Japanese garden with pond. photo by Harry M. Rhoads
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory.
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.
After completing this lesson, students will be able to
First, become familiar with the terms and the form of the tanka by reading the excellent essays found at AHA! Poetry tanka page, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Academy of American Poets. Between that and the website for Tanka Splendor, also available through the Academy of American Poets, you can experience such a variety of tanka that you get a feel for the form. Become familiar with the Japanese poetic terms and practice identifying how they apply to the sample tanka.
A form growing in popularity in Western culture is the tanka, a five-line extension of the hokku pattern. In simplest terms, the traditional tanka is a poem of 31 on which expresses a personal response to an image in nature. In Japan, a tanka consists of 31 on, usually patterned as 5-7-5-7-7. There should be two separate divisions, the dominant pattern being 5-7-5 / 7-7, as if the last two lines acted as commentary on a haiku.
The kigo, or nature word, is important to the tanka, but rather than simply observing the image, as in a haiku, the tanka links the image to a personal emotion or a feeling about the topic. Its roots are the Japanese Imperial Court and the intrigue of lovers, so the language is elevated, the tone formal, yet intimate. Violence or images of war are not considered proper, or is humor or satire.
On a more advanced level, the tanka, like the haiku, demands a pivoting on a word or phrase, a shift from the examination of the image to the examination of the personal response.
In the West, tanka poets sometimes choose to retain the strict pattern of 31 syllables and the line divisions of specific counts. However, others feel it is more important to preserve the content and simplicity of the intent of the poem rather than adhere to arbitrary syllables, which are not the equivalent of Japanese on.
Second, become familiar with the variety of terms you will encounter in the study of Japanese poetry. World Literature students should master them and be able to identify them. Younger students enjoy learning the Japanese words and become enthusiastic about discovering their application.
Glossary of Japanese poetic terms (from Jane Reichold), available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Academy of American Poets:
haiku (HI-COO)—a verse of haikai— Thus it originally meant a verse taken from a renga, but in this century, it was coined by Shiki to be synonymous with hokku. From this came the idea that haiku had to have the elements of the hokku, a kigo and a kireji, but most important was the linking of images completely within the three lines without relying on connections with other elements to make a completed thought.
kigo (KEY-GO)—seasonal word—Nouns which imply the season because they have been traditionally associated with certain times of the year in Japanese literature and/or real life. There are winter bird and summer plants, spring activities and winter skies, fall trees and summer holidays and the list goes on and on.
on (OH'N)—sound symbol—We refer to the things the Japanese count on their fingers when writing poetry simply as “sound units.” Tokyo has three Japanese sound units: to- k-yo.
(Hence, in Japanese, it's not a syllable; yet in English, we use syllables, so many Japanese poetry forms adapt the on counts to become syllable counts.)
renga (RAY'N-GAH)—linked elegance—The Japanese poetry form in which three-line stanza of 5-7-5 on are linked to a two- line 7-7 on, usually written by two or more persons. Renga baffle Westerners because as a poetry form it lacks a narrative, actual time sequence, and seems to only provide random images without any connection or underlying rationale.
senryu (SEN-YOU-RUE)—river willow—The pen name of the most famous poet who conducted maekuzuki (linking contests) has been given to this genre in his dubious honor. Because haiku and senryu are written much alike, often on the same subjects and usually by the same authors, great controversies have ensued over which is what. For a time, in America, senryu were considered to be faulty haiku. Actually, if one must differentiate, the senryu form is satiric, concerned with poking fun at human behavior as opposed to the profound, sublime world of nature where haiku shine. In Japan the distinction is easier to find because all of their haiku contain a season word—kigo-and senryu do not. Haiku are published with the author's name and senryu are not.
tanka (TAH'N-KAH)—short poem—Consisting of 31 on in five units of 5-7-5-7-7, this lyrical form has existed since earliest recorded Japanese literature. Along the way it has also been called uta or waka. In many ways it is like the first two stanza of a renga or is a tan renga written by one person. For writers who find haiku too plain and lacking in emotion, the tanka is a great way to express feelings and let your love live. The trick is not to sound sentimental, and this is usually done by anchoring the thought in the reality of the natural world.
tan renga (TAH'N-RAY'N-GAH)—short linked elegance—A renga consisting of only two linked stanza of 5-7-5 and 7-7, but written by two people.
The following examples are selected for their exemplary nature; you may find others more suitable to your purpose. Most of the poems from Tanka Splendor do not follow the structural rules, so when choosing a variety, you should use ones which best teach the lesson.
For structure (5-7-5-7-7)
Moon madness makes me
Dance in delight under stars
I lift up my hands
And feel my arms grow longer
As they wrap around the moon
The blue heron cries
White capped waves search for the shore
We walk hand in hand
Finding gentle harmony
Shaping a life together
A lone saxophone
Cries out on the street corner
Sweet, sweet intrusion!
