Japanese Poetry: Tanka? You're Welcome!

Japanese poetry, with its demands on intuition and strict discipline of structure, content, restraint, and subtlety, can sometimes confound a Western audience. Difficulty lies in translating the concept of the on, or Japanese sound unit. Japanese forms often demand a specific number of on, characters or sound units, which Westerners erroneously equate to syllables. The evolution of the structures of Japanese make them complex, and Western audiences, accustomed to meter, rhythm, and form, prefer to reduce poetry to its simplest terms. This unit on the Japanese tanka encourages students to explore the structure and content of the form and to arrive at a definition of the structure in English.

Guiding Questions

What are some reasons for writing poetry? If you were writing a love poem, what images could you expect to find in the poem?

What poetic devices do we usually expect to find in a poem, for example, rhyme, meter, devices of sound and form? Are there any forms of poetry that don't require all of these devices, e.g., free verse, blank verse, haiku?

How did rules of writing certain poetry forms come to be?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to: identify a tanka as a five-line poem of 31 on in a line pattern of 5-7-5-7-7 that examines an image and responds on a personal, emotional level

analyze a tanka to determine its structure and intent

recognize that Western writers have adapted the tanka to suit the multi-syllabled words in English such that not all English tanka have the same syllable count or line count

understand how a poem pivots from a poetic image to a linked emotional response

compose two tanka, one in traditional structure and one in the non-traditional, non-restrictive form