A poetry community cannot find its own voice until it expresses itself, not only in a body of creative works but also in a body of critical works.
-- Chen-ou Liu paraphrasing Luke Gibsons
I just read tanka appraisal reports by Bowerbird members, who meet twice a year at Wirraminna, Pearl Beach, the home of Eucalypt, and was impressed by these Australian poets' efforts to foster the development of tanka and enrich our understanding of tanka aesthetics. Compared with the tanka reviews published in ELT journals, most Bowerbird appraisals put special emphasis on the technical side of poetry analysis, and some of them are even line-by-line textual analyses.
Below are highlights from these appraisal reports:
in the cellar
an unopened jar
of sourwood honey --
only the bees knew
he had a sweet side
Appraisal by David Terelinck:
The alliteration of the s-sound can almost be construed as the soft buzz of bees hard at work making honey....
Seasonal polarity is offered in cellar and unopened juxtaposed with honey and bees.
like tangled fish hooks
to pick up only one
without all the others
Appraisal by Carmel Summers:
... this tanka has layers of suggestion, evoking layers of response.
At the first layer, this is a visual tanka – you can SEE the tangled snarl of fish hooks and, like that old game of fiddle sticks, it would be almost impossible to gently extract one fish hook without disturbing the others. As a simile for memories it works well, you can imagine fishing in the storehouse of your mind to find a particular memory and savor it, only to find a flood of other memories that you can’t stop. I’m sure that everyone has experienced that....
This is where the power of the simile works to enhance the impact of the tanka....
The next layer is going into the particular side effects this shock of memories can yield. Fish hooks are barbed, treacherous objects, designed to trap the unwary. The poet implies that memory, too, is a risky business....
Finally I looked at the particular words in this tanka. It is a deceptively simple tanka -- simple language, many of the words just one syllable. Yet every word plays an important role. The key words to me were “old”, “only” and “all”. Very simple, basic words, not particularly poetic in their own right.
an Amish woman
dressed in grey
in the vivid colours
of her prize quilt
Appraisal by Jan Foster:
On the surface, a simple tanka, traditional in shape and expression but, like all the topnotch tanka, a layering of thoughts which provide a wealth of concepts for the reader to come back to many times over. In the true tanka tradition, it begins simply, each line adding to the thought, growing to a crescendo in the final line, where the whole theme is laid before the delighted reader.
hanging from a tree
swings in spring wind . . .
the tightness around my throat
when I lie to her again
Tony A Thompson
Appraisal by M L Grace:
Here we have a juxtaposition of two images....
‘a rope hanging from a tree swings in spring wind’ . . .
An innocent Rococo image in itself, until placed in the context of the last lines, which then evoke a sinister connotation with the words hanging, swings and even spring...
In the fourth line; ‘the tightness around my throat’ with the alliteration of tightness and throat, makes sure we feel it, here the tension builds and the last line . . . ‘when I lie to her again’, that word again tells us it is not the first time.
of me and the girl --
handsome as ever
is my only son
Appraisal by M L Grace:
When layers are peeled away questions arise....
The phrase ‘handsome as ever’; does this insinuate the girl is not the perfect one?
The son centred between them as in a tug of war hints at a level of jealousy and that word ‘only’ implies to me she is not giving him up easily....
A difficult emotion to portray, presented in the visual medium of a photograph, which disguises hidden complexities.
what were they?
holds only itself
Appraisal by Sylvia Florin:
The poem is in two parts. The first part is an abstract question about an aspect of human life or of a human life. And the second part contains a single and seemingly simple image of a vase without flowers...
... a vase is a spacious and capacious vessel, and the sound of the word is similarly generous and open. It is central in the poem in both position and in meaning. It is the only positive and concrete image in the poem. Its indentation creates a vase like-shape to the poem....
The long half rhyming vowels in desires, vase and flowers make the poem quite sizeable to say and so give the poem a weight commensurate with its subject, As well they tie the lines together and are pleasing to the ear....
There is a sense of movement in the poem from busyness – the desires, the perplexity – to a peaceful stillness at its conclusion – traveling via the imagining of a vase with flowers and a vase without flowers.
I used to be …
from an immigrant’s mouth
stretches his story —
the pin-drop silence
fills an ESL classroom
(ESL stands for English as a Second Language)
Appraisal by Keitha Keyes:
This tanka really spoke to me as it reminded me of when I taught ESL to adults.
I used to be…
This is one of the saddest things you hear immigrants or refugees say. Their identity is often based in the past, left behind in their country of origin....
Sometimes when students start to share personal details it is like the opening of a flood gate of thoughts and emotions. The use of the verb stretches is very apt here....
The other students listen in silence. There is no need for a teacher to impose silence on the class. They listen out of respect for their classmate. Perhaps they have had a similar experience. The silence is absolute, captured by the poet...
At the end of the tanka we are left in our dreaming room. What was his story? What is his future? ...
The language in this tanka is simple and concise.
The punctuation when it is used is very effective.
The ellipsis at the end of the first line suggests that the student pauses before he tells his story. It also invites the reader to focus on the student. The em dash at the end of the third line shifts the perspective from the speaker to the rest of the class.
a large bruise
deep inside the mango
the way you turned away
when I needed you most
Appraisal by David Terelinck:
As a lover of the classical form, the short-long-short-long-long structure is highly appealing. There are no redundant words or phrases and the entire tanka works in harmony to create a powerful piece of writing....
Specifically it is the choice of words, construction, and powerful imagery and metaphor that make this tanka sing for me.The tanka opens, not just with a bruise, but with a large bruise. This is our first clue to significance of the theme and story behind this poem....
The poet then pivots on the unexpected to fully reveal the human element of this tanka. The large bruise, deeply hidden, is a metaphor for a loved one or close friend who has turned away.
As shown, this tanka builds, line by line to a powerful ending that carries a strong theme of loss and betrayal.