Wednesday, May 4, 2016

To the Lighthouse: Introduction to The Tanka Anthology by Michael McClintock

[Reprinted by kind permission of the author, from The Tanka Anthology, edited by Michael McClintock, Pamela Miller Ness and Jim Kacian, published by Red Moon Press]

Poetry is more than a beautiful opiate. If we seek “to get the news from poems” in that same way William Carlos Williams wrote about in his poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” we will find it here.

This is an anthology of tanka in English, compiled from collections, chapbooks, small journals, and magazines published during the past thirty years. A significant number appear here for the first time. As with most anthologies, however, more poems have been set aside than included. The selection seeks to represent each poet’s finest work and to best demonstrate the variety, strengths, and achievements of English-language tanka.

Cultural Context for Tanka in English

What today is popularly called “tanka” evolved from the waka (Japanese poetry) written by nobles and aristocrats in the Heian court centered at Kyoto during the twelfth century. Like those waka, the modern tanka in this anthology reflect the times, locales, places, societies, and lives of the people who wrote them. That essential communication is what claims our interest and attention. They are not imitation tanka but the authentic article. The poets who wrote them live in contemporary cities such as Liverpool, Los Angeles, and Toronto; in small towns and villages in Australia, Scotland, and Wales; on farms and in desert and wilderness regions of four continents. Most of the poets have been writing tanka for a decade, some for twenty years, and a few such as Sanford Goldstein for thirty years or more. Several are new arrivals. A good number have established reputations as haiku poets whose work is read throughout most of the world and appears in W. W. Norton’s third edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (1999) and other well-known anthologies.

Two great poetry anthologies compiled in the eighth century, the Kojiki (712) and the Man’yoshu (ca. 759), contain the seed and roots of tanka, and a third and later anthology, the Kokinshu (ca. 905), its first flowering. Tanka, a word that means “short poem,” is actually a relatively new term, coined in the early 1900s in Japan by waka reformers—Yosano Tekkan, Yosano Akiko, Masaoka Shiki, and others. Known as waka up until that later period, it was the foremost poetry of Japan for a thousand years and is still hugely popular.

Not surprisingly, interest in the possibilities of tanka in English grew as more and more of this literature was translated and made available in books such as Donald Keene’s famous Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century (1955), which includes selections from the Kojiki, Man’yoshu, and Kokinshu, as well as tanka from other sources. Keene’s book was widely read and is still on reading lists in colleges and universities.

Its popularity established the careers of a number of translators who contributed to it, encouraging them and others to present their work in other books to a curious, hungry public.

Japanese tanka, haiku, senryu, and other forms and genres of Asian poetry received unprecedented exposure during the 1950s and 1960s. Preceding tanka in popularity and interest during this period, haiku was first to be thoroughly quarried, assayed, and brought into English due largely to the work of Harold G. Henderson and R. H. Blyth. Henderson’s The Bamboo Broom (1934), An Introduction to Haiku (1958), and Haiku in English (1965) and Blyth’s luminescent four-volume Haiku (1949-52) provided the foundation for haiku in English. The popularity of other books, among them the Peter Pauper Press books of tanka and haiku and Kenneth Yasuda’s Japanese Haiku (1957), further accelerated early experimentation with haiku, as did poems written in the haiku manner by Jack Kerouac (later published in Scattered Poems, 1971), Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg.

Models for a viable tanka in English came a few years later. Among these, Kenneth Rexroth’s One Hundred Poems from the Japanese (1964) enjoyed popular success. Though criticized by scholars for inaccuracies and certain liberties, Rexroth’s translations read well as poems in English and seemed in tune with the new voice in poetry emerging from the San Francisco Renaissance during that time. Carl Sesar’s translation of Ishikawa Takuboku in Poems to Eat (1966), and Sanford Goldstein’s translations of Akiko Yosano in Tangled Hair (1971) and more of Takuboku in Sad Toys (1977), exerted further influence over early efforts to adapt tanka to a contemporary idiom that suspended some rules of grammar and used fragmented syntax.

English literature has always been eclectic in its forms and genres. Imitation and invention characterize a common assimilation process, providing its warp and woof. Adapting and assimilating the songs and poetic forms of other cultures and languages began early and continues into the present day. Tanka is just one of many recent arrivals.

Very few of the forms and poetic modes most used in poetry in the English-speaking world originated with the mother tongue of Chaucer. English verse assimilated its use of harmony, refrain, and fixed rhyme structure from the Italian sonnet, terza rima, and ottava rima. Minstrels and other song-makers happily added the “fixed” or prescribed verse forms of the French jongleurs and troubadours: the rondel, rondeau, triolet, villanelle, and ballade. The sagas of Scandinavia and Iceland lent their alliterative schemes to the Anglo-Saxon scop’s word-hoard and the gleeman’s recitations. The ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome left a rich legacy wherein the English poets found their fundamental models for the epic, ode, idyll, and lyric. Other poetic modes and forms, such as the epigram, elegy, epistle, monologue, soliloquy, apostrophe, and aphorism, became the-stock-in-trade of English verse. Since first translated into seventeenth century English and published in the King James Bible, the varied, strong cadences of ancient Hebrew have also profoundly influenced and helped mold English-language poetry.

With this mixed pedigree in view, tanka is neither strange nor exotic. Its adaptation and assimilation into English during the past fifty years connects and relates it to a network of various cultural streams, traditions, and poetic types, all of which contribute their texture to the English language where tanka now also makes its home. Tanka has already absorbed the traits and peculiarities of the surrounding culture—in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom especially, and at a slower pace in Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere in the English-speaking world. It will surely continue to do so, becoming different from the tanka of Japan, yet still of the same species.

For over two thousand years the chief interest of the West in the East was economic, ruled by trade. Only in the last century have those interests expanded to thoroughly embrace and encounter the arts, philosophies, religions, and literature of these regions. As new literary translations appeared, an almost religious enthusiasm overcame the old views of Eastern destinations as little more than sources for trade in exotic commodities, fabulous wealth, and profit.

