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How to Write a Tanka


The modern Japanese tanka developed out of ancient forms of Japanese poetry, more specifically the waka form which was a thirty-one syllable poem. This form was so old that according to a myth recorded in Japan's oldest book, Kojiki (The Record of Ancient Matters) a brother of the sun goddess recited a thirty-one syllable poem. The book Kojiki was completed in 712 AD, historians have surmised that the thirty-one syllable waka had been existence for some time even then.

Later, the 5-7-5-7-7 for of these 31 syllables became more pronounced in the earliest anthology of Japanese verse, Man'yoshu (The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), which was compiled in the middle of the eighth century. This form remained popular through the years as it developed. In the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds Yosano Akiko led a movement featuring a more modern and romantic approach to the poetry. Her first collection, Midaregami (Tangled Hair) shocked many of the readers of the time with the bold representations of sensual love. The fact she was a woman writing this way shocked them even more.

tell them
she is enjoying the view
of the moon
a pink gossamer robe
barely covering her body

    Yosano Akiko

After the romantic movement of Akiko, other movements emerged, one even led by the famous Haiku artist Masaoka Shiki kept the form vital and new through the nineteenth, twentieth and even into the twenty-first century. Many other forms of Japanese poetry find their origin within the thirty-one syllable waka. The tanka form has evolved from the original form so now, waka typically refers to the earlier poems and the more modern poetry is called tanka.

When writing tanka, poets should consider the basic syllabic pattern, which is similar to haiku in the 5-7-5 for, but tanka follows with an additional two lines 7-7. "While haiku depends largely on the evocative power of images for its poetic effect, tanka tends to be more lyrical and expresses emotion in a wider variety of ways, not excluding imagist techniques." (1) Tanka is not as restrictive as haiku since it doesn't need a seasonal reference or a kireji (cutting word).

It should be remembered that, like haiku and other Japanese forms, when syllables are referred to they are talking about the Japanese Onji, a part of speech similar to English syllables but shorter. For instance, a single syllable word like "lake" in English would actually take two or three onji to pronounce. So, just like most writers of English language haiku these days will shorten the form to less than 17 syllables to more closely match the Japanese original, Tanka is often shortened to less than 31 syllables. The Japanese 5-7-5-7-7 Tanka form will translate into something like 3-5-3-5-5 or 2-4-3-4-4 in English syllables. Like when writing haiku, the point here is that a rigid adherence to the syllable breakdown is not what makes the tanka.

While Tanka in Japanese was written in one continuous line, or broken up in several different ways in their calligraphy, English language tanka is usually seen in five lines or broken down to three lines followed by two. Some Tanka will have a turn between the first three lines and the last two, where the first three lines will be an independent phrase ending in either a noun or a verb. The way you choose to break up the poem should simply be a function in what you want to say and how you feel it will be best to say it.

Tanka can become a beautiful palette for some very erotic and sensuous poetry. The lightness of the form adds a delicate feel to the poetry, while the extra lines give you more to work with than working with erotic haiku. Mari Akiko has a number of tanka posted here at Literotica, here are two from her collection, "Love Poems of Mari Akiko" used here with her permission.

3. from Love Poems of Mari Akiko
by Mari_Akiko©

When you touch me
the morning blossoms
for your fingers
as butterflies
dip for nectar.


4. from Love Poems of Mari Akiko
by Mari_Akiko©

My blouse opens
a window to your mouth
your kisses
a refreshing breeze
over my body.


The short form of tanka makes the poetry a relatively easy form to use, but like most other forms it will take some work to gain a mastery saying the most in such few words and syllables. Beyond the examples above, there are a number of anthologies of Japanese poetry that feature Tanka. One of my favorites is Modern Japanese Tanka, An Anthology, edited by Makoto Ueda. If you enjoy tanka and want to learn more, this is an excellent book to begin with.



1. Turco, Lewis The New Book of Forms, A Handbook of Poetics University Press of New England 1986.

2. Ueda, Makoto ed. Modern Japanese Tanka, An Anthology Columbia University Press, New York 1996.

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