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Tanka: The Meandering of Musical Song

Historical Perspective

Tanka is a more than 1300 years old short form of Japanese poetry, traditionally written as a single unbroken line in the form of 31- speech sounds. In English, it is a non-rhymed lyrical poem consisting of 5 lines (quintain) of independent poetic phrases in the style of short, long, short, long, long syllable count. According to Japanese mythology, it is believed that the goddess ‘Wakahime’ (Poetry Princess) sang over the body of her dead husband and thereby invented tanka. Waka or uta originated in the 7th century AD in Japan as a part of the oral or communal tradition of expression songs of love between men and women. The term waka (wa means ‘Japanese’, ka means ‘poem’) originally encompassed different styles: tanka (short poem) and chōka (long poem). The songs were written by the royal family. The waka (Song of Yamato/Japan) has been written on seasonal subjects (kidai). Traditionally it was written in one continuous line, with a break (kugire), referred to as shifts or pauses. The waka remained as the neo-classical Japanese literature as characterized by the poets of the Man’yōshū, Kokin Wakashū, and Shin Kokin Wakashū eras. Manyoshu, which literally means ‘A Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves or A Collection for Ten Thousand Ages’, is the oldest collection of waka, probably compiled after AD 759 in the Nara period. It contains 4496 poems. The main compiler is thought to be Otomo no Yakamochi (718-785). Later waka was widely known as tanka (short song) by Masaoka Shiki in the pattern of 5-7-5-7-7 (known as ‘sanjuichi’) which in English has been commonly practiced in short/long/short/long/long style.

From the 10th to 13th centuries waka evolved as the poetry of Imperial Japan Court and the writings were comprised of imperial reign, nature, love, travel and other topics. Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s eleventh century novel The Tale of Genji contains more than four hundred tanka. In Japan, Manyoshu, Kokin Wakashu (the first imperial anthology of tanka compiled in 905) and Shin Kokin Wakashu (the eighth imperial anthology of tanka compiled in 1205) are referred to as iconic treatises.

The earlier classical waka written at an early time have been given below for understanding the poetic excellence of the Japanese poets.

As the morning mist trails

Over the ears of rice

In the autumn fields,

I know not when and where

My love will end.

~Empress Iwa no Hime (d.347)

From the peak

Of Mt. Tsukuba

Minanogawa River flow down.

Love accumulates

And becomes a pool.

~Emperor Yozei (869-949)

Trailing on the wind,
the smoke of Mount Fuji
fades in the sky,
moving like my thoughts
toward some unknown end

~Saigyō Hōshi (1118 –1190)

Tr. by Burton Watson & Hiroaki Sato

Modern Tanka in English

Yosano Tekkan (1873-1935), his wife AkikoYosano (1878-1942), and also Ochiai Naobumi (1861-1903) tried to modernize the concept and usher in a new spectrum of tanka writing. The poetry magazine, Myõjõ, greatly influenced Japanese poetry in the early 20th century. Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), initiated sketch for life (shasei) moment to give momentum to tanka writing and further supported by Ishikawa Takuboku  (1886-1912), Mokichi Saitō (1882-1953), and others to give rise to finally the  modern tanka (Tanka (TAHN-KAH; not tank-kah) genre. In Japanese, tan means ‘short’ and ka means  ‘song’. Tibetan origin, Tanka means: ‘image, painting’ (t'áṅ-ka). Shūji Miya, Kunio Tsukamoto, Fumiko Nakajō, Shūji Terayama, Takashi Okai,Yukitsuna Sasaki,Tada Chimako, Machi Tawara,  Madoka Mayuzumi, and others are some of the twentieth century reputed Japanese tanka poets.

The bucket's water

poured out and gone,

drop by drop

dew drips like pearls

from the autumn flowers.

~Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)

after my bath

I dress myself smiling

in the long mirror

a portrait of yesterday

one can not deny

~Akiko  Yosano (1878-1942)

I close my eyes

yet nothing whatever

floats up in my mind

   out of sheer loneliness

   I reopen them

~Takuboku Ishikawa (1886-1912)

freezing my smile

for half a second

I look

toward your camera

that can’t photograph my heart

~Machi Tawara (b.1962)   

Jun Fujita (1888-1963) is the first generation Japanese-American tanka poet, whose collection is entitled, ‘Tanka: Poem in Exile’ (1923). William Carlos Williams’ short poem, ‘Love Song,’ from his first collection Al Que Quiere! (1917) and Ezra Pound’s ‘April from Personae (1926) look like the present day tanka in structure and tonal expression, of course with a title.

Amy Lowell, Carolyn Kizer, Kenneth Rexorth, Sam Hamill, Cid Corman,

and others also wrote tanka poems. David Terelinck, Danis Garrison, Richard MacDonald, and Robert D. Wilson have written many scholarly articles. Stanford Goldstein, Jeanne Emrich, David Rice, Pamela A. Babusci, Julie Thorndyke, Rika Inami and many others enriched the genre in modern time.