Some Tanka Precursors

Eclectic patterns and processes accelerated following World War II, bringing into contemporary English-language poetry many of the popular, traditional verse forms and genres of the East. The dominance of free verse and unrhymed, unmetered forms that has characterized much of the poetry of English-speaking regions for the past hundred years helped to create a readiness to explore and adapt where possible the rich, deep, and long literary traditions of Asia. In the United States, this movement has paralleled the nation’s emergence from the insularity of its homogenous, Euro-centered, and largely rural culture. Economic trade and political and military conflict have been other factors.

There are also homegrown roots for tanka. Numerous precursors can be found in the poetry of the early twentieth century, especially in the work of the Imagists of the United States and Great Britain. The Imagists’ exaltation of a poetry that approached its subject matter directly, unencumbered by superfluous words or rigid, metronomic rhythms, finds an echo in the tanka of this anthology.

This following five-line stanza that concludes William Carlos Williams’ short “Love Song,” from his first collection Al Que Quiere! (1917), looks and feels much like today’s tanka in English:

Who shall hear of us
in the time to come?
Let him say there was
a burst of fragrance
from black branches.

The interrogative of the first two lines, the stanza’s two-part structure, the poem’s alliteration, and its vivid, single image from nature are all elements common to traditional Japanese tanka and its English cousin.

Similarly, Ezra Pound’s “April” from Personae (1926) anticipates much that is found in contemporary tanka:

Three spirits came to me
And drew me apart
To where the olive boughs
Lay stripped upon the ground:
Pale carnage beneath bright mist.

The distinctly musical cadence, simple diction, clarity, and intensity typify many of the best tanka in English. Only Pound’s accented meter and use of a title remain relatively uncommon in contemporary tanka. Japanese poetic perception and expression, studied by the Imagists, influenced this work.

Another prominent Imagist, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) occasionally used five-line stanzas in her longer poems that anticipated the irregular cadences, tone, and mood of tanka written in English many decades later. Here are stanzas of three poems in H. D.’s Heliodora and Other Poems (1924):

Keep love and he wings
with his bow,
up, mocking us,
keep love and he taunts us
and escapes.

--from “Eros, Part III”

I had thought myself frail;
a lamp,
shell, ivory or crust of pearl,
about to fall shattered,
with spent flame.

--from “Eros, Part IV”

All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
the luster as of olives
where she stands,
and the white hands.

--from “Helen”

In each of these, many features within the five-line structure that anticipate the modern English-language tanka: the asymmetry of short and long lines and, as with Pound, an irregular but distinctly musical cadence, simple diction, clarity of image, and intensity of emotion. Though born in Pennsylvania, H.D. moved to London in 1911 and became one of the Imagist circle in England that included Richard Aldington, T. E. Hulme, F. S. Flint, and Edward Storer. This group retained a fascination with Greek and Roman myth and carried over into the early twentieth century the neo-Classic preoccupations of Matthew Arnold and Algernon Swinburne.

In contrast, the American Imagists, such as Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, the early Wallace Stevens, and others, tended to look to the East for their inspirations and models. Ezra Pound straddled both interests, producing many fine translations from the Chinese while incorporating Greco-Roman themes, motifs, and figures into other work. Always restless, Pound eventually left the Imagists in quest of new adventures; the movement was fast devolving into what Pound decried as “Amygism” and no longer held his interest.

Adelaide Crapsey is often mentioned in connection to tanka in English. Many have regarded her invention of the five-line cinquain as an attempt to find a formal equivalent to the brevity and lyricism of Japanese tanka. Susan Sutton Smith’s introduction to her book The Complete Poems and Collected Letters of Adelaide Crapsey (1977) documents Crapsey’s exposure to tanka in William N. Porter’s Single Verses by a Hundred People (1909), a translation of the Hyaku-ninisshu, a collection of waka compiled in the thirteenth century by Sadaiye Fujiwara. Sutton also shows that Crapsey evidently studied Michel Revon’s Anthologie de la Littérature Japonaise des Origines un XXe Siecle (1910), and Yone Noguchi’s From the Eastern Sea (1910), containing original poems and translations from the Japanese. It is equally clear from Sutton’s book, however, that Crapsey was in fact much more interested in the meters and syllabary of Paradise Lost, the longer poems of Tennyson, and nursery rhymes; she wanted to discover the shortest possible form of metrical English verse. Tanka happened to be a rather small digression in the course of Crapsey’s efforts. The cinquain she created in her small but remarkable body of about thirty poems was uniquely her own. Here is an example:


I know
Not these my hands
And yet I think there was
A woman like me once had hands
Like these.

 The notion that Crapsey’s cinquain is a purely syllabic verse form persists to this day. In fact, the Crapseian cinquain is rigidly accentual-syllabic, the five lines having a stress pattern of 1, 2, 3, 4, and 1 in a pattern of 2, 4, 6, 8, and 2 syllables, the iambic foot being the key. Crapsey’s poems appeared posthumously in Verse (1915), a small collection that made her reputation. That same year, Sadakichi Hartmann, who was something of a frenetic character in orbit around various East Coast literary scenes in the United States, saw his chapbook Tanka and Haikai: 14 Japanese Rhythms (1915) published by Guido Bruno in New York. During the past thirty years, few poets writing tanka in English have shown much interest in using comparable schemes for accented meter in their verse; clearly, however, Crapsey’s cinquain suggests the value that such an approach could have and a direction the tanka might one day take. Interestingly, a significant number of the contributors to Amaze: The Cinquain Journal, edited and published on the Web and as a print journal in California by Deborah P. Kolodji, are well-known English-language tanka and haiku poets.

