The Tanka is a form of Japanese poetry that has been evolving for 1,300 years. It is a short song of 31 syllables designed to be spoken in one breath. In contemporary times the Tanka is written in five lines following a 5/7/5/7/7 format and can be divided into the upper poem and the lower poem.
The upper poem, 5/7/5, is a lot like our old friend haiku (formely known as Hokku) in that it captures a moment in one breath of three lines. In the lower poem we add two lines of 7/7 to achieve the Tanka (formely known as Waka); The third line is used as a pivot or transition from the upper poem to the lower poem.
From my studies I understand the upper poem sets the scene where the lower poem speaks directly of our thoughts and feelings. By the end of these five lines we have a poem that can be read as one piece or two pieces. More importantly, it takes the reader on an emotive journey.
Early Japanese poetry was designed as a song that could be spoken in one breath. Yosana Akiko (1878 – 1942) explained this perfectly in her collection of Tanka’s ‘Waga Uta’ (My Songs):
Because my songs are brief,
People think I hoarded words.
I have spared nothing in my songs,
There is nothing I can add.
Unlike a fish, my soul swims without gills.
I sing on one breath.
In ‘Waga Uta’ Akiko explains that a poet can no more revisit the emotion of a poem than swim under water. Once an emotion is experienced it cannot be experienced again. So the Tanka is conveyed in a single breath and the readers emotive response is as unique as the emotion of the poet that wrote it.
Go back and re-read Akiko’s poem and take a minute to free verse your own emotive response and then if you feel so inclined arrange the words into a Tanka of your own and post below!