tanka: Also called uta or waka. The character for ka means “poem.” Wa means “Japanese.” Therefore, a waka is a Japanese poem. Tan means “short,” and so a tanka is a short poem, thirty-one syllables long. It is unrhymed and has units of five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables, which were traditionally printed as one unbroken line. In English translation, the tanka is customarily divided into a five-line form. The tanka is sometimes separated by the three “upper lines” (kami no ku) and the two “lower ones” (shimo no ku). The upper unit is the origin of the haiku. The brevity of the poem and the turn from the upper to the lower lines, which often signals a shift or expansion of subject matter, is one of the reasons the tanka has been compared to the sonnet. There is a range of words, or engo (verbal associations), that traditionally associate or bridge the sections. Like the sonnet, the tanka is also conducive to sequences, such as the hyakushuuta, which consists of one hundred tankas.

The tanka, which comprised the majority of Japanese poetry from the ninth to the nineteenth century, is possibly the central genre of Japanese literature. It has prototypes in communal song, in oral literature dating back to the seventh century, or earlier. The earliest anthology of Japanese poetry, Man’yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, ca. 759), contains more than forty-two hundred poems in the tanka form. The form gradually developed into court poetry and became so popular that it marginalized all other forms. The renga developed out of the tanka as a kind of court amusement or game. The somonka form consists of two tankas. They are relationship poems, exchange songs. In the first stanza, a lover conventionally addresses the beloved. In the second stanza, the beloved replies.

Tankas often appear inside or alongside longer prose or narrative works. Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s foundational prose work The Tale of Genji, which dates to the early eleventh century and is sometimes called the world’s first novel, contains more than four hundred tankas. Many of the great tanka court poets were women, such as Akazome Emon (956–1041), Ono no Komachi (ca. 825–ca. 900), and Izumi Shikibu (ca. 970–1030). Here is one of Princess Nukata’s (ca. 630–690) tankas, “Yearning for the Emperor Tenji,” collected in the Man’yōshū:

     While, waiting for you,
     My heart is filled with longing,
     The autumn wind blows— 
     As if it were you— 
     Swaying the bamboo blinds of my door.

Starting in the nineteenth century, poets began to reconsider, reconfigure, and modernize the highly codified tanka form. This is especially evident in the work of the tanka poet Ishikawa Takuboku (1886–1912). The New Poetry Society, or Myōjō Poets (Morning Star Poets), and their chief rivals, the Negishi Tanka Society, brought tanka into the twentieth century. This traditional mood poem opened up to the currents of modern social and political life.

read more tankas

Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.