Meanwhile, at the end of the nineteenth century in Japan, work was underway to reform and revitalize the Japanese waka. Various groups emerged to challenge the standard poetic diction and strict adherence to conventions that had been enforced by critics for centuries. One such group was the Shasei (“sketch from life”) Movement, inspired by Masaoka Shiki’s call for tanka reform and the examples of his own verse. Up to the time of his death in 1902 from tuberculosis, Shiki as poet and critic had been busy tossing out tradition-clad styles and language in favor of more contemporary idiom and subject matter. He accomplished the same thing with haiku. Janine Beichman’s study, Masaoka Shiki: His Life and Works (1982), is an especially worthwhile account of Shiki’s work at bringing the revered but toothless tanka and haiku into the modern world. Tanka had stagnated badly during the Medieval (1186-1587) and Tokugawa (1603-1867) periods, as had haiku in the long years following the deaths of Basho, Buson, Issa, and members of their immediate circles. Makoto Ueda’s Modern Japanese Tanka: An Anthology (1996) offers a broader discussion and survey of the Meiji (1868-1912) and Showa (1926-1989) periods’ leading tanka poets, detailing their feverish efforts to resolve the clash of old and new values and to incorporate into their tanka both influences from the West and a revised assessment of tanka tradition.

Even though tanka clearly had a formative influence on the Imagists, as did haiku, as poetic form and genre in its own right tanka was left unexplored and largely unknown until the Beat revolution and renaissance centered in San Francisco and New York City in the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to the titles already mentioned relating specifically to tanka and haiku, a number of other early books on Asian thought and religion helped to pave the way for a renewed, more vigorous, and lasting interest. Important among these are Alan Watts’ The Spirit of Zen (1935), Witter Bynner’s The Way of Life According to Lao-tzu: An American Version (1944), and the numerous books by D. T. Suzuki, Lin Yutang, and others. The popularity of these and similar books created receptive audiences not just for the new luminaries of literature and the Beat Generation but also for the serious exploration and assimilation of haiku, tanka, and other forms and genres. 

Emerging Infrastructure for Tanka in English

While haiku grew popular in the 1960s and 1970s, tanka in English hesitated. In his instant classic The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku (1985), the meticulous critic, researcher, and translator of haiku, William J. Higginson, devoted a number of pages to a discussion of tanka. For this period, he cites only three original tanka collections in Western languages: Jorge Luis Borges’ The Gold of the Tigers (1977), Sanford Goldstein’s Gaijin Aesthetics (1974), and Michael McClintock’s Man With No Face (1974). The shortness of the list was astonishing. A year after Higginson’s book, a few early tanka appeared in Simon and Schuster’s second edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (1986). In Japan at thistime, Machi Tawara’s first tanka collection Sarada Konembi (Salad Anniversary, trans. by Jack Stamm, 1988) was selling millions of copies.

There were at least two reasons for tanka’s laggardly pace. One was its lack of visible, effective champions. Lucille M. Nixon was one of the exceptions; until her death in 1963, she avidly promoted tanka to poetry groups and in the small presses throughout the United States. With Tomoe Tana, Nixon also translated Sounds from the Unknown: A Collection of Japanese-American Tanka (1963), published by small but prestigious A. Swallow in Denver. The book is a valuable record of work by tanka poets who were virtually unknown outside the Japanese-American community. Another exception has been Benedictine Father Neal Henry Lawrence, who began lecturing about tanka throughout the United States and Japan in the 1960s.

The second and most obvious reason for tanka’s slower steps relative to English haiku was the paucity of places where tanka could be published. This situation began slowly to change. One of the earliest publications to regularly welcome tanka in its pages was the curiously titled Janus & SCTH. It was a tiny journal edited and assembled by Foster Jewell and his wife Rhoda de Long Jewell in Sangre de Cristo, New Mexico. Janus & SCTH mixed sonnet, cinquain, tanka, and haiku into a pleasing format. It flourished through most of the 1960s and into the early 1970s. Regular contributors of tanka included Ruby L. Choy, Eve Smith, William E. Lee, Jean Saucer, and a tankaist from Israel, Walter M. Barzelay. Jewell himself preferred to make his reputation in haiku, writing many memorable poems that strongly evoked the subtle moods and spaces of New Mexico’s deserts and mountains. Many poets still writing today found their first
exposure to tanka in Janus & SCTH’s pages.

Elsewhere, tanka in English began to appear in other small poetry journals of the day. They were usually titled, or simply labeled “tanka,” and printed in the odd, otherwise unfilled space an editor might find available on a page. Most of the work was undistinguished, usually imitative, and now and then plain silly.

Magazines that regularly devoted space to tanka were rare. The main haiku magazines, such as Modern Haiku, Frogpond, and Dragonfly, did not publish tanka. Tanka only occasionally appeared in Haiku Magazine under William J. Higginson, who had taken it over from Eric Amann in Canada and moved it to New Jersey in 1971.

The tempo began to pick up during the late 1980s. Don Wentworth’s Lilliput Review began publishing short poems of all types in 1989. It has always been friendly toward tanka, especially through the later 1990s, publishing them alongside short poems in other styles by Cid Corman, Albert Huffstickler, Lyn Lifshin, Alan Catlin, and numerous other well-known, prolific poets. Published in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Lilliput Review still thrives. Hummingbird: Magazine of the Short Poem, published quarterly by Phyllis Walsh in Richland Center, Wisconsin, reflects a philosophy similar to the Lilliput Review, and carries tanka in every issue.

Another important development for tanka in English, also starting up at the end of the 1980s, was Jane Reichhold’s Aha! Books and the magazine Mirrors, in Gualala, California. Mirrors was mostly a haiku magazine, but almost immediately began to sponsor the annual Mirrors International Tanka Awards. Both ventures generated considerable energy and brought English-language tanka poets into contact with tanka poets throughout the world. The momentum created by these efforts was encouraging; Reichhold began a new and expanded magazine in 1995, Lynx, and the well-known Tanka Splendor Awards. Both continue to this day, though in 1999 Lynx ceased its print publication to become a Web magazine, regularly publishing tanka among a variety of other genres and forms.

