Wednesday, September 3, 2014

To the Lighthouse: "Tanka" Found in Western Tradition

To the best of my knowledge, there are no collections of "found tanka" published yet. Michael McClintock is the first tanka poet who edited an anthology of 50 tanka pulled from the English and American literary canon in poetry. Below is excerpted from his article, titled "Tanka in Western Tradition: Sneaking Tanka from the Canon," which was first published in Modern English Tanka, 2:3, Spring 2008, pp. 11-25:

Modern English tanka is not entirely without roots in its native literature. With surprising frequency, one can find the essence of tanka in the lines and longer poems of the masters. …

The poems in the following anthology are pulled from contiguous phrases within longer poems—poems that were not necessarily made better, or more poetic, or more worthwhile, because they were longer. In case after case, in fact, the part of the poem I have isolated out and labeled a “tanka artifact” is often the chief parthaving any real poetic value at all…

What you see as tanka, below, is what is there in the originals. To me, it looks like tanka, reads like tankaand is, in fact, essentially tanka. And all of it was written before tanka (or waka) as a literature of Japan was known or studied as such in the West.

In the article, McClintock doesn’t explain what a tanka form is. In my view, tanka are not just five-lined free verse poems or five-lined poems with a strict syllabic structure, such as cinquain. They are short  poems structured into two parts, between which there is a scent link, and made up of five poetic phrases (or ku in Japanese) 1.

For more information about the characteristics of found poetry, see "To the Lighthouse: 'Found Haiku,' Walden by Haiku , and for more information about tanka composition, see "Poetic Musings: Bruise Tanka by Susan Constable" and the tanka I found in the opening poem of of Power Politics by Margaret Atwood ("Poetic Musings: 'Found Tanka' by Margaret Atwood).

Selected “Found Tanka” from the Canon

Let thy west wind
sleep on the lake;
speak silence
with thy glimmering eyes,
and wash the dusk with silver

William Blake
from “To the Evening Star”

This ship
was naught to me,
nor I to her,
yet I pursued her
with a lover’s look

William Wordsworth
from “With ships the sea was sprinkled far and nigh”

A troop of laborers
comes slowly by;
one bears a daffodil,
and seems to bear a new-lit candle
through the fading light.

Lizette Woodworth Reese
from “April in Town”

a migrant bird
in passing sung,
and the girl
closed her window
not to hear.

Trumbull Stickney
from “Near Helikon”

Your voice watered
the sand dune
of my chest
inside the wondrous
phone booth made of wood.

Federico Garcia Lorca
trans. Willis Barnstone
from “The Poet Talks on the Phone with His Love” 


1 "The syllabic units of Japanese prosody are known as ku, a term traditionally translated into English as "line," I too call them lines and treat them as such, though this practice has recently been called into question, at least as it applies to tanka... There is ample evidence, however, that the Japanese have always -- or at least since the first treatments on the subject in the eighth century -- thought of the ku as meaningfully distinct units, to which different formal criteria might apply....
-- excerpted from Edwin Cranston, A Waka Anthology: Volume One, The Gem-Glistening Cup, xix

ku (prosodic unites of 5 or 7 syllables) ...
-- excerpted from Edwin Cranston, A Waka Anthology: Volume Two, Grasses of Remembrance, xxi

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