What is Tanka?
Tanka is the name of an ancient form of Japanese poetry.
Tanka are 31-syllable poems that have been the most popular form of poetry in Japan for at least 1300 years. As a form of poetry, tanka is older than haiku, and tanka poems evoke a moment or mark an occasion with concision and musicality.
During Japan's Heian period (794-1185 A.D.) it was considered essential for a woman or man of culture to be able to both compose beautiful poetry and to choose the most aesthetically pleasing and appropriate paper, ink, and symbolic attachment---such as a branch, a flower---to go with it.
Tanka were often composed as a kind of finale to every sort of occasion; no experience was quite complete until a tanka had been written about it.
Tanka have changed and evolved over the centuries, but the form of five syllabic units containing 31 syllables has remained the same.Topics have expanded from the traditional expressions of passion and heartache, and styles have changed to include modern language and even colloquialisms.
In Japanese, tanka is often written in one straight line, but in English and other languages, we usually divide the lines into the five syllabic units: 5-7-5-7-7.
Usually, each line consists of one image or idea; unlike English poetry, one does not seek to "wrap" lines in tanka, though in the best tanka the five lines often flow seamlessly into one thought.
English is very different from Japanese, and the first-time writer of English-language tanka may find that his or her tanka are more cumbersome and contain more images than we find in translated Japanese tanka. With practice, though, you will find the form strangely suitable to our relatively nonsyllabic language.