WAKA/TANKA GENRE

(Note: please excuse me for using examples of my own tanka which may be duplicated elsewhere on this website)

 

Firstly known as Waka (short song) during the Heian period from 785-1185 CE, this form is presently known as "tanka." It is a non-rhymed lyrical poem consisting of 5 lines total with a short, long, short long, long syllable count/rhythm of no more than 31 total, and often less to compensate for the difference in Japanese sound units and English syllables. Waka/Tanka skillfully combines nature images with human elements.

 

The concept of the pathos of existence characterized by a sense of gentle desolation is frequently a key poetic device in Japanese poetry forms, but particularly in waka/tanka:

 

scattering you

as sea oats oscillate

along the dunes

a lone piper runs

through sand and ashes

Waka gradually evolved into the poetry of the Imperial Court from the 10th to 13th centuries when many anthologies of court poetry were compiled both under imperial auspices and privately among the aristocracy. Its history continues to be venerated to date by Japan's Emperor through a thousand year long tradition of the New Year’s Poetry Ceremony still held annually at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Courtly elegance and refinement refers to the aristocracy's privileging of a genteel aesthetic sensibility and subtlety of expression.The best waka/tanka selected are chanted, and one of the most popular topics continues to be about ongoing affairs. A typical waka/tanka poet is a connoisseur of love and an avid lover of nature:

midsummer's eve

underneath a rose moon

I'll wait for you

until my hands are bloodied

from holding back the dawn

Waka/tanka is about longing, counting the minutes (or number of wing beats in this next piece) until the time when lovers will

be together, and often portrayed  ambiguously through something in nature:

a flock of birds

rising from the ground 

in formation

how many wing beats

before evening falls

Waka/tanka can contain word-thoughts that allow alternative interpretations, and which often function to increase the richness

of language and imbue it with a complexity that expands the literal meaning. The art of linking the human and natural worlds pervades Japanese tanka and natural images almost invariably symbolize some human emotion or human experience:

a whooper crane

the milky way sparkles

in its wake

tonight our glass dish

of dreams hit the floor

                                                                                     

Waka/tanka has also been heavily influenced by the belief that life is fleeting, and therefore one should cherish each and every memory, whether good or bad. Those that capture well this style are composed in such a way as to flow smoothly thought by thought and and glide gracefully from line to line:

old memories

like tangled fish hooks

impossible

to pick up only one

without all the others

In court poetry, catching a glimpse of a person that might ultimately become a lover, and with whom waka/tanka may someday be exchanged, was and still is, quite popular:

across the lake

candlelight from your window

beckoning me

though I may never reach there

a loon approaches the dock

A plethora of tanka are written about the experiences of those left behind on this earth. They resonate with loss and have a particular meaning or spiritual appeal for someone in a personal and sentimental way:

cold cemetery

the long sleeves of your old coat

warm my fingertips

even beyond this grave

you manage to comfort me

There are waka/tanka written about passion which are hinted at through nature references:

it's no mistake

naming a wild brush fire

she jumped the line

as if to prove some things

burn way beyond passion

A very strong tanka, is one that includes anticipation, especially if it involves one of the senses:

between us

and warm summer sun

white lilac buds

on the very brink 

of becoming scent

Sometimes waka/tanka are presented with art. "Tankart" is not a formal term, since there is no actual word for it in the Japanese language, as there is for haiga "haiku painting." Therefore, neither are there truly any definite rules for tankart, as there are for haiga. Sometimes the artwork matches the tanka directly and sometimes it does not; it is simply just tanka and art . . .

 

 

Anything at all can be the inspirational muse for a tanka writer, whether it's something “found” ( a river stone) or something “created” (a suiseki), seashell, or perhaps flowers in an ikebana, or anything at all that inspires the poet to write a tanka:

 

 

Unlike the haiku form, waka/tanka often uses poetic devices as in the following examples:

 

Metaphor, a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable: 

with deftness a mist

follows the mountain's contours

how sensually

it slowly cups pointed tops

and slides into the valley

Simile, Interpretation of one sense through another:

gone are sail winds

that came in the night

same as you

I knew we would end

on a still day in time

(TSA 2010 contest HM) "Here is remorse made eloquent with a nautical simile. The last line is a powerful launch into meditation on this poem and all it suggests. Perhaps all such personal endings are a “still day in time”—where the present moment and life’s hectic activities seem to be suspended while a relationship comes to an end".—Judges Tom Clausen and Jeanne Emrich

