Tanka poetry refers to a Japanese 31-syllable poem, traditionally written as a single, unbroken line. The word tanka translates to “short song.” Similar to haiku poetry, tanka poems have precise syllable requirements.
These poems traditionally are about seasons, nature, desires, or feelings, and often include many different types of literary devices, such as personification, metaphors, and similes. Tankas typically present a whole story or picture within the 31 syllables.
Line 1: 5 syllables
Line 2: 7 syllables
Line 3: 5 syllables
Line 4: 7 syllables
Line 5: 7 syllables
The first three lines and the bottom two lines are separated into the ‘upper phrase’ and the ‘lower phrase’ of the poem.
Tanka poems are similar to haikus; in fact, haikus are derived from tanka poems. There are a few key differences in how haikus and tanks are written and used.
A haiku uses 17 syllables separated into three lines, is usually written without poetic devices such as metaphors, and is written more concrete and objective than a tanka.
Whereas a tanka uses 31 syllables separated into 5 lines and is written more subjectively and emotionally about human feelings and experiences.
Tanka is pronounced Tah’n-kah
Rhyming isn’t a requirement or the focus for a tanka poem. Most don’t rhyme, although it wouldn’t disqualify it from being a tanka.
Midway through a tanka poem, there’s a change in perception. As with a sonnet, the change occurs as a transition from examining an image to examining a personal response.
“Lying on the dune sand
this day I recall
the anguish of my first love”
(Lying on the Dune Sand by Takuboku Ishikawa)
“Cherry, cherry cherry trees begin to bloom,
and bloom is over —
In the park where nothing (it seems) ever happened.”
(Untitled by Machi Tawara)
I composed this micro verse for a prompt contest by Penmancy. The prompt was to weave a Tanka incorporating the word ‘Moonlight.’ This verse was chosen as one of the winners.