From the Man'yōshū to Contemporary Tanka              

by Kitakubo Mariko

It is extremely interesting to compare the poetic work produced over the centuries called "waka" or "Japanese songs" with the "tanka" or "short songs" of our modern era.

    The tradition of writing this form of lyric verse in phrases of 5/7/5/7/7 syllables has been passed down for over 1,300 years and still endures today. However, contemporary tanka are much freer in conent and in word usage than classical waka, and there is now greater room for individual creativity within the conventional framework of the form.

    For example, in the era when the waka of the Man'yōshū (compiled in the mid-eighth century) were being composed, fixed epithets called "makura kotoba"1 or "pillow words" were commonly employed. About 510 types of "pillow words" appear in some 1,900 of the 5,000 or so waka in the Man'yōshū . Now, "makura kotoba: are seldom seen in contemporary tanka, which are written in a more naturalistic way.

    What does characterize contemporary Japanese tanka, you may ask. Well, I will give some illustrations from my own work. As might be expected, tanka these days may refer to current circumstances and include all kinds of terminology from modern life. One of my tanka, translated,is:

   oh pain-killer,
   along with my ache
   please remove
   the sensitivity
   of my emotions

    This is a poem whose starting point was an everyday incident: the use of a sedative to relieve a headache. The "pain-killer" is personified, and the tanka is written in the imperative voice.

Let's take another example--again in translation:

   this stumbling
   with just the toes
   of my right foot
   might come from bad feeling
   between it and my left

    Here I am writing as if my right and left foot have human characteristics, which gives quite an original tone to the tanka.

    A very different feeling is created in the next tanka, in which I am referring to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of two years ago, and which focuses matters of global rather than personal concern.

   tranquilly ashes
   continue to fall
   on this ruined village
   where, like a scream,
   the silence shines                             (From my book On This Same Star)

    The following tanka I wrote entirely in colloquial Japanese, not in the customary literary language. Such "conversational" poems are appearing more nowadays in Japan.

   "long long ago
   you must have been
   an ocean,"
   I think of the waters
   gurgling in my cells                            (Also from On This Same Star)

    As regards the structure of tanka, there are a few--very, very few tankaists currently experimenting with rhythm.

    They are playing with "free rhythm," disregarding the unique 5/7/5/7/7 sound-unit rhythm which has been passed down, maintained and honored through the ages of Japanese literature.

    However, I myself, and I imagine most other contemporary Japanese tankaists would infinitely prefer that such activities remain in the real of experimentation. Otherwise, our long cherished tanka could become nothing but a line of free verse.

    Existing in a different literary realm than haiku, tanka is a lyric form in which the poet can easily open her heart and given vent to her concerns.

    For that reason, though times have changed over the centuries, tanka remains the most natural of ways for Japanese poets to express themselves.

    Now, country of residence and nationality regardless, all of us are living in the same era on the same planet. So I really want to encourage poets outside of Japan to join in this great pleasure of composing tanka, giving free reign to their own imaginations and individual personalities.

    However, there are some points which I would like you to bear in mind when writing your tanka.

    Firstly, Japanese tanka, although normally presented on the page in one continuous vertical column, are actually composed in five phrases. These five phrases are usually represented in five horizontal lines in English tanka. The second, fourth, and fifth line in Japanese traditionally each contain seven syllables, and are therefore ideally longer than the first and third lines, which have only five syllables.

    Moreover, Japanese tanka, though written as a single poem are designated as having an "upper" section, comprising the initial three phrases, and a "lower" section, phrases four and five. To the "lower" section, above all to the fifth and final phrase, is assigned the important role of implementing or effectuating the tanka as a whole. Hence, the final phrase (or line, in English) should not only be at least as long, in terms of sound-units, as any of the other four lines, but it should also be meaningful.

    I hope that these guidelines will assist poets writing in English, in the Japanese tanka tradition, to become more confident with the form--and to produce many, many expressions of their own creativity, flexibly using our tanka model.


1 "Makura kutoba," applied to a specific place or thing, for example, " the trailing foothill mountains," "the madder glowing dawn," contributed a kind of stylized imagery to classical waka, and were believed to elevate the tone of the poetry.

2 All translations are by Amelia Fielden, who was also the translator ofmy book, On This Same Star (Kadokawa Shoten, 2006).

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