We last visited the tanka form more than ten years ago when we asked readers to consider a tanka on yearning. We return to the form this month for our July prompt.
The short tanka form (from the Japanese for "short poem") consists of five lines of 5,7,5,7 and 7 syllables for a total of 31 syllables. Tanka, along with haiku, is one of the better known waka forms.
Tanka has a long history going back over 1300 years. The most famous use of the poetry form of tanka was as secret messages between lovers.
It was the custom of well-mannered persons that after an evening of lovemaking one would write an immediate note about the pleasures of that time. More than just a "thank-you note", this highly stylized five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 onji expressing one's feelings were sent in special paper containers, written on a fan, or knotted on a branch or stem of a single blossom.
These were delivered to the lover by a personal messenger who waited for a responding tanka was to be written in reply to the first note renga-style which the messanger would return to his master.
Since English does not have the same rhythms and syllables as Japanese (see our brief earlier lesson) tankas written in English often do not adhere to the strict form.
Although many English tanka simply use five lines, the first and third being short and the other three being longer, for our prompt we will impose the stricter form.
Since the tanka contains as its first 3 lines a haiku (5-7-5), we should note what the two sections attempt to do. The first three lines (the kami no ku or upper poem) usually present an image or thought - much like we think of a haiku. The remaining two lines (the shimo no ku or lower poem) then shifts the focus to a related idea. For Westerners, this is often compared to a sonnet's "turn."
For our July prompt, we ask you to write a formal tanka of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables on summer and love. You may send your submissions via email - no fans, branches or blossoms required.
Submission deadline is July 31, 2011 - see the prompt and submission information at PoetsOnline.org
Examples of modern English tankas at http://www.americantanka.com/
A Long Rainy Season: Haiku and Tanka
Tangled Hair: Selected Tanka from Midaregami (Japanese Edition)