Basic Elements: Tanka and Poetic Expression

Tanka (both singular and plural), a lyric verse, is composed in 5 lines or units or phrases each odd in number of onji, and ending in the traditional 7-7 onji pattern. Makoto Ueda gave details on the reform and modernized review of tanka elaborately in his book ‘Modern Japanese tanka’. In English language, we have adopted tanka in five lines (s/l/s/l/l) without stressing the syllable count. But generally, syllable counting is preferred between 21 and 31. The tanka is divided into two strophes. The first three lines of tanka are known as kami-no-ku and the last two lines as shimo-no-ku. Sometimes there is a rare composition of three strophes. The art of image building in the two strophes and the interrelationship (juxtaposition) with a twist make a tanka different from the conventional five-line free verse. The upper part portrays an image of nature and the last two lines or lower part conveys human feelings with a shift or twist. One can express feelings of nostalgia and melancholy through tanka. Tanka is characterized by only one break that occurs either in the 1st, 2nd,3rd or 4th line. The break can be indicated by punctuation (em-dash, ellipsis), or it can be implied without any punctuation. In Japanese, this is known as ‘kugire ’, a technique of employing caesura or metrical pause/break at different lines such as: Shokugire (caesura in the first line), Nikugire (in the second line), Sankugire (in the third line), Yonkugire (in the fourth line) and Mukugire (no caesura). In contrast to haiku, tanka embodies subjective judgment, rich in lyrical intensity, musicality, and emotional emancipation. There are many subgenres of tanka like kyoka, gogyohka, gogyoshi, zuihitsu, etc.

Briefly enumerating the characteristics of tanka writing, Jenny Ward Angyal writes, “Each line is ideally comprised of a single, coherent poetic phrase. Enjambment is used rarely and then only to create a carefully considered effect…The language should flow smoothly, with musical cadence and attention to the sounds of words. Tanka typically juxtaposes two parts with a grammatical break between them. The art lies in juxtaposing the images with dexterity. Sentence tanka and those with more than two parts are less common. The most effective tanka saves the best for last, with the fifth line being the most powerful in terms of sound and sense. Tanka derives its power from the interplay of concrete, sensory images. Ideally the poem goes beyond description, exploring the relationship between the poet’s inner and outer landscapes and offering multiple layers of meaning, both literal and metaphorical. By employing such Japanese aesthetic qualities as wabi-sabi, yūgen, aware, and makoto, tanka evoke emotion without sentimentality and without telling the reader what to feel or think.  Tanka are open and thought-provoking, leaving ample ‘dreaming room’ for the reader, but they are not vague or obscure.”

Renowned tanka poet, Sanford Goldstein, opines 3/2 arrangements as seen in traditional tanka is the best way to write. Generally, line-3 serves as the pivot line and swings away from the two lines written above by imparting expression of fervent elucidation to the tanka with the imagery of the last two long lines. The fifth long line in tanka is very important and it summarily reflects the elegance of the poem.

I painted

throughout night

my memories

of grief and anguish

remain as patches of white

~Pravat Kumar Padhy

(Undertow Tanka Review, 2014)

The above tanka is in the format of 3/2 and the swing line (line 3) shifts the imageries creating a subtle juxtaposition. J Zimmerman reviewing my collection, 'The Rhyming Rainbow,' (Ribbons, Vol.15, No.3, Fall 2019) comments, “I am particularly charmed by Pravat’s delicate juxtapositions: ‘I painted’ contrasts night’s darkness subtly with the patches of white that remains unpainted.”

Goldstein in his interview with Patricia Prime opines, “I have believed that tanka are moments of the human condition, but part of the human condition is nature.” The following tanka (3/2) format juxtaposes the disappearance of the rainbow with the rolling of tears as a symbol of strain of separation.

the rainbow

slowly disappears

into the sky

the stain of separation

drenches me with tears

~Pravat Kumar Padhy

(A Hundred Gourds, 4:4 September 2015)

The pivot line (kakekatoba) or the swing line (zeugma) is the main characteristic that distinguishes tanka, by ‘link and shift’ with a sense of musicality, from the five-line free verse. In the following poems, line 3 twists the essence of the poem and broadly juxtaposes the upper and lower parts of the poem. The pivot line, like a common phrase, can be read with the lines before it like a haiku, and with lines that follow.

wave after wave

on an incessant journey 

another sunset 

when I long to change the taste

of salt, the colour of the wind

~Pravat Kumar Padhy

(Skylark, 2:2 Winter Issue 2014)

Tanka embodies wide thematic values of human expression: pathos, anguish, emotion, romanticism, and other reflections like humour and wordplay with the poetic spell. Distinct imagery with elegance and juxtaposition with ‘link-shift’ are the lifelines of tanka writing. The structural style, word-phrase with simplicity (show but not to tell) and musicality are some of the poetic ingredients.

