Tanka and haiku are both traditional short forms of Japanese poetry. Tanka came of age in the seventh century when it emerged as the Japanese Imperial Court's favored form of poetry. Haiku came hundreds of years later, in the 13th century, establishing itself as a "spinoff" of collaborative poems called "renga." Of the two forms, tanka makes use of poetic devices like metaphors, similes and personification. Writers of haiku prefer, instead, to express ideas through concrete imagery without commentary. Still, both tanka and haiku are well known for their use of explicit, precisely crafted detail. Some topics, however, are more generative than others.
Changing Seasons and the Natural World
Many Japanese short-form poems concentrate on the natural world. As such, forms like haiku and tanka often capture outdoor scenes, especially those featuring delicate moments that reflect the changing of the seasons. Images like falling leaves, blossoming flowers and melting snow can offer inspiration to poets intrigued by both forms.
Haiku and tanka share a philosophy that dictates poems should attempt to capture fleeting moments in time, reminding readers not only of the beauty of everyday life, but also the brevity of life. The mood and occasional urgency of these poems is helped along by the fact that haiku and tanka are usually written in the present tense, in plain, direct language.
Love Lost and Found
Where haiku tends to look almost exclusively to the exterior world to find meaning in human existence, tanka is far more likely to look inward, toward human thought and feeling. Tanka explores a range of human emotions, with love being a traditionally favored topic. Because of the form's economy and its ability, as a poem, to literally be held in the palm of one's hand, tanka cultivates a sense of intimacy. Perhaps that's why, in its earliest days, it became a preferred form of poetry for exchange between lovers.
Sadness and Despair
Both haiku and tanka can convey sadness and despair. The difference is in how the poet goes about communicating those feelings. In haiku, melancholy is usually communicated implicitly through the poet's choice of imagery, for example: the chipped bark on a dying tree or a fine seashell accidentally crushed underfoot. However, in tanka, these feelings can be expressed outright, offering the reader a kind of candidness that haiku tends to avoid.