Alliteration, the occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words:

a strong wave

of passion fills my body

at high tide

one small striped sea shell

tumbles the ocean ashore

Personification, the attribution of a personal nature or human characteristics to something nonhuman, or the representation of an abstract quality in human form:

milking hour

a whitish mist moves

toward the moon

snow clouds keep their promise

of an uncolored day

Repetition is another poetic device used to enhance a tanka:

polarized sky

closer and closer

and closer

the mixed melodies

of twilight birds

Even hyperbole (an exaggeration used for effect) is sometimes applied to tanka:

if only I could

capture the essence of fog

in a pretty jar

to leave on your doorstep

and watch while you open it

Once in a while, the tanka will contain an oxymoron, a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction: 

what is my life

but bittersweet chapters

deeply colored

yet the birds know enough

to avoid poison berries

The most ​popular​ subjects atypical to all forms of Japanese poetry, are the 5 basic se​asons divided into phases and categories:

 

Early Spring = February

Mid Spring = March

Late Spring = April

All Spring

Early Summer = May

Mid Summer = June ​                                                                      

Late Summer = July    ​

​All Summer​

Early Autumn = August

Mid Autumn = September

Late Autumn = October

All Autumn

Early Winter = November

Mid Winter = December

Late Winter = January

All Winter

The New Year

                                                                              

The Seasons: Includes general climatic cycles, reminders of the previous season, the solstice or equinox (that is, the middle of the season), the months, time and length of day, temperature, approaching the end of the season, anticipation of the next season.

 

The Heavens: Includes sky, heavenly bodies, winds, precipitation, storms, other sky phenomena, light and shade.

 

The Earth: Includes landforms, seascapes, fields, forests, streams, rivers, and lakes.

 

Humanity: Includes clothes, food, beverages, work, school, sports, recreation, the arts, illness, travel, communications, and moods.

 

Observances: Includes sacred and secular holidays and festivals, their associated decorations, clothes, foods, and activities, and "memorial days" (death anniversaries of literary persons).

 

Animals: Mammals, amphibians and reptiles, birds, fishes, mollusks, and insects.

 

Plants: Blossoming trees, foliage of trees and shrubs, garden flowers, fruits and vegetables, wildflowers and other vegetation, seaweed, or fungi.

 

Within each category, there are also approximately 500-1000 different season words used as writing prompts such as:

 

Spring: waking insects:

 

waking insects

the year of the horse

turns audible

we trail ride into

a woodpecker’s world

 

Summer, heat wave

 

long heat wave

while people argue

it’s only

the wading heron

that keeps its composure

 

Autumn, night of stars:

night of stars

all along the precipice

goat bells ring

treading a well worn path

to their meadow by the sea

 

 

Winter, banked fire:

 

banked fire

a sigh from the watchdog

asleep in my arms

his wolf tendencies all

but domesticated

 


 

New year: the same as it is for haiku (anything referencing “first”):

 

cold spell

when everything starts

to thaw

will you resurface

with the first crocus

 

Although mankind has 21 senses, most waka/tanka are inspired by nature references about the first five basic senses:

 

Touch:

this season

of leaf trees fluid

with windy ways

perhaps its fate that we

brushed against each other

 

Taste:

 

from the gaping lips

of an old stone gargoyle

spring rainwater

I shall turn it to champagne

if she looks at me twice

 

 

Smell:

row after row

draft horses plow the odor

of potatoes

a farmer’s daughter inhales

her family’s legacy

Sound:

at mid-afternoon

a cicada’s abdomen

vibrates with song

from deep within leaf trees

the noises of courtship

Sight:

                                                                                                                  

on new fallen snow

the sight of a headless bird

makes my heart ache

       what am I without you      

except also incomplete

 

Multiple Senses: taste, sight, sound, touch, and smell:

 

what could be as sweet

as doves on a church steeple

breezes that whisper

and caress wild sweetpeas 

or lemon perfumed women

​Beyond the common and well known five senses mentioned above, there are additional senses that some people perceive, and perhaps unconsciously express through nature, such as:


 

Direction:

abandoned

to walk a rainy beach

of love lost

just follow each pockmark

in the sand that leads home

Balance:

another quake

and moments of being

on shaky ground

our relationship too

is sometimes unstable

Interpretation of one sense through another:

mountain slate

the color of the sound

spring rain makes

the sameness of the tears

after love’s passing

 

