Thursday, March 10, 2016

Carpe Diem Ask Jane #14 ... Tanka Tale

Dear Haijin, visitors and travelers,

It has been a while ago, but I have a nice new episode of Carpe Diem Ask Jane. In this special feature, for those who are new here, Jane Reichhold, renowned haiku poetess and advisor and co-host of Carpe Diem Haiku Kai, answers questions about haiku, tanka, haibun and all other Japanese poetry forms.

Todays question came from Georgia (a.k.a. Bastet) and the question was about haibun and tanka. Here is her question described in my words:

Recently one of the 'members' of Carpe Diem responded on a prompt with, what she called 'tanka-prose', a haibun with tanka instead of haiku. I really was surprised as I read her 'tanka-prose'. Do you know if that's a common use in haibun? As I read her response on my comment I immediately thought at the 'Tale of Genji'. Can I say that the 'Tale of Genji' is tanka (waka) prose? 
A nice question I would say. Here is an example of "tanka-prose" (found on haibun today): 
Eucalyptus (Dutch website)
Waking up each morning, through the bedroom window we see the tall white manna gum Eucalyptus mannifera over the back fence. Often the rising sun kisses its topmost branches, and gradually fills the whole tree with sunlight, irradiating the new day that has just begun with an act of love . . .
my head
on your shoulder
opening my eyes
sunlight and manna gum
© Gerry Jacobson (Canberra, Capital Territory, Australia)
Published in: Haibun Today, Volume 4, Number 4, December 2010

And here is Jane's response on the above question:

Am sending you a quick answer, not taking the time to check the dates but to let you know tanka combined with prose has been written for over 15 years. I just found my book-length piece you can read for free at:
that was written in 2002 and the practice was established by then. Old issues of Lynx carried the both haibun and tanka and prose in nearly every online issue.  Look on the lowest left side of the home page for links to back issue.
You are right that The Tale of Genji is the most famous Japanese example with over 900 tanka in the whole collection of chapter. But the travel and diaries are also excellent reading.
The most interesting thing (to me) is the problem of what to call this style of writing in English or any language. The Japanese seems to have not had a specific term for adding tanka to their creation stories and other historical recordings because they did it so much it just was. It was Basho who borrowed the idea and named his works, in which he added hokku instead of tanka, so he name it 'haibun.' The "hai" had all the possible meanings it does in the word 'haiku' and "bun" is literature or writings. People have tried "tanbun" which means in Japanese "short writings" or literature and does not feel right. Tanka prose sits poorly with many English writers as tanka is poetry and prose is prose. My current favorite is "tanka tales" or "tanka stories" to honor the original Japanese use of tanka with their stories or tales.
Since we are basically making this up as we go, it seems the same 'rules' for haibun apply to tanka tales also. With tanka, and its subjectivity, it works well to use tanka to add feelings or memories to the stories. This is something that is not easily done with all prose without asides or footnotes, but I feel offers exciting facets to fit in with the subject matter.
This is another arrow in our quivers!
\o/ Jane

Jane Reichhold
 Well ... I hope you did like this episode of Ask Jane.




  1. I'm very happy to read Jane's ideas on this "genre". As she says "we are basically making this up as we go" in our non-Japanese world and it's nice to know the origins of the mother forms. I think that tanka tales is splendid and as she says reflects how the genre has been used in Japanese for centuries. Thank you for posing the question Chèvrefeuille, much appreciated!

  2. Thank you! I have had some confusion about whether tanka can be used with prose because sometimes it feels like there should be a tanka after the story and not a haiku.

  3. Ignorance can be such bliss... I stumble along just writing about nature and life and not realizing all the complexities of writing. Thanks for all the guidance from Jane.