Thinking Tanka

Monday, February 23, 2009
By Jill Earl

I’m not a poet, and I definitely know it. Growing up, my notebooks were filled with pages of character descriptions, notes and stories, instead of verse. I even attempted to write a piece in the fourth grade while we studied haiku, but struggled with trying to get a handle on understanding the form. I gave up eventually, satisfied with just reading it and other forms of poetry through the years.

Since one of my writing goals this year is to try a different genre, I recently found myself taking a look at tanka, a form of Japanese poetry older than haiku. They are 31-syllable poems traditionally expressing passion and heartache, each line usually consisting of one image or idea. Intrigued, I discovered American Tanka, a literary print journal devoted to English-language tanka.

After looking at some examples, I think the appeal of English-language tanka comes from its brevity, along with its use of modern language. It was interesting to encounter tanka dealing with divorce and other relational issues, even one dealing with Halloween. To me, the process feels easier to approach, less intimidating. Hopefully I’ll still feel that way while learning to understand the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic units.

More on tanka can be found here on the American Tanka website:, including samples and a bibliography of tanka.

So, I’m thinking tanka. Let’s see where this goes.


Michael Dylan Welch said...

For more information on tanka, you might want to read "The Seed of the Human Heart: Writing Tanka," available at

Also search online for the Tanka Society of America, Modern English Tanka, and Tanka Online, all fine resources.

With deeper research, you might choose to write your tanka without following a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. This pattern is used in Japan for the sound symbols they count, but they're not quite the same as English syllables. The bulk of poets writing literary tanka do not use a 5-7-5-7-5 syllable pattern in English. The genre has other disciplines that are more critical -- and more difficult -- than counting syllables.

Michael Dylan Welch

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