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What Is the Point in Writing a Tanka Poem?


Tanka is a form of Japanese lyric poetry dating back over 1300 years. Popular tankaists in Japan center their poems around emotion, although modern tanka can take on any theme of the writer’s choice. Because Japanese tanka poems follow a 31-syllable structure, or a modified version of this structure in English, writing tanka poetry can be an exercise in discipline and in economy of expression. It is also an opportunity to experience a historically important style of poetry.

Structure of Tanka Poems

In Japanese, tanka poems are strictly 31 syllables in length, broken into five syllabic units of 5-7-5-7-7. Some English tankaists utilize this structure as well, while others, due to differences in language, simply follow a short-long-short-long-long structure with fewer than 31 syllables. The first three lines, or “upper poem,” examine the subject of the poem descriptively. The writer then transitions to the “lower poem” and examines the emotional response to the subject.

Purpose of Writing Tanka Poems

Writing a tanka is an opportunity to express emotion directly, but intimately. Poets familiar with writing haiku, which is a popular format that is shorter than the tanka, may find that the tanka allows greater prospects for commentary and more detailed expression. Tanka poetry also offers practice in disciplined, thoughtful writing, ensuring that the idea is not overwrought or stretched beyond the direct essence of the subject.

Tanka History

Another reason to create tanka poetry is to follow in the footsteps of ancient poets and to learn more about this still popular Japanese style of writing. Tanka is the modern name for “waka” poetry and dates back to the seventh century. The style was practiced by all classes of Japanese, from workers to emperors, and has taken on topics such as politics, nature, travel and love. Japanese newspapers today contain weekly columns of tanka poetry, and the style is gaining in popularity with American poets.

Practicing Tanka Writing

Poet Jeanne Emrich, for Tanka Online, suggests that you start a tanka by choosing a moment in time you wish to express and describe it in two short lines. Add lines through careful reflection on the subject and utilize the third line to pivot from description of the subject to feelings about the subject. Constrain the poem to 31 syllables or fewer; Emrich notes that many English-speaking tankaists aim for 20 to 22 syllables.

About the Author

E. Anne Hunter has more than a decade of experience in education, with a focus on visual design and instructional technology. She holds a master's degree in education. Hunter has contributed to several professional publications, covering education, design, music and fitness, among other topics.

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