Dennis M. Garrison writes, “Definition of English tanka is that it is’ five phrases on five lines.’ It is essential that the five phrases be cohesive, not just a list. The five lines must be integrated into a unified poem. The fifth line should be a strong line; the strongest.” The following is an example of 2/3 format blending emotional cohesiveness and nature with poetic essence (honi).

her cloth
soaked with tears…
on the edge 
of curled green leaf
the burden of the heavy rains  

~Pravat Kumar Padhy

(Cold Moon Journal, 15 October 2000)

Tanka is more subjective in contrast to haiku which is objective in nature. The writer should create enough space for the readers to search within the tiny song. Exhibition of personification or anthropomorphism, use of metaphor, similes, metrical exhibition, the imaginative blending of alliteration, assonance, and occasionally oxymoron are highly embedded in tanka writing. The limited use of the article at the beginning of the line would craft a better poetic flow .Tanka is written in lower case and there is no title of tanka unless it is written as tanka sequences (rensaku) or tanka strings. It is better to keep punctuation to a minimum.  Also, there is no full stop at the end of the last line.

Jane Reichhold in her scholarly essay, ‘The Wind Five Folded’, describes the wider spectrum of contents of tanka based on mystical expression and loneliness (yugen tei), gentle expression (koto shikarubeki), exotic beauty and elegance (urawashiki tei), human feeling, love, grief (ushin tei),  grandeur  (taketakaki tei), visual description (miru tei), witty  with conventional subject (omoshiroki tei). Some tanka, in contrast to elegance or balanced narration, exhibit strong diction in style of expression. This is classified as demon-quelling (onihishigi tei or kiratsu no tei). Often the subject matters may be described with the unusual poetic concept (hitofushi aru tei) or narrating in precise details with complex imageries (komayaka naru tei) as enumerated below:


after argument

at the end

I burn the garbage

as snow covers the night

~Pravat Kumar Padhy

(Presence # 64, 2019)

The beauty, as Garrison opines, lies with ‘the tanka spirit’, and ‘leave the reader dreaming room’ for the reader, as a ‘co-creator’ to fill from his experience. The ‘objective correlative’ in imagism needs to be evolved as he further adds. In the following tanka, the salient activities of the spider and the handicapped boy have been compared, facilitating the readers enough space for envisioning.

the spider climbs

up the corner edge

on steppingstones

the handicapped boy

aims towards the starlit sky

~Pravat Kumar Padhy,

Ribbons (Fall Issue, Vol. 9 No.2, 2013)

Like good haiku having a ‘whitespace’ or ‘negative space’(ma), the tanka should have a poetic space to transgress the meaning of the poem into a different orbit. The art of comparison adds a poetic sensitivity to the poem. Here is an example of the psychological anxiety associated with transgender.

black and white

paintings on the pot

the transgender

searches the streak of colors

to fill the gap of the emptiness

~Pravat Kumar Padhy

(Atlas Poetica, Chiaroscuro LGBT Tanka, August 2012)

The tanka spreads its fragrance through its resonance, the melding of beauty and sensibility, delicacy, and art of ‘link and shift’. This age-old genre has a distinct poetic spirit that will continue to be cherished by the generations to come.

I wish to conclude with my following tanka published in the Special Feature on ‘Yin, Yang, and Beyond: Short Poems of Sex and Gender in the 21st Century’, Atlas, October 2015, edited by Tokido Kizenzen.

the temple steps

lead to the corner end…

with Ardhanarishvara*

the devotees divinely sense

the softness of the stony carvings

(*the Lord whose half is a woman’. It is a form of Lord Shiva combined with his wife Parvati)

Tanka Article Dr Padhy: Welcome
P K Padhy.jpg

Pravat Kumar Padhy holds a Master of Science and a Ph.D from Indian Institute of Technology, ISM Dhanbad. He is a mainstream poet and a writer of Japanese short forms of poetry (haiku, tanka, haiga, haibun, tanka prose).  His poem 'How Beautiful' is included in the undergraduate curriculum at the university level. Pravat’s haiku won The Kloštar Ivanić International Haiku Award, Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival Invitational Award, IAFOR Vladimir Devidé Haiku Award, Setouchi Matsuyama Photo Haiku Award and others. His haiku are published in many international journals and anthologies including in Red Moon Anthology. Haiku are featured at 'Haiku Wall', Historic Liberty Theatre Gallery in Bend, Oregon and at Mann Library, Cornell University. USA. His tanka is figured in 'Kudo Resource Guide', University of California, Berkeley. His tanka has been put on rendition (music by José Jesús de Azevedo Souza) in the Musical Drama Performance, ‘Coming Home’, The International Opera Through Art Songs, Toronto, Canada. His Taiga (Tanka-Photo) is featured in the 20th Anniversary Taiga Showcase of Tanka Society of America. His photo-haiku is presented at Haiku North America Conference, 15-17, October 2021. Pravat is nominated as the panel judge of ‘The Haiku Foundation Touchstone Awards’, USA and is presently on the editorial board of the journal, ‘Under the Basho’. His publications can be read at

Tanka Article Dr Padhy: Text
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