Updated: Feb 25
Written for RIBBONS Print Journal of the Tanka Society of America by Kala Ramesh
I taught a thirty-hour haiku module to undergraduates at the Symbiosis International University (SIU) in February 2013. When SIU asked me if I could run a 60-hour module for the next batch of students, I knew I had no option but to include tanka. Now I'm into my fourth stint with SIU and am clearer about how I like to teach tanka than when I started. However, it may be easier to teach this 1300-year-old art form, (originally known as waka), than to describe the methods I use! Often I find myself changing my methods to suit a particular group of students, as we do in Indian classical music concerts, when we gauge the pulse of the audience.
across the lake's surface
creating ripples ...
my tanka students
discuss syllable counts
Teaching an art form is never easy. One needs to give structural information and still leave “dreaming space” for each person’s originality and creativity so that by the end of the course, the student feels she has learnt something that will stay with her for the rest of her life. In developing a way to teach tanka, after having taught haiku, I realized there is a similarity in how the two forms handle the two images that are often central to the poem. The gap in the spark plug should neither be too wide nor too small— to get your motor vehicle moving you need just that right amount of space for the “spark” to happen! Something identical happens between images in tanka. I teach haiku and renku at the beginning of my course to help students learn how to stretch one image into two or into three lines, and then how to connect the two images, to bring about the spark. Understanding this skill, or call it a knack, helps students when they attempt a tanka.
I show my students examples of the classical structure first, composed of an upper verse (with three lines of 5, 7, and 5 sound units), and a lower verse (with two lines of 7 sound units each). Although contemporary tanka is not written with a 5/7/5/7/7 sound structure or even necessarily with a short, long, short, long, long form, I think it helps beginners to know the original length and form of this ancient art form. I never insist or ask my students to write tanka in 5/7/5/7/7 sound structure. I also teach that tanka, at its core, has a direct personal touch that conveys the poet's own experiences in life. More significant than the syllable count, is the weaving of two and in some rare cases three strong images together to unify the five lines and bring the poem to life.
I also give my students the following general guidelines for writing tanka:
a. Follow the principle of “show, don't tell” b. Avoid “abstract” words like the plague! [They can slip in one, though!] c. Strive to make L 5 the strongest, most significant line.
d. Try to stick to 21 to 24 sound units or (in English) syllables. Get away from “skinny” tanka, which most often is nothing but haiku in a different garb!
e. Don't lose the musicality in the flow of the lines.
I teach them to read their tanka aloud, and if they stumble over a word or line—I request them to change it! This 1300-year-old art form was originally sung.
I then discuss five possible ways, with examples, how to arrange the images in a tanka.
1. The 2/3 or 3/2 image format: one image in two lines and another in three lines. I teach that this 2/3 or 3/2 arrangement should form the base as students learn the art of writing tanka. I ask them to write a few dozen 2/3, 3/2 tanka and practice putting each image into two or three lines.
my father sings all through the night … round notes smoothing the edge of darkness
—Susan Constable, American Tanka 23: January 2014 (A 2/3 divide)
gently I tug the snake’s translucent skin free of the grass— more and more my hands resemble my mother’s
—Jenny Ward Angyal, American Tanka 22: June 2013
(A 3/2 divide)
2. The pivot: Use line 3 as the pivot connecting the two parts of the poem. The pivot line may be read as part of the upper verse and/or part of the lower verse. The pivot is also referred to as the “hinge”, which swings both ways!
a single cicada ushers in the summer once again making the calendar one of empty squares
– Kala Ramesh, Notes From the Gean – June 2012
3. The 1/4 or 4/1 image format: I teach that this arrangement is difficult because if the student starts or ends with a fragment unless the 2nd image extends naturally into the remaining four lines, the poem feels as if portions have been added, just to make five lines . . . or to put it in simple words – it seems like a 3 line haiku has been extended into a tanka and that most often doesn’t work.
the stars long gone … all that's left are the sighing gusts of wind and my grieving heart pumping darkness
—Sonam Chhoki, A Hundred Gourds 2:3, June 2013
(A clear-cut 1/4 image divide.) The “and” in L4 makes the second image run from Ls 2 to 5)
in the crossword puzzle
my brother left
at the cancer clinic …
answers we never find
—Kenneth Slaughter, 2012 TSA International Tanka Contest Winners
(A clear-cut 4/1 image divide)
4. A three-image tanka: This format can feel overcrowded, but such poems can be successful. The 1st example is a 3 image with clear punctuation.
I've this memory – riding my father's shoulders into the ocean, the poetry of things before I could speak
—Michael McClintock, Tankaonline http://www.tankaonline.com
illusions ride on fast-fading rainbow somewhere there I let go of my childhood … I must have
—Kala Ramesh, Simply Haiku, summer 2010
(Here even without the punctuation, the three images are clear, Ls 1 & 2 – 1st image. Ls 3 & 4 – 2nd Image and L 5 is the 3rd image)
5. A sentence tanka: The poet can stretch one thought/image into five lines. However, I feel this is difficult to write well because often it reads like a prose sentence. Unlike prose, the space at the end of each line and between the lines gives the poem its multi-layered flavour. In renku, John Carley called it the “white space”.
a hundred lies
just to cover
allowed him to say
—Kala Ramesh, Ribbons – autumn 2009
Here are examples of tanka written by the students at the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts (SSLA) after a four-hour instruction on how to write tanka.
moments of love
left unattended ...
we wait for
to say, I love you
I’ve this memory—
walking down the road
planning my words
then forgetting each one
when I see your face
fireworks take over the sky this evening a street dog waits begging to come indoor
(pivot - hinge door: L3)
of a candle in the wind
that initial spark in your eyes
fading away to grey
I against me - through sleepless nights an ever-raging battle over him who knows not my name
she glances in my direction with a smile playing on her lips … a portrait over the mantle
For me, tanka is tanka because of what it leaves unsaid. Yes, we follow this convention in haiku too, but in tanka, we have two extra lines to leave more unsaid!
Although English-language tanka does not need to use Japanese tools, the Japanese concept of ‘ma’ fits well with tanka. Ma (pronounced "maah") can be explained as the pure and, indeed, the essential void between all "things." The total lack of clutter, we could say!
A very beautiful thing to remember is that writing tanka can become a way of life. When writing tanka, we relate to life and the relationships we encounter with each breath. A fleeting butterfly or a caustic remark from a person you know can both dig deep into our psychic. The music of language begins in tanka.
David Rice (editor) requested that I write an essay on 'how to write a tanka.'
It was published in Ribbons, fall issue, 2014.