Elsewhere on the west coast, also in 1989, the Haiku Poets of Northern California group launched its quarterly magazine Woodnotes. Until the mid-1990s, most of the magazine’s space was devoted to haiku and senryu; tanka began to appear more frequently in its later years, or from about 1994 to its last issue in 1997. Various editors were involved in the magazine’s history. For a time, Christopher Herold and Michael Dylan Welch served as joint-editors; Ebba Story and Kenneth Tanemura served as associate editors at different periods, and Pat Shelley was the magazine’s tanka editor during its last year or two of publication. Though Woodnotes had a regional flavor, centered in San Francisco, it was read and widely distributed throughout the United States.

The 1990s saw still more magazines and journals open their pages to tanka. Brian Tasker edited and published Bare Bones for a number of years in the United Kingdom. Also in Britain, ai li began publication of Still in 1997. Still presented tanka, haiku, and other short poetry in an attractive one-poem-per-page, perfect-bound format between beautiful, full-color covers featuring ai li’s own photography. The tanka and haiku between the covers were consistently among the most interesting and innovative anywhere. Still ceased publication in 2001, after five years.

Another British newcomer in the 1990s is Snapshot Press, an independent poetry publisher specializing in English-language tanka and haiku books and journals. Snapshot publishes the tanka journal Tangled Hair, edited by John Barlow, and sponsors in alternating years annual book competitions for unpublished collections of tanka and haiku. The prize-winning collections are published in attractive, perfect-bound editions and distributed worldwide. Upon its launch in 1999, Tangled Hair was, and still is, the only non-American journal dedicated solely to tanka in English. Tanka are presented one per page in a perfect-bound, pocketsize format with full-color cover.

Meanwhile, Sanford Goldstein and Kenneth Tanemura published several issues of their brief venture, Five Lines Down (1994-1996), and Raw Nervz, edited by Dorothy Howard, became Canada’s leading publication for haiku, tanka, and related poetry and prose. It continues to specialize in poems that regularly test the boundaries of the tanka and other genres.

In the United States, Laura Maffei founded and began editing American Tanka in 1996. This was a watershed event. Published twice a year in a perfect-bound edition of more than a hundred pages, with one tanka per page, American Tanka quickly became the world’s premiere journal for original English-language tanka. With its appearance, tanka in English at last had a publication where the focus was undividedly on tanka, carefully selected, handsomely printed, and regularly issued.

Back on the west coast of the United States, the last issue of Woodnotes carried Welch’s announcement of his new venture, Tundra: The Journal of the Short Poem. From its inception in 1997 to 2003, Tundra appeared twice. Handsomely produced and presented, Tundra offered a wide-ranging blend of tanka, haiku, and senryu with other short poems, including free verse, cinquain, clerihews and limericks. Also following the demise of Woodnotes, the Haiku Poets of Northern California began regular publication of a new membership journal, Mariposa. Appearing biannually, Mariposa features tanka along with haiku, senryu, and related forms, and is edited by Claire Gallagher and Carolyn Hall.

While Modern Haiku and Frogpond continue their policy of excluding tanka, the British haiku journals, Presence, edited by Martin Lucas, and Blithe Spirit: The Journal of the British Haiku Society, now regularly carry English-language tanka in their pages.

Capping a busy decade, in April of 2000 a group of like-minded people met in Decatur, Illinois to discuss the need for a broad based organization devoted to tanka. Formation of the Tanka Society of America was the result. The TSA began publishing a quarterly newsletter that same year under the editorship of Pamela Miller Ness. Michael Dylan Welch served as the organization’s first president. Both the organization and its newsletter continue to grow, providing a much-needed nexus for tanka study, discussion, and information. The TSA Newsletter regularly publishes essays, articles, translations, reviews, and other information relating to both Japanese and English-language tanka. One of its columns, “Tanka Café,” regularly discusses and highlights new tanka by TSA members. Yet an additional activity is the annual TSA International Tanka Contest, conducted each April.

A list of magazines and journals publishing tanka in English follows this introduction. Considering that the December 2, 2002 issue of The New Yorker published a tanka by well-known poet Richard Wilbur (and labeled it simply “Tanka”) the list is by no means exhaustive. Tanka now appear frequently in dozens of poetry magazines and other periodicals, large and small, throughout the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. Indeed, outside of Japan, tanka are nowhere more robust and popular today than in the English-speaking world.

Notes on Form, Techniques, and Subject Matter

In form, techniques, and subject matter, the modern English-language tanka shows wide variation and invention, and appears disinclined to observe any rigid set of “rules” or conventions.

As might be expected in the early stages of adaptation, English-language tanka poets first imitated the Japanese models and strictly adhered to a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure and pattern of short/long/short/long/long lines deduced from them. Generally, this resulted in poems that were too long in comparison to Japanese tanka or that were padded or chopped to meet the fixed number of syllables. Over time, most tanka poets set aside the 5-7-5-7-7 requirement and explored a more resilient free-verse approach, grappling along the way with the issues of using or not using rhyme, titles, and alternate lineation schemes. The work of the leading translators was assiduously studied. Most of these, such as Makoto Ueda, Stephen D. Carter, Sanford Goldstein, and Laurel Rasplica Rodd rendered their translations in five lines. There were other approaches, however. H. H. Honda advocated the use of the quatrain for tanka; Kenneth Rexroth occasionally used a four-line structure in his renderings of Japanese tanka. Hiroaki Sato continues to favor the one-line format for his translations.

While poets continue to experiment, the contemporary tanka in English may be described as typically an untitled free-verse short poem having anywhere from about twelve to thirty-one syllables arranged in words and phrases over five lines, crafted to stand alone as a unitary, aesthetic whole—a complete poem. Excepting those written in a minimalist style, a tanka is about two breaths in length when read aloud. During the last thirty years, it has emerged as a robust short form that is identifiable as a distinct verse type while being extremely variable in its details. 

Other structural features and many of the techniques and subjects of English-language tanka are represented in the examples discussed below.

