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Explore the Craft of Writing Poetry
Japanese Verse

Tanka, 短歌 "short song" is meant to be filled with personal and emotional expression. The tanka expresses feelings and thoughts regardless of the direction they take. Originally there was also an attempt to connect these thoughts and feelings to nature. The tanka, unlike the haiku, may use figurative expressions such as metaphor or simile. The form is less rigid, more casual than the haiku. It allows the imagination to help the poet express feelings.

The tanka is a descendant of the waka, one of the earliest Japanese forms and dates back to the 8th century. The description of the waka and tanka are separated by a thin line, mostly time. However the tanka is defined more by content and style than syllabic prescription, still most tanka like its ancestor the waka are confined by 31 onji or syllables and broken into 5 lines of 5-7-5-7-7.

Members of the royal court were expected to write tanka and it was often exchanged as communication, including being passed as love notes. It became the concluding stanza of the communal linked Renga. Classic Japanese Tanka were collected in anthologies that were sponsored by members of the royal court. One of the most prominent writers of the 9th century was a woman, Ono no Komachi, still admired for her work. When a tanka is satirical it is sometimes referred to as a kyoka or "crazy poem".  

The form addressed themes as natural beauty, love, the impermanence of life, the activities of the common people and separation. "To be touched by things" "mono no aware" is an important idea in tanka writing as well as the later developed Haiku. A Tanka String is a group of tankas written around the same theme and strung together in no particular order.

The elements of the tanka are:

  1. syllabic, 31 or less syllables, most commonly 5-7-5-7-7, in variation the lines are best kept with odd numbered syllables.
  2. normally but not always a 5 line poem, the 5 line pattern however does seem to prevail.
  3. defined by content and style more than the syllabic prescription. But there is still a pattern of short and long lines rather than a metered equal length.
  4. written as a personal or emotional expression of themes such as natural beauty, love, the impermanence of life, the activities of the common people
  5. composed with the priority of "to be touched by things" "mono no aware" and use of concrete images.
    I wait for you
    Oh! With tender passion
    As in my house
    The bamboo blinds stir
    Blown by autumn wind
                       ---Princess Nukada (7th century)              


    See how the blossoms
    That are falling about me
    Fade after long rain
    While, quietly as in prayer,
    I have gazed my life away.
    --- Ono no Komachi (9th century)


    I shut my eyes
    But nothing whatsoever
    Surfaces in my mind
    In my utter loneliness
    I open them up again
                ---Takuboku (19th century)


    chill of soundless night
    without your breath near my ear
    pillow untended
    lies on cold and empty bed
    waits for heat of your return. . .
                 --- Judi Van Gorder


    small girl mounts tall horse
    braced leg slips from the stirrup
    animal adjusts
    steps under her shifted weight
    teaches smiling child balance

                                                      Brooklyn and Star                                                                                         Brooklyn and Star.jpg

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dedalus said:
Mono no aware (物の哀れ, mono no aware, lit. "the pathos of things"), also translated as "an empathy toward things," or "a sensitivity of ephemera," is a Japanese term used to describe the awareness of mujo or the transience of things and a bittersweet sadness at their passing (which explains why the whole country is so big into cherry blossoms, which are undeniably beautiful but only last about a week). This poem goes off on a slightly different tangent, to "wabi" and "sabi" which is the old, but very closely related (and quite definitely not modern) fixation on absence and silence and ... (not brought out in the poem) the studied non-perfection of carefully-made beloved things: so if you like your old teacup or teddy bear from when you were a kid, or insist on wearing that smelly old pullover you had in college then you are closer to the wabi-sabi ideal than the following Wikipedia definition: Wabi-sabi (侘寂?) represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience. The phrase comes from the two words wabi and sabi. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete" It is a concept derived from the Buddhist assertion of the Three marks of existence (三法印, sanbōin), specifically impermanence (無常, mujō).

wabi - sabi in particular. I read somewhere The Japanese see a particular charm in the evidence of old age; to all these signs of age they give the name, saba, which literally means rust of time. Of course I didn't keep the source of that quote and I don't speak Japanese so I am trusting it is correct. sabi / saba are pretty close, did I use the wrong word.

I came across this when researching xiaoshi a subgenre of Chinese poetry from the 1920s. I believe xiaoshi means small poem (shi = poetry and xiao = little, diminutive or small). The xiaoshi should be fragmented with minimal explaination, seemingly unrelated images and little indication of cause and effect. The Chinese are more likely to write in a 4 line frame than the 5//7/5 frame of much Japanese verse. ~~Tink

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