accessible and personal to the reader. It gives us a basis for understanding and interpreting what we relate to, and are influenced by, on a daily basis. But the senses in tanka also extend beyond the traditional five to open up a whole new world of writing based on the human experience. By thinking consciously of the other senses as we write tanka, we may be able to heighten the perception of these with specific imagery. This can then allow them to convey the richness of what the writer, and reader, may not have previously considered a human sense.

    1. Experiment with writing a tanka that invokes one of the 6 non-traditional senses mentioned above.

    2. Experiment with writing a tanka that involves one traditional and one non-traditional sense discussed above.

    3. When you are reading tanka in the future, look and listen specifically for the use of senses within the tanka. Consider what makes them work effectively and brings them to life in the writing.

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