For every tanka set aside here for scrutiny, ten others might have been chosen to serve the same purpose. Within the five lines, all manner of variation takes place. None of these configurations is rigidly observed; the name I have used for each is meant only to describe the structure and lineation.

Few tanka poets write consistently in a single, unvaried pattern of line arrangement. The alternation of short and long lines frequently varies. While the majority of tanka in English appear with a left-aligned or “flush left” margin, many poets employ indentations, staggered lines, and other spacing variations. These arrangements emphasize certain lines, phrases, or single words, or give the poem a sense of movement or shape on the page that is intended to enhance the meaning, tone, or emotion evoked. A few variations appear simply to be matters of the poet’s (or editor’s) own taste, or purely cosmetic, such as the centering of lines the example below:

[Centered, 5-7-5-7-7 formal pattern]

Just out of earshot,
the periodic blinking
of a night airplane,
not quite far enough away
to be as close as the stars

--Gerald St. Maur

Other fundamental elements of structure are also at work, creating tension and interplay of form with content. These have to do with cadence, rhythm, accents, or stresses, the use of end-stopped lines or rhetorical line breaks, caesuras within lines and phrases, enjambment, juxtaposition of images, or a pairing of distinct strophe-antistrophe components within the poem. These elements—not the number of syllables in a line—are  the decisive elements in tanka structure as written in English. In contrast to Japanese tanka, which mostly use a fixed, prescribed form with a long history of formal conventions relating to mechanics, techniques, and subject matter, tanka in English have relatively few such constraints or requirements in pattern or organization. In English-language tanka, we find intuitive, functional, and organic approaches to form and content that result in a complex but necessary interrelationship of parts; no bodies of “rules” need to be followed to achieve the desired effect of the whole. While informal syntax and the patterns and vocabulary of common speech predominate, these very broad commonalities display remarkable, polychromatic diversity in tone, mood, and expression.  

As with many tanka in this set of examples, this poem by Ruby Spriggs reflects traditional tanka subject matter, involving topics of love, sorrow, personal remembrance or introspection, or nature:

[Conventional flush left, 5-7-5-7-7 formal pattern]

a sudden loud noise
all the pigeons of Venice
at once fill  the sky
that is how it felt when your hand
accidentally touched mine

--Ruby Spriggs

Often, tanka read like notes from a diary and convey a single event that has some special significance in the poet’s life or consciousness—a realization, personal insight, or memory. Spriggs’s poem also shows how the basic structural features of Japanese tanka have been adapted. The pattern of short/long/short/long/long lines is intact, and the use of thirty-one syllables in five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 parallels the pattern of thirty-one sound units of Japanese tanka. This is one of the formal patterns tried by many poets for English-language tanka during the early days of experimentation and adaptation; some still use it today, and in the literature it is frequently referred to as “traditional.” It results in a poem that is, however, almost twice as long in time duration as a Japanese tanka, with a good deal more information.

 “Venice” won first prize in the traditional category in the First North American Tanka Contest held in 2001. The judge, Professor Jan Walls, author and oriental scholar at Simon Fraser University, commented on how the poem “takes the familiar touristic image of startled pigeons simultaneously taking flight, and unexpectedly relates the cause/effect sequence to a personal romantic incident. The imagery is fresh and startling; the content is powerfully meaningful . . . at the personal level; and the craft is exquisite—it reads like a tanka, but will be immediately appreciated by any English reader who may know nothing about tanka.”

Here, Margaret Chula also uses the 5-7-5-7-7 formal pattern:

 the black negligee
 that I bought for your return
 hangs in my closet
 day by day plums ripen
 and are picked clean by birds

--Margaret Chula

Both poems are dramatic and anecdotal, telling a story in few words but with intensity and conviction. However, here indentation is used to emphasize the poem’s two component movements. Rather than a personal comment or reflection, Margaret Chula’s final two lines offer a stark “objective correlative” to the image and mood of the preceding three lines, encapsulating the poet’s thoughts in implicit metaphor. The juxtaposition is surprising, and the despairing realization is made even more powerful by not being named—the bleak image of the ripened plums “picked clean by birds” says it all. Unlike the Spriggs poem, the two images here are not directly compared but set in sharp contrast. The effect approaches, but is not quite, surreal.

William Ramsey’s tanka  illustrates a reversal in the basic two-component structure, the couplet element coming first and bearing the poem’s single image:

a gnat’s smudge
on my forearm—
the smallest death
i have known this year
but typical

--William Ramsey

 The poet’s response in the final three lines is made more acerbic by “falling back” to a short, concluding line.

 Consider also the movement Geraldine Clinton Little’s poem:

  ah, summer, summer,
  how quickly you fade. I cut
          rusted zinnias,
  place them on a glassed table-
  top, as if time could double.

Also a poem of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, this tanka is more complicated, having three parts and given momentum by the use of enjambment: “ah summer, summer / how quickly you fade” functions as the strophe, “I cut / rusted zinnias, / place them on a table- / top,” is the antistrophe, and the poem’s sliding to a rest on “as if time could double” functions as a kind of epode. The enjambed strophes and abrupt shifts generate tension and underscore the poet’s wistful contemplation of time’s evanescence. The reflected double-image of the zinnias on the glass tabletop is an especially powerful image, again showing the use of an objective correlative to convey both idea and emotion while preserving aesthetic distance.

Carol Purington’s poem, below, is distinctly lyrical.

The days I did not sing
              the nights I did not dance
                     their joy
                        spiraling out of the throat
                              of a hermit thrush

The parallel construction of the opening two lines is that of a song. The strong accents on the final words in each line move the poem forward with a sense of “lifting.” The poem’s progression from the general “The days I did not sing” to the specific and beautiful “throat of a hermit thrush” is lilting—almost like a bird in flight. The staggered line arrangement visually assists this sense of movement. If its lines were all aligned left, how different this poem would read!

