Wednesday, December 8, 2021

To the Lighthouse: How Much (A)Politics Is Too Much for Tanka Poets?

A sequel to To the Lighthouse: "Haiku Is Not Just the Art of 'Singing about Flowers and Birds'" (Note: The post title refers to the famous declaration made by Takahama Kyoshi (1874 --1959), a student of Masaoka Shiki and the editor of the most influential haiku magazine, Hototogisu, during WWII, that "haiku was essentially the art of "singing about flowers and birds ..." and for more about Kyoshi’s involvement in wartime haiku persecution, see Itô Yûk's groundbreaking monograph, "The Evolution of Modern Japanese Haiku and the Haiku Persecution Incident, reprinted in Simply Haiku, 5:4, Winter 2007)

       Tanka can act as a witness in, to, and most importantly, through troubled times.  
        -- Chen-ou Liu

In the areas of topics and poetic "sentiment or sensibility,"  English language tanka is highly influenced by the translations of traditional Japanese tanka. It has little relationship, thematic, emotional, or visual, to socio-political consciousness.  

Tanka, as currently written in English today, rarely addresses ‘large topics’ like war and the various ills of society. The ills of individuals—cancer, broken hearts, and the loss of a beloved home—are amply covered, but tanka’s focus on the personal seems to exclude the communal. -- excerpted from the introduction to Atlas Poetica's Special Feature: Social Realism, edited by M. Kei who published most of my sociopolitically conscious tanka that were rejected by other editors

We love to read, even recite, the following tanka by the most famous Buddhist monk-poet Saigyo’s (1118–1190 AD):

even someone
free of passion as myself
feels sorrow:
snipe rising from a marsh
at evening in autumn

The transience of the world, represented by the Japanese term aware, the pity of things that pass away, is an integral part of Japanese aesthetics as incorporated into Anglophone tanka. -- excerpted from To the Lighthouse: "The Problem of Tanka : Definition and Differentiation" by M. Kei

Most tanka poets don't know, or even don't want to know, that the same monk-poet wrote the following thematically significant and sociopolitically charged anti-war tanka with the longest joshi (prefatory note):

In the world of men it came to be a time of warfare. Throughout the country -- west, east, north, and south -- there was no place where the war was not being fought. The count of those dying because of it climbed continually and reached an enormous number. It was beyond belief! And for what on earth was this struggle taking place? A most tragic state of affairs 

There's no gap or break
In the rank of those marching
Under the hill:
An endless line of dying men,
Moving on and on and on ...

This lengthy and sociopolitically conscious prefatory note establishes the thematic and emotive context of the poem while the tanka visually enhances the tone and mood. Saigyo's use of repetition in the last line adds extra emotional weight and psychological depth to the poem... (For detailed comments, see "To the Lighthouse: Joshi (Prefatory Note) as a Poetic Device" and "Poetic Musings: Dying Men Tanka by Saigyo Hoshi."

Living in times of crisis, threat and uncertainty, I think we should and can write something new and relevant to the world we live in.  

What poetry can, must, and will always do for us: it complicates us, it doesn't "soothe."-- Jorie Graham


Strive to change the world in such a way that there’s no further need to be a dissident. Read between the lives, and write between the lines. Be committed to something outside yourself. -- Lawrence Ferlinghetti, "Poetry as Insurgent Art."

Here are five of my new tanka:

a winter fog
smothers the winding road
to her mother's house
the bruises on her face
say everything & nothing

bits of gravel
embedded in blood
on his knuckles
my teenage son says nothing
and I'll do ... nothing

a wind
rattling the dry leaves
on eucalypti --
an ink-dark trace
of koalas

from my childhood beliefs
I'm a passing thought
in the mind of God
who forsook his son on the cross


-- a slightly revised excerpt from "Interview with Chen-ou Liu" by Dimitar Anakiev, the editor of the upcoming bilingual tanka handbook, whose best known haiku was broadcast on BBC in August 2000:

Spring evening.
The wheel of a troop carrier
crushes a lizard.  

For detailed comments, see the comment section of Butterfly Dream: Troop Carrier Haiku by Dimitar Anakiev

At last, I would like to conclude today's post with a call for sociopolitical haiku and tanka submissions. 

And look forward to reading your haiku and tanka that are new and relevant to the world we live in.

Happy Reading and Writing


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