My Tanka Path

by Tom Clausen

 I first discovered haiku as a poetic form that at best was incredibly able to share something immediate and meaningful in so few words. Then there was tanka, which similarly was all about concision and brevity but opened the potential to say significantly more than what was possible in a haiku. My  love of tanka began in the early 1990's when I discovered examples of tanka in Sanford Goldstein's journal, Five Lines Down , Jane and Werner Reichhold's journals, Mirrors and Lynx  as well the Haiku Poets of Northern California journal Woodnotes. The first examples I encountered ranged from philosophical  to  lighthearted all in five lines. I experienced tanka that appeared to be almost like a haiku with two additional lines in which the poets offered a reflection of their  emotions as related to the opening three lines of the poem. As a writer with a desire to write out many feelings, it was satisfying to have the latitude to express my opinion and emotions in tanka, something I had more or less avoided in writing haiku.

    I became truly fascinated with tanka when I read the Carl Sesar translation of an essay byTakuboku that was published by Kodansha International Ltd. as Takuboku: Poems to Eat. It was this collection that excited and inspired my hope to write my own tanka that would in some way tell my story. Beyond 'my own story' there is  the understanding that what is deeply true for one person is very likely to be true for most people. The unique and the universal sometimes meet in tanka and deliver each reader a sense of  the intricate way in which all of our lives interconnect. I have always found genuine solace and reassurance when  reading poetry that shares insight and experience worthy of the grand mystery of being here. Takuboku's tanka have a spare and intimately confessional quality that I find uplifting even when the subject might be considered depressing or sad. For me his reports of personal health struggles and inner demons is so directly honest and insightful that they create a sense of transcendence and catharsis. Reading Takuboku, I felt as if a spiritual key was turned, opening me to the revelation that certain truths in a sense will set you free. It became my hope and challenge to try to write something in the tanka form that might create for a reader something similar to what I felt when I read Takuboku's tanka. I remember the first time I read

wrote GREAT
in the sand
a hundred times
forgot about dying
and went on home

    There was an instantly strong identification with the way in which writing, can be an act of courage and empowerment against fate and that which oppresses and acts to undo our will to live. Our own mortality is certainly a heavy subject and one Takuboku faced very prematurely; he died at the age of twenty-six, yet in this tanka we see the poet gain some, even if temporal, levity on his situation. Writing can be a significant tool to help us literally gain a perspective on our dire straits. We all have our personal secrets and demons, and it may be that for some these are best left unmentioned. But there can be no mistake that much of the value in art stems from the way it helps us to understand and manage what often seems untenable or uncomfortable. In essence the creative act is a means of translating our existence and reaching out to others or giving voice to those 'people' we potentially feel inside ourselves. Tanka is very much a tool of correspondence with others. It offers the writer and reader a chance to commune and recognize that we are not alone in our fears, our loves, our losses.  There is comfort when we connect with others through the quiet sharing of written words.  Some tanka  can be a light shining  into the dark, and others beautifully celebrate the myriad relationships we have in our lives . In order to live sanely, there is no alternative to a positive, compassionate and cheerful willingness to simply and strongly keep going forward as best we can. The troubles in one's personal life and those of the world constantly threaten the balance we try to maintain. Difficulties occur at any stage in life, but tanka has been an invaluable tool for me in finding a way through turn after turn.

    Each person has a 'coming of age'  in his life when childhood is transformed and suddenly or slowly adult ways of seeing take over.And still, even as adults, we may be lucky to sustain the relative innocence of the child. 

    During  this innocent childhood  stage we are enabled to believe that our parents, teachers and elders are virtually infallible and will be able to protect us through almost anything we can imagine. But as we grow older, experiences begin to erode our innocence and usher us into a life from which there is no return..Tanka, for me, are sometimes little poems detailing emotional realities and the distance we have come from that period of childhood.

    Tanka at times are adult reconciliations with our collective and very personal loss of innocence. Here are two examples of tanka by Takuboku that relate to this change:

like a kite
cut from the string
the soul
of my youth
has fluttered away

no way back
to 14-
whispering my name
I wept

    Certainly tanka go in many directions with the complex variety that is our life and times. Some tanka celebrate, some paint an emotional picture, some lovingly relate a nuance in nature and connect it to a distinct feeling from our lives, and then there are those tanka that intimately reveal something akin to a confession. My own tanka path has been to read widely, looking for those tanka that move me the most. In those are seeds of recognition and redemption. When I find a tanka that 'speaks to me,' I feel very encouraged and glad for the discovery of shared revelation.

    Writing poetry can take on whatever form a poet wants, and sometimes that freedom can actually make it hard to decide how far to go with a poem. The five line form of a tanka refreshingly and effectively releases the poet from undue concern about the length of the poem. To write within a five line limit is both a discipline and almost a guarantee that one cannot become too wordy. Concision and clarity are essential to make a poem in five lines both meaningful and memorable. Trying to say too much in such a brief form is quickly recognized as cumbersome, and saying too little leaves the reader without the poetic sustenance that a well- balanced, successful tanka has. Those tanka that provide just enough will resonate and inspire an inner correspondence with the kind of poetic wonder and gratitude that has moved humans to write and seek poetry since the dawn of recorded poetry.

    Here are a few more tanka from Takuboku that directly express from his life something that we all confront every now and then. His sharing such insights is refreshing to me.

I shout prayers
at a thing
I know
doesn't exist-
that's why I cry

feels like
there's a cliff
in my head
day by day

the trouble is
every man
keeps a prisoner
in his heart

next day off
think I'll just
sleep right through-
been on my mind
for the past three years

    When something bothers me or strikes me as worth noting I pull out a little pocket notebook and jot down what it is I am feeling. It is often like being a detective making notes of 'evidence' and observations for later entry into a report. In the case of my notes I wait for a quiet time to reflect on my notes and then attempt to arrange them into five lines. I enjoy trying to get each line to set up the next line so that the entire tanka has a quality of line by line revelation. The full effect arrives through the full five lines but as it is read there is a bit of suspense. Sanford Goldstein has referred to tanka writing as a five line spill... suggesting that the creative process is like spilling out five lines with hope it conveys something special about the heart and soul of our one spontaneous and exceptionally original life.

    Here in closing is my sense of tanka as written in an email to Sanford:

"My tanka are very much from personal experience; often delving into the trials and tribulations of family life and the struggles of the self. My underlying hope is to write tanka that contain a unique and intimate truth that is resonant for others. Many of my tanka detail an emotional response to inevitable difficult changes and the ebb and flow of feelings accepting or rejecting my roles and routines."

Tom Clausen

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