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Try a Tanka When You Don’t Know What to Write

tsunamiSometimes when it seems like words most need to be said, we can’t find the right ones. I felt this way yesterday as I texted, emailed, called friends in Boston. When I got to work this morning, I picked up a book a young writer had brought me last week—“Voices from Japan,” a compilation of poems written after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011. It’s a collection of 100 tanka—31 syllable poems—written by 55 survivors of these disasters and translated by Joan Ericson, a professor at Colorado College.

In Japan, there’s often a special section of the newspaper for poetry (which is completely awesome), where common people submitted their works. Every week an average of 2,500 tanka are submitted to Asahi Shimbun, one of the main newspapers (also, totally awesome). When the first anthology of Japanese poetry was printed in the 18th century, writers of the 4,500 poems ranged from emperors to soldiers to farmers, and the majority of the poems were tanka. The tanka is a form of familiarity and daily life, of something as instinctual as breath. Isao Tsujimoto, the project director of “Voices from Japan” describes tanka as sighs:

“A haiku offers a moment of inspiration. But a tanka is like a sigh. People in Japan write tanka when they love, mourn, and even when facing death, as if making a deep sigh to express an emotion from within the heart.”

I love this description of the form as a sigh, and when reading the tanka from Japan, I am thinking about friends in Boston who are sighing with both relief and with grief. Having a form can make the words come easier, and especially in the case of tanka, maybe a writer can think of them as a pattern of breathing, rather than bearing, as always, the burden of saying the right thing. Here are a few from the collection:

Because I have to
go on living
even on the day
of the atomic explosion
I am polishing rice
-Toko Mihara, Fukushima April 2011

One who is able
to respond calmly
to a rude query
is a person whose father and mother
have been washed away by the waves
-Kimiko Kwano, Gunma April 2011

Since that day
neither trains nor people
visit the station –
a sunflower taller than I am
blooms here now
-Yoko Yamada, Miyagi September 2011

To write your own tanka, they are five lines long, with syllables in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern (adding up to 31 syllables). Feel free to post them in the comments!

7 comments on “Try a Tanka When You Don’t Know What to Write

  1. susanna
    April 16, 2013

    Ooh, I just love this. One chapter of my memoir is a group of tanka. I don’t know if it will survive the editing process, but it’s there for now.

    • megnix
      April 17, 2013

      How cool! I hope it does.

      • lindsaypoetria
        April 24, 2013

        Meg,
        I started composing a tanka in my head but I’m confused by the 5-7-5-7-7 form. In the tankas that you showed, not all of them exactly followed that.

  2. Pingback: Poetry Translation’s Always a Tricky Thing | Two Voices, One Song

  3. Claudia Putnam
    April 17, 2013

    So the syllable counts were lost in translation, I’m assuming?

  4. megnix
    April 17, 2013

    You know, I didn’t even count them! I guess they were!

    • lindsaypoetria
      April 24, 2013

      Ok, so here is my very first attempt at a tanka:

      Everything I
      touch breaks away to splinters.
      Hands pocked by shrapnel–
      I thought them so delicate
      now slapped back from the gift, refused.

      -Lindsay Delong

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This entry was posted on April 16, 2013 by in Uncategorized.

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