Like anything else, tanka can be made simple or complicated. Here is a simple definition:
Tanka is a short poem of five lines in length, which engages the imagination. Good tanka suggests far more than it actually says. Strictly speaking there is a syllable count for each line: 5/7/5/7/7/ for a total of 31 syllables. That’s because, in Japanese, tanka are usually written in 31 Japanese sound units.
This syllable count doesn’t translate well into English. In English 20 syllables would be a rough equivalent for the 31 Japanese sound units. Very few poets writing tanka in English adhere to a strict syllable count. Much more important is the general structure of the lines: short/long/short/long/long. Some editors will not accept tanka that fail to adhere to this guideline. Others are more flexible. Atlas Poetica, for example, will consider almost any poem that is written in five lines. It is important, therefore, to read the submission guidelines.
Much more important than syllable count is what might be called the ‘spirit’ of tanka. You are trying to write something memorable in just five lines. Most poets have far more syllables, words and lines to work with. As in all poetry it is important to “show” rather than “tell” and to rely on the reader’s imagination. A good tanka will suggest far more than it actually says.
I find the following quote (from Jane Reichhold) to be quite helpful:
“If you have written some haiku, you have written, more or less, half a tanka. A beginning exercise in learning to write tanka is to take one of your haiku and practice adding two more lines to it. If you are counting syllables these two additional lines would consist of seven syllables each. If you are working with short-long-short line shapes, just make the additions, if you can, about as long as the second line.”
Haiku is very concrete, yet suggestive at the same time. Good tanka is like that also, but the writer has more words to work with and more freedom of expression. Many tanka published today feature an image from the natural ( or human) world, followed by some insight relating that observation to the emotional life. Other tanka rely on the image itself to engage the reader’s imagination.
Here are some examples of my published tanka:
the goodnight kiss
my daughter says…
what she missed
when I left home
– Gusts 16
in a crossword puzzle
my brother left
at the cancer clinic…
answers we never find
– TSA Contest 2012 honorable mention
Closely reated to tanka is a form called “kyoka”. Kyoka is tanka on the lighter side. The online journal Prune Juice publishes kyoka. Here are some examples of mine that were published in Prune Juice:
a frozen banana
falls to the floor
with a thud…
only in my dreams
could I get so hard
never too old
to start something new
I have begun
drooling on my pillow
Here are some good websites for further reading: