Blog Challenge, Writing Journey

Thirty-One Syllables

Welcome to Day 25 of #30PostsHathSept. [PLEASE READ all my other challenge posts HERE.] I hope you enjoy my post!


Tanka is another Japanese poetry form in many ways quite similar to the haiku. You can see my earlier post about haiku HERE. One similarity is that, like the haiku, tanka is both a singular and the plural form of the word (please don’t call them tankas). Also called waka, it is a five-line poem with the pattern of 5-7-5-7-7, and 31 syllables. The haiku (17 syllables) is thought of as the first, or upper poem, and it is connected to the last two lines that are thought of as the lower poem.

Of course, more modern tanka poetry does not always hold to the strict syllabic counts, but the idea of a “twist” as seen in haiku is more pronounced in tanka, and is found in the third of the five lines.

Tanka preceded haiku by several hundred years, and while it was used originally in the Japanese Imperial Courts, it soon gave way as an ideal method of communicating love through verse between lovers. Maybe the tanka inspired Shakespeare’s later sonnets of love – who can say?

Also like the haiku, the tanka are written to celebrate ceremonial occasions. New Years is one such occasion. The Emperor of Japan and his family continue to carry the long-held tradition by writing tanka yearly on what is referred to as the Ceremony of Utakai Hajime. The ceremony is elaborate with singing and recitations and contests. All of the Imperial Family is in attendance with invited members of the public.

What distinguishes a tanka from a haiku, outside of length, is the emphasis on emotions found in the tanka. The haiku, while evoking emotions, is more observational in tone and less personal. However, so much has evolved in haiku, that finding personal haiku is not unusual. Still, the tanka are deeply connected with love and loss and loneliness.

One interesting thing is that tanka – more so than haiku – were traditionally written by women. There were many famous tanka poets from Japan. One example is Ono no Komachi from the 9th century. The word “komachi” has since become a synonym for beauty in Japan. Here is one of Komachi’s tanka:

“The color of this flower
Has already faded away,
While in idle thoughts
My life goes by,
As I watch the long rains fall.”

Tanka may not be nearly as popular or well-known as haiku, but there are excellent modern poets who feel an affinity for the tanka, including Sam Hamill, co-founder of Copper Canyon Press.

I love both tanka and haiku, and here is an example of a tanka I wrote, to my above photograph.

It isn’t enough
For us to say we love clouds
We must become air
To embrace a billion breaths
Humbled and gasping at life.

[You can enjoy all the daily posts from the #30PostsHathSept bloggers HERE]