In this poem by Gerald St. Maur, the first three lines could stand alone as a haiku, a feature that may be found in many contemporary English tanka:

Just out of earshot,
the periodic blinking
of a night airplane,
not quite far enough away
to be as close as the stars

Such tanka combine the objective imagery of a haiku with a subjective response or personal reflection in the poem’s concluding lines; the order can also be reversed. It is the subjective element in a tanka that chiefly distinguishes it from most haiku, in addition to its greater length. Here, the concluding two-line component is a simple, personal reflection or response to the initial image, placing the silent aircraft in the context of a starry sky.  The twist in sense here—that the aircraft is the more remote, alien object—gives a postmodern slant to the traditional tanka theme of loneliness.   

A feature of many tanka in English is the employment of one of several conceptually related devices or methods that are used to change the direction of the tanka between the first and second components. This transition is often called the “pivot.” Sometimes it is achieved simply by juxtaposing two images, or an image and a response, or by the movement from strophe to antistrophe. At other times the pivot functions like the volta, or turn, in a sonnet, where the sense of the poem is momentarily suspended and a new idea introduced—this is what occurs in the line “their joy” in Carol Purington’s poem, and in the line “not quite far enough away” in Gerald St. Maur’s tanka. Ruby Spriggs accomplishes her pivot with a hemistich or half line: “that is how I felt . . .” Sometimes, too, the pivot in a tanka is achieved by a line that completes the thought or image of the first component, or strophe, and can be read also as the first line of the second component, or antistrophe. In other words, the sense of the line is shared by both components, but changes in meaning or significance from one to the other. The term for this technique is “zeugma.” Francine Porad is especially adept in using pivots of this kind. Here is an example, in which “as the train passes” is the shared line:

a woman
holds the waving child high
as the train passes
where . . . when . . .
did summer disappear

In such tanka, the strophe and antistrophe are the key units of composition. Some critics appear to think that the presence of a pivot in tanka is essential, taking the Duke Ellington view of rhythm and jazz: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Must all tanka have such a pivot point?  Most tanka in English seem to, though it frequently can be so subtle as to go unnoticed. At other times, the pivot is emphatic and surprising.  There is, in fact, no requirement for the use of this technique, in English-language or Japanese practice. Its absence does not mean the poem is not a tanka.

 Robert Kusch writes a tanka in a more minimalist style:

  Lightning on
  the horizon
  my child
  takes a huge
  bite from a pear

Kusch uses a syntactic pivot: two images are simply juxtaposed, or abutted, without transition or even punctuation. No subjective element or stated interpretation appears; we assume only a temporal contiguity between the two images. The immediacy and effect are very haiku-like and defy paraphrase or elaboration. Such force holds the combined images together so that they fuse into a third image that is stunning, magical, wordless, yet utterly mysterious in meaning or significance. The Japanese have a word for it, yugen, meaning sublimity, or mysterious depth.

Another minimalist poem is LeRoy Gorman’s droll “at the funeral”, a mere fourteen syllables:

at the funeral of
one who said
God is dead
God is

 The structure is Skeltonic, tumbling from six syllables to one, ending emphatically on the word “dead.” It is a one breath in length, like a haiku, a trait shared by most minimalist tanka. Unlike haiku, it contains no image. For these reasons, and because of its content, some might argue that the poem is more akin to senryu, haiku’s satirical cousin. Many minimalist tanka present this same quandary of classification—would they not be haiku or senryu if written in the conventional three lines of those genres?  It is not a problem that will be resolved here; like most minimalist poems, Gorman’s poem seems to take an insurgent posture toward any comfortable definition. It represents a crossover tanka, of which there are many in this anthology, most notably by ai li, Fay Aoyagi, Sanford Goldstein, Philip Rowland, Alexis Rotella, and others. They are so numerous, in fact, that perhaps they represent a subgenre of tanka in English.

Many English-language tanka might in fact be regarded by most Japanese as being a subgenre of tanka, known as kyoka, or “mad poems,” containing satire, sometimes even crudity, with little or no attempt to be lyrical. These poems are sometimes like an epigram, humorous and opinionated, occasionally acerbic and biting. At the other end of the spectrum, they may be playful or light in mood or, like Gorman’s, gently mocking in tone. The kyoka is to the tanka what senryu is to the haiku. Like senryu, they can be rather sharp, penetrating observations of human faults, foibles, and failings. A confessional quality is present in those where the poet is both observer and observed.  

Some of the finest English-language tankaists frequently write in kyoka style. Here is one by Laura Maffei:

energy waning
as the afternoon wears on
a grim coworker
leans into my cubicle
whispering conspiracy

Such comic portrayals of modern life, often containing social or political commentary, are very much the substance, voice, and character of tanka in English, and represent its departure from the traditional subject matter of Japanese tanka. Leatrice Lifshitz’s encounter with a green pepper, below, is a further illustration:

 who am not really
          a cook
 poke gently into
          a green pepper

At present, there seems little practical reason to separate these seemingly kyoka-like poems and make them a subgenre, or to place them in a class by themselves and call them something else; they are too much a part of what tanka is in English. Values are based on inclusions as much as exclusions.

Anne Mckay’s tanka represents still another approach to structure, introducing the dimension of space:

               by north light
the potter’s wheel
                            small dreams
                            within the curve of her hands

The words appear to float on the page, invested with light, eddying toward the final image of the potter’s hands.  This tanka is one of a series by mckay appearing in this anthology that deal with the subject of light, invoked as both physical phenomenon and metaphysical presence. The poem’s form accords perfectly with its content and delicate lyricism.

In the foregoing examples, punctuation either is absent or kept to the bare minimum. This is typical of most tanka in English. Only a few poets—Alexis Rotella and Pamela Miller Ness are two—consistently use periods at the end of lineated sentences or at the end of a poem; they also use initial capitals. These features give their tanka a very slight, relative formality. Other poets, such as George Swede and Karina Young, capitalize only the first word of a tanka. Many have used different approaches over the years.

