So, What exactly is a Tanka?

Yosano Akiko

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!

Thanks for reading! What did you think?

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s