The sense of time perception:

sunlit eaves

an icicle’s shape

exits itself

will the hourglass

of love be left unturned

Japanese waka/tanka, albeit composed as a single unit, have an "upper poem" of three opening lines with a short/long/ short rhythm, which connect the “lower poem of two (2) additional lines with a long/long rhythm. These final lines play an omni-important role of presenting the piece as a whole. Therefore, in terms of Japanese sound units/English syllables, they should be at least as long as line two in the "top" part, and should also conclusively deepen the meaning of the waka/tanka:

 

sweet scented breeze

what did you caress before

cooling me

that I may know the flower

by another woman’s name

In addition to waka/tanka that convey personal emotion, there exists an equally valid yet more objective form of tanka that is simply a sketch from nature/life, or word painting:

 

barnacle

atop barnacle

piled high

over the seaport

towering cumulus

 

Waka/tanka often are sorrowful, concern death or are about dying:

 

from heavy skies

in this world and the next

rain keeps falling

my sorrow seeds the clouds

with perpetual tears

Another style of waka/tanka is that which is a line borrowed from another poem as homage or allusion, such as this next one that alludes to the phrase "there is a time for every season" adapted from the Old Testament, set to music and recorded by Pete Seeger in the late 1950s in his song “turn turn turn”:

winter ocean

following its shoreline until

we reach our limit

to every earthly being

there comes too soon this season

A desirable effect in waka/tanka is to utilize a "pivot line/word" in the middle which refers to both the top two lines and the bottom two lines as well, and can be read both ways; think of it as a gate that opens both directions:

 

let us meet atop

a cliff’s edge as raptors

with wide-flung wings

 

and/or

with wide-flung wings

together we’ll take flight

over foaming shallows

In waka/tanka (similar to haiku), concrete nature images are often used in the upper portion and the last two lines or lower portion elaborate on these feelings with an emotional twist:

 

june breeze

a hold in the cloud

mends itself

 

if only a broken heart

was so easily repaired

A multitude of waka/tanka are composed about loneliness and seperation via nature references:

long dry spell

a scotch pine bough loses

its needles

the poignant emotions

of our separation


 

as well as melancholy:

 

what melancholy

when colorful leaVes crumbled

into nothingness

opening my pillow book

on the night you departed

An equal amount of waka/tanka are composed about rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, or as the understated elegance existent in the natural world:

 

erecting its tail

the albino peacock

and suddenly

an absence of color

doesn’t really matter

 

Waka/tanka is simple, subtle, unobtrusive beauty, or a balance of simplicity and complexity:

                                                                                            bows to those

all abloom in spring snow

were but we

this uncomplicated

within our complex world

Another technique used in Japanese poetry of all types including waka/tanka, is sometimes achieved by presenting the atmosphere of something half-hidden that reappears. This is rather difficult to explain correctly, but it is not like a ghost or spirit, rather it's like the returning sacredness of a common thing:

 

a cloud of blackbirds

has flown into the tunnel

not unlike us

passing through love’s dark times

into its light again

Today there are also waka/tanka that are not the traditional 5/7/5/7/7 count, rather they are minimalist. However in order to truly 

be known as a waka/tanka rather than a short poem, the rhythm of short/long/short/long/long still must be present:

 

birth death

a stretch of beach

between

time spent in love

and ocean rain

Moreover, some tanka poets compose their "deathbed" tanka before passing. This one is mine.

In Japanese waka/tanka, what's important is not only what is said, but also what is left unsaid. Waka/tanka is also open to charm, suggestiveness; an aftertaste and fullness of meaning from minimal description. According to this ideal, effective waka/tanka reverberates its meaning by refraining from saying the obvious words and sometimes even using an ellipsis to create an unfinished thought, thus inviting readers to finish the omission for themselves:

 

spider silk

suddenly I’ve become

a puppeteer

how the Creator must feel

be it mine, be it yours, or . . .

 

There are many waka/tanka written around secrets, and by adding obscurity, they lead to hidden levels of meaning; this concept is what allows an astute reader to delight in its mystery and depth when an unseen world literally hovers in the tanka's atmosphere. 

