History of the Tanka

History of the Tanka

A Tanka is one of the oldest lyrical poem forms of Japanese poetry.  Most people are familiar with the Haiku, which didn’t develop into its own unique form from the longer Renga until the Edo Period (1603-1867).  Where the Haiku usually presents an image related to the seasons and is shaped by the Zen Buddhist tradition prevalent at the time of its development, the Tanka developed with a much wider range of topics, uses and presentations.

In English, a Tanka looks like a long Haiku.  Where a Haiku is seventeen syllables, often presented three unrhymed lines of five, seven and five syllables, a Tanka is thirty-one syllables, presented in five unrhymed lines of five, seven, five, seven and seven syllables.  This difference is more striking in the Japanese written language where every character represents a syllable.

The Tanka form existed throughout SCA period.  The earliest published tankas are in the Manyoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), an anthology of poetry compiled sometime shortly after 759.  They appear in the Kokinshu (Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems, 905) and the Shin Kokinshu (New Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems, 1205).  The form continues to be popular today.

A Tanka is usually presented in one of three ways.  The first is when it is linked with a choka (long poem).  The tanka would sum up the longer poem.  The second way would be to combine it with prose, often in a literary diary.  The poem appears at the beginning of a section of prose, with the prose expanding and explaining the meanings behind the poem and how it developed out of the author’s life.  The third would be to present the poem unexplained, unexpanded and let the reader interpret the images of the poem.  The forced brevity of a tanka leaves a reader many ways to see each line.


Microsoft Encarta Encylopedia 2001.  Entries on “Japanese Literature”, “Japan”, “Haiku” and “Poetry”.

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