Asia (Japan)

Tanka


The true feeling of Tanka like all other non-English poetry forms has become forgotten over the last few decades and made this wonderful form just an ordinary poetry form instead of a strict form of Zen.
The original pattern of Tanka (short poem) established centuries ago was a length of about twelve onji or sound-units, pausing after the fifth and seventh onji. Two twelve-unit segments were joined, with the closure a final seven-sound phrase added. This means that a Tanka has three parts and each one capable of standing alone. This created the classic 5 - 7 - 5 - 7 - 7 Tanka. In the true Zen tradition this should be adhered to.

Like the Sonnet of English and Italian courtiers during the European Renaissance, the Tanka served as a vehicle for love poetry for Japanese lovers during the five centuries of the Nara and Heian Periods (roughly 600 to 1200 AD).

During this period Tanka became notes exchanged by lovers. On returning home from a tryst the man would immediately sit down and compose a Tanka of gratitude, perhaps commenting upon some specific event that had occurred. The note would then be immediately dispatched to his lover by messenger or servant and his lover would be expected to instantly compose and return a suitable Tanka response, even if that meant arising from sleep. This form of poetry took on the name of Somonka.

Poem sent by Prince Otsu to Lady Ishikawa

Gentle foothills, and
in the dew drops of the mountains,
soaked, I waited for you--
grew wet from standing there
in the dew drops of the mountains.

Poem by Lady Ishikawa in response (7th C. CE)

Waiting for me,
you grew wet there
in gentle foothills,
in the dew drops of the mountains--
I wish I'd been such drops of dew.

Later Tankas were also written expressing desire for another person.

We dressed each other
Hurrying to say farewell
In the depth of night.
Our drowsy thighs touched and we
Were caught in bed by the dawn.

Empress Eifuku Mon (1271-1342)
In later periods, Tanka were written in praise of nature and began to employ natural imagery to express human emotions. All of these strands may still be found in present day Japanese Tanka and certainly in English language Tanka.

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