 

swallow day

in combination

with a breeze

the willow tree reveals

secrets hidden in its leaves

Waka/tanka can be written in the form of a question:

 

a love poem

will I ever compose it

one with words

that shall read like the song

from this nightingale’s beak

 

or it can be written in statement form with the last line adding depth:

 

across the blue

on a cirrus cloud morning

various shapes

of angels and chimeras . . .

we all view things differently

 

Many more waka/tanka are written about people who have greatly influenced our growing up, such as our parents and those experiences we shared with them as children:

beachcombing

my mother used to say

housework will wait

but treasures in the sand

are too soon swept away

 

it’s where we built

the palaces of my youth

each drip castle

shaped by supple fingers

the ones that fail me now

 

Subject matter is quite varied in waka/tanka. It is helpful to take a theme from the natural world, and unexpectedly twist it into a personal memory; one with fresh yet familiar imagery, and which will on a universal level, evoke powerful meaning:

 

wind at dusk

an old bough rocks

the fledgling

grandmother’s chair sits

still after all these years

Waka/tanka is not just an extended haiku even though it has two extra lines. There's more to it insofar as lyricism that creates an emotion such as longing or yearning. Haiku are typically objective which makes them emotionally sparse, whereas waka/tanka are often more subjective and therefore full because they focus on human relationships through a nature connection. The most effective waka/tanka write symphonizes the author's passion with facets from the natural world used to depict it:

 

stuck in a rut

while the goat’s beard hairs

go everywhere

how intense my yearning

to parachute your way

 

Humor and word-play are also strong elementsused in tanka:

 

iffy cast

fisherman and stream

trade places

even the trout flies

seem to be laughing

There are waka/tanka that focus on natural "idiophonics", which are, sounds heard via nature and appreciated as aesthetically meaningful. Using idiophonics in a waka/tanka might be compared to sacred music being present, since what we hear, is meant

to be understood in the context of deeper listening, and/or create an enlightened as well as compassionate awareness:

 

pacific ocean

your last remains scattered

into salt wind

a pod of humpback whales

spouting the eulogy

 

Like haiku, a waka/tanka can be more interesting with some juxtaposition added to enhance its meaning, and most especially if

it compares nature to a human element:

 

in the late night

pleasure of its company

a strange flying bug

I call by your name

as if this were normal

 

Some waka/tanka pertain to the rituals of courtship:

 

​coupled

they decide which way

to go

in a courtship flight

the king and his queen

 

and some make it easy to draw a parallelism:

 

at the height

of its capability

baby birdsong

predicting the future

of a mother-to-be

 

Waka/tanka is about all things on this earth and in this life sharing a common beginning:

 

on loose limbs

woodland moss swaddles

the slug’s eggs

like all others to begin

this new life as a baby

Another always popular subject, is children:

 

open market

that familiar clacking

of tent poles

the gipsie baby clutches

a ripe grape in her fist

and a great number are of childhood memories:

 

dandelion ball
with every tiny seed goes

the breath of a child

across fields over mountains
wherever wishes come true

 

Yet another concept that waka/tanka writers incorporate into this form, represents the characteristic spirit or rebirth of a particular culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations:

 

grave marker

the final ground light

fades to dusk

in another form

a new sun is dawning

 

Waka/tanka can raise either a distinctly pronounced or subtle voice in social and/or political issues:

 

on both sides

of a border crossing

springtime

ignores the boundaries

man has created

 

Other waka/tanka have a loftiness about them which is a way of creating grandeur and elevation:

 

celestial space

wild geese touch their wings

to lofty clouds

the innocent dreams

of an infant child

 

In waka/tanka, as in haiku, direct opposition is a bonus:

 

heavy snow

our luggage lightly packed

for elsewhere

may we meet in march

where bright sun abounds

 

Another style of waka/tanka may present with characteristics similar to “senryu” (a cousin to haiku) with a sarcastic human side:

 

burning ban

love letters at the landfill

bear our names

as if it might matter

to a million maggots

Waka/tanka may be suggestive beyond its words:

 

flowers in a field

irresistibly wild . . .

free for the plucking

yet we part empty-handed

each with our own reasons

 

Another way to write waka/tanka is in the form of a "personal diary", and although this is not my favorite style, it serves a purpose if someone else can relate to it:

Dear diary:

nothing much to write about,

what did I expect . . .

that love would always bring me

meadowlarks and wildflowers!

And lastly there are waka/tanka that remind us all of our own place in this Universe:

the symmetry

of a common moth

makes me think

about how I am

unremarkable

 

an’ya