Updated: Jan 24

Tanka-prose: Part 3 A WEDNESDAY FEATURE hosts: Firdaus Parvez and Kala Ramesh In TANKA TAKE HOME - you can post any tanka-prose you have written. These beautiful essays are for your enjoyment and knowledge. Of course you can try to write one using this example too! ¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬

Rebound and Echo

The Artistry of Repetition in Tanka Prose

By Tish Davis

cho 16:3 | Dec. 2020

Back in September 2008, Haibun Today founder and editor Jeffrey Woodward wrote an editorial in which he discussed a relatively new form, tanka prose. At the time I’d only written haibun, but I had seen examples of tanka prose in online journals and discussion groups, and I was intrigued by its possibilities. Woodward was one of the first to try to differentiate between it and haibun, and the following passage caught my attention:

For reasons not entirely clear to me, tanka more easily adhere to other tanka than one haiku to another; tanka more readily join together in sequence or sets than do haiku. Compare the classical norms for tanka and haiku—31 and 17 syllables respectively—and one sees that a tanka is roughly double the length of haiku. Tanka is at once more expansive and more lyrical.

That inherent lyricism does create a different relationship between poem and prose—it allows the writer to expand upon and add nuance to a topic. In this article, I explore how two writers have used one of the basic lyrical arts, repetition, to add depth and resonance to their tanka prose. To begin, let’s look at the choka.

The choka was an early storytelling form that appeared frequently in the Man’yoshu anthology of early Japanese poetry (645-759). It consisted of alternating lines of 5 to 7 onji (sound units) through which a narrative took shape. It concluded with a hanka, a term that can be translated as “verse that repeats.” As Woodward once noted in an Atlas Poetica interview, that was indeed its purpose: it served as “an envoy . . . intended to recapitulate and amplify the choka ‘s main motifs.”

The hanka typically consisted of one or more 31-onji poems divided into lines of 5/7/5/7/7—the same form as the traditional Japanese waka or tanka. (One of the Man’yoshu’s most prominent poets, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, referred to some of his hanka as tanka; the scholar Donald Keene speculated that this might have been done “to indicate the appended poem did not merely repeat the themes of the choka but was to be read as an independent work.” Although the choka form fell into disuse early in the Heian period (794 to 1185), its spirit of repetition can still be found in many current tanka prose pieces.

Consider the following work by Michael McClintock:

Before Croissants and Coffee

Briefly, before the morning commute, before the bakery set out its morning bread to cool on the racks, before the postman’s alarm rang beside his bed, and the dog scratched, wanting out, a summer rain fell on the streets and boulevards of Paris.

You slept—I saw a dream tiptoe upon your brow and would not wake you. I watched alone on the balcony the wet, shining pavements mirror the clouds.

From below

I hear the bread racked

and readied;

across the way a dog

trots from its door.

The postman’s van

speeds by in needful haste:

the rain has ceased,

you awake,

and we embrace.

...................................... The prose describes a silent morning that is not yet bustling with the chores of the day. The tanka that follow repeat the images introduced in the prose— bread, postman, dog, rain—but the aural repetition of consonants and vowels enhance the visuals: “the bread racked/and readied,” “a dog/trots from its door.”

Each tanka also contains a contrast in sounds; in each, the “noise” is counterbalanced by gentler tones. In tanka one, the dog’s morning trot offsets the percussive racking of the bread. In tanka two, McClintock transitions from that revved-up engine and allows his readers to imagine the sound of silence: the cessation of rain and of the lovers’ embrace. In this way, the tanka “amplify” upon the narrative introduced in the prose and continue it to a gentle, lyrical conclusion.

Jeffrey Woodward offers a second example of how repetition can contribute to the success of tanka prose. In the following piece, the poet describes a trip through the desert. Here the same prefatory phrase introduces each segment of prose.