Metrical patterns, or accented metric feet, are certainly possible in the English-language tanka. Such patterns would be meaningless in Japanese, which places a uniform stress on the last syllable of each word. English syllables do not equate to the Japanese sound unit; converting English syllables to Japanese sound units, or vice versa, is not a one-for-one exchange. Some tanka in this collection do, in fact, show deliberate use of accentual meter in their lines, adding to the poem’s other dimensions of rhythm, sound, and fluidity when read silently or aloud. In the following tanka by Cherie Hunter Day, the basic metric unit is the iambic foot, one short or unstressed syllable followed by a stressed or long syllable (lines one to four):

through patterned glass
see how the water bends
the flower stems
my heart and many other
optical illusions

The iambic rhythm breaks in the fifth line, where a dactyl foot (OP-ti-cal) is followed by an amphibrach foot (il-LU-sions), playfully emphasizing the sense and meaning of the words.

While set rhyme schemes have never been used in tanka, traditional end rhyme and internal rhyme do occasionally occur. Slant and half-rhyme, involving assonance and consonance, appear with greater frequency. These uses of rhyme work in conjunction with alliteration, caesura, and line breaks to emphasize certain words or phrases, to control the pace or cadence in a tanka, to build or release tension, and to help make one movement in a poem distinct from another. Assonance in the last two lines of this tanka by John Barlow conveys a subtle and unusual musicality:

and you open
your deep-green eyes --
blackbirds stir
somewhere in the conifers

Almost all issues continue to be argued and debated by poets, scholars, and critics. James Kirkup in Andorra argues in favor of a strict adherence to a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic measure in English. Gerald St. Maur has advocated the use of titles for individual tanka, while others argue that in a poem so brief this is tantamount to adding a sixth line. A compromise might be the occasional use of a simple headnote; in Japan, a headnote often appears with a tanka to provide information pertinent to the poem’s composition, such as where it was written, on what occasion or event, or some other detail. However, these headnotes do not function as titles do. Of course, titles are used for tanka collections, sequences or “strings,” and other groupings. A tanka sequence by Ruby Spriggs, “After Chemo,” is included in this anthology as an example.

While the method and craft of tanka in English varies considerably from the conventional rigors of Japanese practice, clearly both approaches result in verses that manifest and share similar poetic mood and temper. In each, the powers of compression, nuance, implication, and understatement are orchestrated to evoke emotion or describe an image or experience. Variations that do exist reflect differences in culture and language. We can speak of “the tanka spirit” as a quality in the poems that is held broadly in common, in much the same way as haiku poets throughout the world today speak of “the haiku spirit.” The tanka of Japan appear to embody intrinsic values of expression and understanding that are robust enough to not only survive but also thrive when transferred to another culture and language.

It may be argued that the differences between Japanese tanka and its English-language counterpart are less important than the intrinsic similarities. They indeed have much in common, but beyond a certain undefined point—one that is perhaps intuited only — differences are certainly to be expected and even encouraged, so that each may take full advantage of the resources of its own language and culture. Tanka in English may deviate within the tanka tradition in order to create their own distinct flavor and build their own integrity, while at the same time preserving the formal and mechanical techniques that are fundamental to all tanka.

Tanka Themes and Topics

As good as some translations may be, any reading of the Man’yoshu or Kokinshu indicates that these are songs from another shore, another time. Yet at their core they express universal human emotions. These emotions are easily recognizable, meaningful, familiar, and accessible to the modern reader whose society and life outwardly have little in common with the tanka poets of the Heian, Medieval, or Tokugawa periods in Japan. We read them for the same reasons we still read Chaucer, or Shakespeare, or the gospel of John: They continue to tell us about ourselves and to make the human experience shareable and intrinsically fascinating in its diversity, valued in its commonalities, and available for close inspection.

The tanka exists somewhere in that huge universe between the awareness of death and the sheer joy of life, helping to preserve the balance in each of us as we go about our daily business. Some might say that emotion, not thought, is at the center of tanka. The poetry itself does not seem to support such a sweeping generalization. It seems apparent that tanka is poetry of emotion as well as idea, thought and imagination.

Consider the following tanka by Francine Porad that won first prize in the Poetry Society of Japan’s Third International Tanka Contest in 1992:

tapped his Moses on the knee
arise and walk!
I kiss the cherry-red mouth
on the canvas

Emotion abounds here, certainly. But the poem also has other themes relating to the imagination and intellect, wherein begins the hero’s journey toward the “wild surmise” of the mind that Keats knew as well as this Michaelangelo, here brought to such exuberant life. This is a tanka of passion, without doubt, but is it not also a paean to something more than a cherry-red mouth?

Contemporary tanka in English reflect all the themes and most of the subjects found in more than a thousand years of Japanese tanka. Poems of romantic love make up a significant subgenre within contemporary tanka, and just as in Heian times the poems range between extremes, from the playful, silly, and occasionally plain sappy to the obsessive, self-tortured, sultry, and toxic, and appear to be written by a more or less equal number of men and women.

Other aspects of love—love for home, for family, for a spouse, parent, or child, for a pet, for a particular place, for a particular time of day or night or season, for a work of art, even for a particular possession or object—appear throughout tanka literature, now as before. And so also does the entire universe of feelings associated with such themes: loss, triumph, regret, distance, isolation, desire, guilt. Some modern tanka in English could have been written five hundred or a thousand years ago, just as some from the Kokinshu might have been written yesterday. In putting together this anthology, we have been especially mindful, however, of including tanka that unmistakably belong to our own time and moment in history.

Consider, for example, this poem by Pamela Miller Ness about the death of her mother:

of metastasis
she ticks
dozens of exotic lilies
in the bulb catalog.

Would it have been possible to write such a tanka in a Kyoto autumn one thousand years ago? Yes—a similar tanka probably was written. But no, this particular tanka could not have been written then.

