Saturday, January 10, 2015

Carpe Diem's "Ask Jane ..." #7, Tanka, the grandmother of Haiku

Dear Haijin, visitors and travelers,

It's my pleasure to present to you all a new episode of our special feature "Ask Jane ..." As you all know Jane (Reichhold) has some problems with her health and so she couldn't write earlier a new episode of this special feature. Jane and I have contact on a regular base by mail and she wishes you all a wonderful, creative and inspiring 2015. She hopes to write a new episode for "Ask Jane ..." and asks you to think about questions you have about haiku and tanka. As you all know we have a special email-address for these questions. You can email your questions for Jane to:

This episode of "Ask Jane ..." is about Tanka, the grandmother of Haiku. This episode saw the life light in response on a question by Jen of Blog It or Lose It. As you all know I am not a big fan of Tanka, but this episode is very uplifting and maybe I will become addicted to Tanka also ... time will see ...

Have fun reading this episode and maybe you can share a Tanka in the comments field.


Dear Jane,

If I recall correctly, the middle line of the Tanka is the bridge, and it should link the first two lines to the last two lines -- and act as a pivot point.  When I write haiku I *try* to make the first and third lines interchangeable.  When I write a Tanka do I need to make the third and fifth lines interchangeable as well?  Should I be looking at Tanka as something similar to two "linked haiku" -- with the second "semi-haiku" expanding and broadening the first haiku - or is that completely wrong?

Jen Rosenberry

Jane Reichhold


Dear Jen,

You are right with all you say about the haiku and the middle line in a Tanka. Thank you for reminding us all of these ideas and practices.

However Tanka is a very different form. Remember Tanka is the grandmother of haiku so it is built on other far different patterns. In Tanka the second and fourth or fifth lines should NOT be interchangeable as they are in the haiku. Also, the added two lines of a Tanka should NOT be used to expand the thinking in the top part of the poem.

Tanka is in its strictest, traditional sense, a comparison of some fact found in nature and the feelings of the poet. The oldest, most common example is: it is raining so in my sadness I feel tears on my cheeks. Thus the poet recognizes a feeling or emotional state in the second half of the poem. These feelings often do not have proper names other than the overused love, sadness, and loneliness. However, the Japanese recognized that the way the poet experiences these well-known states often have variations but no one word can express them.

Thus they find a situation in nature that everyone recognizes to compare with what they are feeling that they want to express in a Tanka. Maybe it is too much rain ( making floods) and they are feeling such an overwhelming loss that they are feeling closer to a flood than just rain drops. Here the upper part of the Tanka either expressed the nature feature or the emotional feeling, has a pivot to swing the thinking in another direction, and then states the other corresponding thought.

In modern, and here I mean mostly English Language Tanka, the traditional idea, as above, has been lost. Often the poet uses the upper two lines to state a human situation, uses the third line as pivot, and turns the poem around to state how the situation makes them feel. This ‘turning’ or ‘switch’ in the Tanka is so important that Tanka teachers often say for a poem to really be a Tanka it must make this change in at least one of three ways.

1. A change of voice. If the upper portion of the poem is written in the first person (I did this) the lower lines must indicate a change in who is speaking. Sometimes it will be stated as “folks have said” or “my friend believes . . .” to accomplish this.

2. A change in place. If the upper part of the poem took place in the garden, then the lower part would show how the poet is in a different room, city, community, culture or place is feeling.

3. A change of time. This is facet most often (overused?) in English language Tanka by stating a situation and then remembering how it used to be in childhood or when love was new. The poet’s life is used as a time span so the poem hops from one time to another. Often this is a lament – which brings me to another facet of Tanka.

Tanka is sometimes designated as “love poetry.” This is partly the result of  over 1400 years of the Japanese using Tanka to state how they felt about someone or something they loved. The other side of this coin is missing the loved person or thing which also prepares Tanka to express laments. Since the Japanese feel love that is longed for is more proper and sedate than the actual being together of the lovers (doing God knows what but probably scaring the horses) the actual reference to sexual things was often deemed to unrefined, common, dirty and you know the rest, for something as elevated and refined as poetry. However, the female Japanese poets of the last century who ignored this rule became the most famous. Go figure.

The leader of the pack was Akiko Yosano. My last book, done with Machiko Kobayashi, A Girl with Tangled Hair brings, for the first time in English, all of Akiko’s Tanka (399) in her most famous book Midaregami published in 1901. This book not only changed how the subject for Tanka could be enlarged (pun intended), but a more honest stating of what the poetess was feeling that continued and influences all of Japan’s literature. Still Akiko Yosano and Machi Taware (Salad Anniversary) worked and wrote their Tanka in very traditional ways. Thus to study either can sharpen our Tanka skills while benefiting from their new and ‘modern’ choice of subject matter.


I hope you did like the read and that it maybe inspired you to write Tanka or maybe try it for the very first time. I have tried it myself and this is the result:

departing geese
King Winter is on his way
snow and frost will come
cherry blossoms bloom again
the sound of geese returning back

© Chèvrefeuille

No I am kidding ... I have written this Tanka January 2014 as part of an episode of our Tanka Shrine feature.

Well ... see you ...


  1. tanka you k p
    for being a friendly host
    and a good fun sport
    tanka and ku can be blue
    violets are blue too :)

  2. the cardinal couple
    share the feeder
    icicle air
    lonely husband
    prepares a single meal

  3. Swedens first female prime m

  4. Thank you Jane for answering this question. :) Looks like I was way off course -- and I have a lot of work to do -- having been pivoting in the wrong direction, it seems. o.O Much, much, much to think about.

    little plover
    in the breath between the waves -

    i stroke my ailing dog
    and whisper today's farewell

  5. Thank you, Chevrefeuille, for sharing my question. I really appreciate it!

  6. tanka, grandmother of haiku

    the frozen willow
    the old woman in the snow
    shaking in the cold
    waiting for a bit of warmth
    some withering peonies!...........................opie

  7. Very informative and an excellent read. Thanks for sharing!