The Tanka: 17 Plus 14 Equal 31

For those who might not know, the tanka is a syllable-count poem of Japanese origin. Older than the haiku, it is still related to the more widely known form. Indeed, its first three lines are identical to the haiku in syllable count. But the tanka is longer. The specific syllable and line breakdown goes like this:

     5
     7
     5
     7
     7

That, as you can see, adds up to 31 syllables: almost double the 17 syllables in a haiku.

In two earlier blogs, Haiku: Five Syllables Too Few and Cinquains: Five Beats More, I mentioned how difficult I found it to write the 17-syllable haiku, and how I much preferred the 22-syllable cinquain, especially its 2-syllable last line. In addition, there’s something about a five-line poem I find more appealing than a three-line poem.

Although the cinquain and tanka are both five lines long, the tanka has nine syllables more than the cinquain. You would think, then, that I would take to the tanka. Especially since, unlike the haiku or even the cinquain, the tanka is said to have a “turn,” and I like the logical and argumentative construct of a turn in a poem — a place where the reader feels the poem’s argument move toward resolution or conclusion. Sonnets are classic examples of poems which contain turns.

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Photo courtesy of Tad Gilster

The Poetry Dictionary states that the tanka form is more casual and conversational than the haiku. “Imagery is important, but there is ample room for statement and declaration.”

But just as I find haiku difficult, I find writing the tanka difficult. In looking over my poems, I find only one example of a tanka. I wrote it one night while listening to a group of bluegrass musicians jamming. Interestingly, I found that my thoughts couldn’t be squeezed into one tanka . . . so I simply continued into a second one. Some poets keep on going, tanka after tanka, until they’ve written a long poem.

             Bluegrass

        if life were bluegrass
        we’d sit around pickin’ tunes
        we strummed in common,
        taking instrumental breaks
        in time, in tune, in accord

        but life is more hard
        rock than blue grass, more poundin’
        than pickin’, breaks seized
        without sharing by jammers
        who disregard harmony

3 thoughts on “The Tanka: 17 Plus 14 Equal 31

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