Or consider this tanka, by John Barlow, about the loneliness of separation:

you talk on the phone
of wanting to watch it snow—
outside our window
the wind and rain
beat ceaselessly

This anthology offers a wide range of tones and topics, from William Ramsey, who out of his own daily trials writes wonderfully pithy, memorable tanka in a postmodern voice, to the monologues of Cherie Hunter Day, who documents her own variegated, interior landscapes as a naturalist does, finding in nature a correspondence between self and cosmos that can disturb us as much as reassure.

Nature is never far away; the imagery of tanka in English is in fact impossible without it. In these modern poems, the tanka poets revel in nature as they find it—which may be in New York’s Central Park as often as by a small stream in a mountain meadow. The following poem by Martin Lucas is about a nature peculiar to the twentieth century and an example of the kind of nature that tanka in English inhabit and compel us to witness:

Dali paintings
on the café wall
the door wide open
to a strange summer
in a strange town

So also is this powerful evocation by ai li:

on that night train
to nowhere
the leaves
my feet

What other kinds of tanka are found here? Look for poems of cultural alienation in Kenneth Tanemura, the lyrical in anne mckay and Christopher Herold, the wise and worldly in Francine Porad, Laura Maffei, Marianne Bluger, and Doris D. Kasson. In the vignettes, anecdotes, and diary-like notes of tanka by Jeff Witkin, Karina Young, Tom Clausen, and Fay Aoyagi, we find love, nature, and all the other subject matter of contemporary life.

Niche and Future for Tanka in English

Today’s English-language tanka community exhibits the same characteristics found in other subcultures of the poetry world: a coterie of devoted readers and enthusiasts, scholars, translators, organizers, publishers of chapbooks and collections, editors, reviewers, competitions and awards, conferences, Web sites, Internet discussion groups and lists, journals and magazines, organizations, and celebrated, essential books. These features parallel similar “nesting” trends seen in other poetry subcultures, as well as in society generally, as people seek out and form semi-autonomous special-interest or support groups within an impersonal popular culture dominated by commodity- and celebrity-driven mass marketing and commercialism. Literary nesting becomes a means of both retrieving and building personal identity, establishing relationships with people who know you, pursuing goals and objectives that are held in common with others, and making room generally for one’s own interests, tastes, and passions with fewer distractions. It is about making or finding meaning in a world that visits chaos and confusion upon the individual and at the same time withholds any true sense of personal worth, value, or relevance.

In recent years, the World Wide Web has become another means of publishing. On any given day, hundreds of new tanka by North American poets alone appear somewhere on the Web. This estimate is probably conservative, yet indicates an outpouring of 40,000 poems a year—a staggering sum.

The impact of the Internet has indeed been tremendous, permitting the formation of chat rooms and discussion groups that bring poets, editors, and enthusiasts across the globe into daily and weekly contact, sharing poems, discussing technique, formulating theories, and exchanging ideas.

In considering the niche tanka might occupy in English-language poetry, it is possible to make too much of its Japanese origins. Tanka written in English today shares many features with well-known, long-lived elements, forms, and styles of English verse, past and present. The irregularities and asymmetries of tanka seem especially compatible and comparable to those of contemporary free verse.

We might suspect that poetry of a few short lines would be capable of expressing only the simplest ideas or emotions, but that is not the case. Large ideas and complex emotions abound in tanka. Though their expression is highly compressed and the vocabulary outwardly direct, simple, and with little or no adornment, tanka have the power to handle large themes as well as evoke a single emotion. Tanka’s frequent combination of natural imagery with personal introspection, reflection, or confession results in a kind of “subjective realism” that has a tonal register forceful enough that it could profoundly change the traditional short, reflective English lyric. A good tanka can clear the reader’s mind while refilling it with something astonishing and unforgettable. Many such poems appear in this anthology.

Much of tanka’s charm and power relates to its directness of expression, and this is one consequence of the form’s brevity. The poem has little or no room for the use of contrivance, elaboration, complex argument, or other rhetorical treatment to convey an idea or evoke an emotion. When a tanka makes a political point, reveals some love interest, expresses a philosophy, comments on life, sends a message, eulogizes a dead person, gives advice, or complains about or mocks some aspect of life, it does so with energy and compression—it gets right to the point in a way that is new to the short poem in English. Similar to haiku, contemporary English-language tanka make poetic discoveries in the ordinary moments and scenes of daily life. Unlike haiku, tanka permit a range of speculation and transmutation to take place between the reality of things observed and the poet’s distinct way of understanding, interpreting, and of lending or withholding meaning from the words he or she uses. The personality of the poet is present in most tanka, though frequently muted and very seldom the subject; in haiku, generally, the poet stands at a cognitive distance. Both tanka and haiku use implication, nuance, and suggestion in ways that are new to the short poem in English. The complexities that arise from ambiguity are inherent in both forms; however, tanka in English appear to share many more of the features and elements that typify most Western verse. Naturally, the poet’s skill in orchestrating these elements is decisive: tanka provides no room to hide a fumble, conceal an unnecessary word, or mask a defect with padding or verbal costume.

The voice of each poet included in this anthology is distinct, individual. Each poet has made tanka an intimate, personal vehicle of poetic expression. Certain techniques and features, briefly discussed in the foregoing, are identifiable and held in common. These features define tanka as unique among the poetic forms and genres found in English literature. Its poets will undoubtedly use tanka to probe, push, and reshape the outer boundaries of the short-poem universe.

Tanka in English is still defining itself—chiefly through the poems. Hence, this book offers no conclusive formal definition of what tanka is, or what it aspires to be, beyond such descriptions, observations, and naming of parts as provided in the foregoing discussion. A definition of this sort is a little like trying to formulate the “theory of everything” that has kept physicists puzzled, frequently confused, and busy during most of the past seventy-five years. They still don’t have that theory, but the universe goes on regardless.

The reader is warmly invited to discover what the tanka has to offer in its English-language flesh and bones. In these poems, we may learn to pay attention in a different way, and receive our news of the world with unexpected delight.

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