Grim faced commuters rush past -
No time for amazing grace
For content and spirit
In the garden at dusk
I found a glowworm
In the soft earth - warm
And radiant, waiting too
Years on my own
I still stare after
A white-haired couple
The way his body
Shields her from the wind
In this cooperative activity for all levels of language arts, in groups of four, students will discuss imagery and its impact on poetry and on the listener in order to arrive at an understanding of the use of kigo. One student will read the poem, a second will note any images from nature that might serve as kigo, a third will interpret what season and emotion is represented by the kigo, and the fourth will record the learnings to be read to the class. Students then analyze a poem for its structure, then for content. Through discussion, students will arrive at a consensus definition for a tanka.
Ask: Why do you suppose so many love poems contain images of flowers or sunsets or other images of nature? (open-ended, but somehow related to emotions. Advanced students may observe that some natural images serve as symbols, such as the rose or the lily, the ocean, or the sunrise and sunset.)
Explain: In Japan, a reverence for nature is an important part of their culture, so it appears throughout their poetry. They don't have to use nouns that come from nature. Sometimes certain nouns represent the season and carry their own symbolic meanings. These seasonal words are called "kigo."
Ask: What nouns might tell you it's winter? (snow, bare trees, fir tree, sleds) summer? (beach, sunglasses) What if I said "sunglasses, snow, mountains"? (skiing) How do the seasons represent our emotions? (winter = cold, death, sorrow, emptiness; spring = new life, renewal, hope, joy)
Distribute the five sample tanka. Instruct each member of the cooperative group in his or her role, encouraging them to provide good reasons for their arguments regarding seasons and emotions. Allow ten minutes, then call on each group to report. Ask one group to report on one poem only, then ask the rest of the groups for support or dissent.
Note: The Kirkland poem may prove discomfiting, but students may argue that amazing grace suggests hope, or that grim-faced suggests winter. Allow for open discussion, encouraging the students to support their position.
Explain: These poems are in a form called a tanka. Most tanka are five lines of 31 syllables, and usually the pattern for a tanka is 5-7-5-7-7 syllables in a line.
Ask: Which of these tanka follow this pattern? (Cheaseboro, Glass, Kirkland) Why do you think the others don't follow this pattern? (open-ended)
Ask: What does Japanese look like when it's written? (characters instead of letters)
Explain: Each individual character represents a sound in Japanese. It could be a whole word, or it might be part of a word, or it might represent an entire phrase. These units of sound are called "on ." Japanese poetry is most often based on numbers of lines and numbers of on in a line.
Ask: In English, what do we call a unit of sound? (syllable)
Explain: When English-speaking writers compose Japanese poetry forms, they try to match the number of syllables to the number of on. This is very hard to do in English because it sometimes takes a lot of syllables just to say one idea. Today we're going to examine a very old Japanese poetry form called a tanka. See if you can determine what the rules of structure are for composing tanka based on these English versions.
Distribute the Cheaseboro and Glass poems. Allow five minutes for students to scan and arrive at the conclusion of 31 syllables in five lines, distributed in a pattern of 5-7-5-7-7.
Ask: What else do both poems have in common? (images of nature, expressing emotion, shifting from image of nature to image of people) What do you imagine the people in the poem are feeling? (delight, love)
Explain: These images and emotions are also part of the structure of a tanka. Put it all together and give me a definition of a tanka. A tanka is a Japanese form of poetry that uses 31 syllables in five lines, in a pattern of 5-7-5-7-7, to examine an image of nature and connect it to a person's emotions.
This activity for mid-level to advanced students is designed to follow the previous lesson. Students should have an understanding of the basic structure and form of a tanka and synthesize this with new learnings to draw a conclusion about the content of a tanka.
Distribute the remaining sample tanka. Have students form groups of three. One student should read each aloud; then the group should discuss whether these actually fit the definition of tanka they have devised. A second student should record the responses for the third student to report to the class. This activity should generate a heated discussion regarding syllable count, kigo, and emotional responses: the Kirkland poem doesn't have an obvious kigo; the Bougy and Mariano poems don't have the requisite syllable count. Inform the students that all of these poems are award-winning tanka and ask them to explain what all five tanka have in common. Students should conclude that emotion is expressed based on an image.
Ask: Why do you suppose these authors chose to ignore the syllable count? (because the Japanese on isn't exactly the same as the English syllable, so they chose to capture the spirit instead)
This activity for advanced students is designed to follow Lesson 2; students should have a full understanding of the tanka in English and will synthesize these learnings, using critical thinking skills to analyze various tanka for their "pivoting" moment.
Explain that the fine point of a Japanese poem in almost any form is the point where the poem "pivots." In most Japanese short forms, one line of the poem might serve to conclude the first half or begin the second half; or, it could stand on its own apart from the rest of the poem, as a commentary on the whole poem. Ask students to identify the "pivot" of each of the sample tanka. This is a challenging exercise, and they may have difficulty. This is not intended to have a fixed response, but students must be able to defend their choices.
1-2 class periods