Tanka (短歌 literally "short poem") are classical Japanese poems consisting of 31 syllables in five lines in the pattern 5-7-5-7-7. Tanka were the dominant form in classical Japanese poetry (和歌 waka) from the seventh to the twentieth century. Tanka are still very popular and composed by amateurs and students of all ages.

In the oldest anthology of Japanese poetry, the eighth-century Man'yōshū (万葉集, literally "Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves" or "Collection for Ten Thousand Generations"), the word tanka is used to distinguish the short 31-syllable poem from the "long poem" (長歌 chōka). Tanka are a form consisting of an indefinite number of pairs of 5- and 7-syllable lines, with an extra line of seven syllables at the end.

Tanka is also used for the 31-syllable "envoys" (反歌 Hanka, short stanzas at the end of a poem used either to address an imagined or actual person or to comment on the preceding body of the poem) that were more commonly attached to chōka from the mid-seventh century. Tanka became the main lyrical focus of "long poems" and with the virtual disappearance of the chōka and other less important genres by the end of the eighth century the only form of sophisticated Japanese vernacular poetry. They retained their predominance for over 1,200 years and came to be synonymous with waka ("Japanese poetry" as opposed to 漢詩 kanshi, Chinese poetry).

During the classical period, waka was the collective term for the 31-syllable vernacular poetry of the aristocratic court tradition, while tanka was only used in treatises and books in its original sense to distinguish the 31-syllable form from other genres like chōka and linked verse (連歌 renga and 俳諧 haikai) which gained popularity in the late thirteenth century.

By the end of the nineteenth century, tanka, in turn, replaced waka as the common term for poetry in the 31-syllable metre. Revived by scholars and poets in the 17th, 18th and early 19th century, the word began to be employed from around the turn of the 20th century by innovating poets and literary critics such as Masaoka Shiki (正岡 子規,1867-1902) for their compositions to distinguish them from the traditional schools. In the course of this revival, the term tanka took on new connotations, free from conventional restraints, whereas waka has increasingly been used for the older, more traditional classical and postclassical poetry in the 31-syllable form.

Famous modern tanka poets include Yosano Akiko (与謝野晶子, 1878-1942), Saitō Mokichi (斎藤茂吉, 1882-1953), Okamoto Kanoko (岡本かの子, 1889-1939), Itō Sachio (伊藤 左千夫, 1864-1913), Wakayama Bokusui (若山 牧水, 1885-1928), Ishikawa Takuboku (石川啄木, 1886-1912), et al.

Examples:


In castle ruins
the tappings of a hand-drum
so clearly echo,
that in Komachi's dancing
even the moon seemed to smile.

Seki Hiroko
Source: Cedar Gallery

What was it like then
When the tsunami came to shore
I look down and wonder
Below me spreads the blue sea
Quiet and perfectly still.

His Majesty the Emperor of Japan

To stand there and wait
For someone to come back home
Through the four seasons
So no "shore" do we find
In the haiku compendium.

Her Majesty the Empress of Japan
Source: Imperial Household Agency

tanka-tanizaki.jpg

This heart of mine
is only one,
it cannot be known
by anybody but myself.

Jun'ichirō Tanizaki (1963)
Source

References:

  • Tanka Online
  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005

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