Needles by Night coming into Needles at the end of a blistering day via Flagstaff by way of Gallup and before that Taos Pueblo for breakfast and the Sangre de Cristo Range

coming into Needles on the dusty coattail of a bit of night wind and heat lightning the sand kicking up into a dinged-up Mustang convertible to sting a sun-burnt face

where was that village

and when did you pass through

you forget the name

but recall the sign last stop

for water one hundred miles

then a straight line for

that one hundred miles and more

of desert twilight

and every hour or so the ghost

of tumbleweed floats on the road

coming into Needles Gateway to California

coming into Needles on the sly and under cover of darkness drunk still on the vacancy of that vivid glare some hours earlier tracked through

coming into Needles by way of the main street 10:30 p.m. a digital bank clock remarks for the record 112 Fahrenheit it reports soberly

coming into Needles

only to pass through

and quickly

into the wide desert

of the night again

farther down

that desolate road

and gray and scraggly through

the halo of your high-beams

the trickster coyote

Throughout this piece, the poet repeats the phrase “coming into Needles” to create a sense of motion. The repetition in the opening prose segments introduces a lone driver who is consistently “coming into”; he has yet to arrive at his destination. Woodward also includes details that establish a recurring mood of exhaustion, isolation, and desolation. The driver approaches the town “at the end of a blistering day,” his face sun-burnt and stung by flung sand. The first two tanka expand upon that mood: “last stop/ for water one hundred miles’’ and “the ghost/of tumbleweed floats on the road” provide lyrical extensions for the miles traveled.

The phrase “coming into Needles” then repeats three more times, prefacing each of the next several prose segments. The effect is cumulative: there is no relief for this driver. Woodward also adds details that deepen the mood: When the driver finally arrives “on the sly,” it’s “under cover of darkness” and he’s greeted by silence. The only “conversation” is a bank clock soberly reporting the still-high temperature.

In line one of the third tanka, Woodward repeats “coming into Needles” for the last time. He then follows it with an unexpected “only to pass through”—before he knows it, the driver is again in “the wide desert of the night,” as if Needles were just a trick of the eye. The only thing the town delivered was a taunting reminder of just how hot and parched the desert landscape is, even that late at night. Tanka four concludes this piece by introducing the trickster coyote, taking the experience into the mystical realm. The journey continues, and one can’t help but wonder if the traveler is destined for an eternal “approaching.”

By repeating that single phrase, Woodward enables the reader to experience both the eternal “coming into” and the ultimate disappointment: one can feel the driver’s isolation. It’s also worth noting the poet’s use of sound, repeating a hard c throughout the work: coming, Cristo, coattail, convertible, California, cover, clock, scraggly, trickster, coyote. The repetition of this hard consonant throughout the piece also reinforces the harshness of reality.


The inherent structure of tanka, with its additional lines and syllable counts when compared with haiku, provides expanded lyrical and linking opportunities. These opportunities also carry over to tanka prose.

Michael McClintock and Jeffrey Woodward are highly skilled poets who are well versed in Japanese poetry, and both show that the artistry of repetition is not simply “cut, rearrange, and paste.” One cannot just repackage the prose as one or more tanka. In that Atlas Poetica interview, when describing the artistry demonstrated by McClintock, Woodward remarked how “Bread, postman, dog, and rain rebound and echo from prose to tanka, from tanka to prose.” For me, that “rebound and echo” wonderfully describes how repetition adds to the lyricism introduced by the tanka, and what makes tanka prose special. ...

A lot to think about and assimilate!

A TANKA TO INSPIRE YOU ... That beloved old dog –

by the time she died

she had managed

to bury in the garden

every regret I ever had

James Tipton, Christian Science Monitor. 2010.

................................... Just an important request!

If you like your poem to be critiqued ... please add that line under your poem. There are poets who don't want feedback for their poems - so we let them be :)) I'm all for receiving critique for my poems. You don't have to accept or defend your stand. Feedback are just feedback! Like I'm fond of saying - you take or toss!

Another earnest request: It's just nice if you all take some time to comment on others' tanka and tanka-prose. It should come spontaneously - it's not about just pressing an emoticon.

Let us create an appreciative atmosphere and help each other grow. I see a few of you want to just post you poems and vanish ... please don't.

My earnest request.

_kala _()_

We are delighted to open the comment thread for you to share your unpublished tanka and tanka-prose (within 300 words) to be considered for inclusion in haikuKATHA monthly magazine.


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