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	by Larry Gross ©1995

Modern English-language tanka seem to welcome, 
even encourage, fresh subject matter and a wide 
variety of emotions. Though the genre seems to 
thrive on innovative content, it is less clear 
whether drastic alterations of form are equally 
blessed. Tanka has remained remarkably 
consistent in form and technique for over 1300 
years. We sometimes overlook that important fact 
when we turn our skills toward tanka.

When we treat the pattern as any other 5-line verse, 
with little attention to the in-and-out breathing 
we have come to appreciate in both English lines and 
Japanese clusters, we may be blurring an important 
distinction. It is perhaps true that some of us cling 
too tenaciously to the idea of 5-7-5-7-7; more often 
we simply approach those numbers or settle for the 
breathing of short-long-short-long-long lines. 

On the other hand, in our commendable search for 
innovation and originality, we may deem precision 
outmoded and strive instead for even more simplicity,
compression and economy. It is not so much a question 
of whether the tanka should shrink to accommodate the 
thought as it is that a thought should grow to take 
advantage of what a tanka can do. Each of us is, of 
course, entitled to our personal choices.

However, personal preference alone is insufficient 
ground on which to stand, whether discussing poetry, 
politics or pomegranates. We can feel more sure of
our choices if universal principles undergird our search 
for beauty andartistic achievement.

In the western tradition, Aristotleís logic led him to 
define beauty as that which exhibits unity, variety and 
harmony to the highest degree, where no single 
characteristic or facet of an object is emphasized to 
the detriment of others. That observation, echoed in 
diverse cultures, has served us well in judging beauty 
and art for more than 2300 years, long before the 
tanka embodied the same wisdom. 

In word art, we attempt to create beauty using three 
basic tools: meaning, sound and structure. In tanka, 
meaning is usually derived from the interplay of a nature 
element and an emotional element. It shares that 
characteristic with its cousin, the Korean sijo. In tanka, 
the nature element usually dominates the first three lines, 
and the emotional somehow infuses the final two. Though 
that division may shift, the juxtaposition adds variety and
harmony conducive to an overall unity. If a verse sacrifices 
such interplay, it may suffer if we do not find compensating 
rewards elsewhere.

The same, I submit, is true of structure. If we sacrifice 
that in-and-out breathing then-a-gasp-of-awareness 
progression of tanka lines, we must compensate the careful 
reader with abundance in other areas. To do less is to 
vacate a significant part of the tradition that links the 
tanka, sijo and similar patterns with certain elements of 
the human psyche. I am not advocating tradition for 
traditionís sake, though there is much to be said for the 
foundation and security such a view provides. A form 
evolves and persists over time because it does certain 
things exceedingly well. The sonnet,villanelle and even 
limerick are oft-cited examples in western tradition. 
Tanka is a worthy addition to that list.

If, instead, we sacrifice conventional tanka structure 
for techniques more characteristic of western free verse, 
our verse must work extra hard to match the advantages 
that standard expectations provide. Perhaps the new 
shape is an indispensable part of the meaning and 
therefore may be effective. Or the poet may compensate 
for structural loss with wit, skillfully executed 
surprises,innovative use of words, carefully chosen 
metaphors, or a variety of other techniques. In any 
case, the reader will not simply forget structure; 
it will play a vital part in the final valuation of 
the verse.

The jury is still out in reference to the use of sound in 
English-language tanka. Our verses often fail to achieve 
the variety and harmony, the economical interplay of 
alternating consonants and vowels, assonance and
alliteration, and the structural strength that repetition 
and blending of sounds can supply in Japanese. Perhaps 
we do not want those results. Perhaps over-metered and 
over-rhymed conventional English verse causes us to self-
consciously avoid the attempt, thinking it dated and 

Or perhaps the ease of free verse merely blinds us to 
other possibilities. Some poets manage to use such 
devices to good effect, and traditional techniques seem 
to be gaining more ground these days than they are 
losing. Even so, one could hope for more attention to 
this basic building block of poetry.

Perhaps any attempt to satisfy innovation, tradition, 
diversity and free will is serving too many masters. 
That judgment, of course, remains with each poet and 
each reader. Ultimately, however, verses which do the 
most proficient job of blending meaning, sound and 
structure for highest effect are the ones we are most 
likely to remember.


This article is based on elements in Larry Gross' 
 "Judge's Comments" that appeared in the 1995 
Tanka Splendor