Notes on Form, Techniques, and Subject Matter
in Modern English Tanka
by Michael McClintock*
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
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
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
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
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:
how quickly you fade. I cut
place them on a glassed table-
top, as if time could double.
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
spiraling out of the throat
of a hermit thrush
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
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
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:
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:
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
Another minimalist poem is LeRoy Gorman’s droll “at the funeral”, a mere fourteen syllables:
one who said
God is dead
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:
as the afternoon wears on
a grim coworker
leans into my cubicle
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
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
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
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):
see how the water bends
the flower stems
my heart and many other
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—
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.
* * *
*Adapted by the author from the “Introduction” by Michael McClintock, The Tanka Anthology edited by Michael McClintock, Pamela Miller Ness, and Jim Kacian (Red Moon Press, 2003).
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