At the outset, let me say that I am a stickler for The Rules. Rules—it doesnít
matter in what context—give me a comforting, if false, sense of security.
From driving a car to community associations, from karate dojo discipline to
poetry forms, if thereís A Rule, my natural inclination is to follow it
(it all probably stems from my toilet training; but we wonít go into that here).
My brain, thank goodness, prompts me to ask a couple of cogent questions before
blindly following any rule. First: does the rule make any sense, and/or is it
well reasoned, with a history to back it up? If the answer is “yes,” itís
probably safe—wise, even—to follow the rule as often as possible. Second:
has the rule been created by fusspots, demagogues, or Republicans; in which case,
the rule can usually be ignored without dire repercussions (and maybe even with
ďEnglish tankaĒ is an oxymoron. A uniquely Japanese form, how can it be tanka if
itís written in English? Yet “rules” have been established to re-create this
enchanting and deeply satisfying form of Japanese poetry in English in a way
that approximates the original model as closely as possible. In general, I
trust those in positions of tanka authority: the scholars who have read tanka
in its original language; translated and defined its nuances; helped us to
understand what a tanka might be, were it to be written in English; and then
set up—for our own safety, surely—some “rules” to keep us coloring within
the lines. I gladly embrace the rules because I love the tanka form and canít
speak much Japanese myself, other than to bark a few martial arts practice
orders and ask permission to leave the dojo to use the lavatory.
But—and hereís the rub—I feel compelled to invoke the advice of Basho
(though he was referring to haiku at the time): sometimes one must learn the
rulesÖand then forget them.
The most elemental “rule” of English tanka may be that of syllabic arrangement,
whether exact or approximate. There is one school which believes we should write
tanka in five lines of 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7 syllables, in that order; for a total
of 31, to mirror the 31 word-sounds, spoken in five “phrases,” of the Japanese
original. (I wonít say that Iíve witnessed any fisticuffs in defense of
The 5–7–5–7–7 Rule; but itís come close at times.)
Another school of thought, apparently gaining ground as tanka becomes more
popular in English, believes that a tanka may be written more simply in a
short–long–short–long–long (s–l–s–l–l) pattern that adds up to 31 syllables
or fewer—and the fewer, the better.
I can remember the first lesson I ever learned from my karate sensei: be
like the supple willow; not like the oak, which doesnít bend in the gale and
is broken (I learned it the hard way, too). The application here is: better
to bend a few tanka rules to amazing effect than to cripple a poem with the
over-zealous application of ďrulesĒ that only apply arbitrarily anyway.
“Japanese and English” is a matter of “apples and oranges” at best.
When I write tanka, I aim for a 5–7–5–7–7 or s–l–s–l–l format simply because
I enjoy the rhythm and “authenticity” of it. Often, though, I find that a
different syllable count or an unusual line arrangement is “necessary” for
the tanka to succeed. Itís really up to the poem.
Itís necessary to take a bit of license, I think, when co-opting a poetic form,
bringing it from its native language into another—even more so when dealing
with linguistically unrelated tongues. With English tanka, the assimilation
isnít anchored in similarities of basic language structure (as with, say,
Italian and French); so it must be anchored in spirit.
Having a general form to follow, a set of somewhat flexible rules, helps us
to write good tanka. But sometimes a tanka “works” in an unusual pattern—a
short–short–long–short–short pattern perhaps. Recently Iíve seen poets
experimenting with six-line tanka; and, as far as I can tell, no one made any
serious effort to stop them. The poems simply worked. They breathed the tanka
spirit through and through; and thatís what matters. Form becomes function;
and function dictates form.
Since we can never write a “real” tanka in English, the best we can do is
embrace the “English tanka form” in whatever permutation(s) or school(s) we
choose to follow; experiment when our muses tempt us to; and keep our eyes
trained on the tanka path. Attention to syllable count and line arrangement
is good discipline; and discipline makes for good poetry. Worries over exact
syllable count, perfect line arrangement, when the spirit of the poem itself
is clearly thinking outside the box, will only cause us to stumble and fall
along the way, and run the risk of losing a perfectly lovely poem just because
it doesnít fit some preconceived notion of what an “English tanka”—that old
oxymoron again—ought to be.
As water seeks its own level, I believe a well-intentioned English tanka will
eventually settle into its own form. Just as tanka is evolving in Japan,
moving away from thousand-year-old traditions to embrace modern subject
matter and language, so, too, is tanka in English evolving. If we donít
go with the flow (or should I say “bend like the willow”?) we may be swept
away in the tide.
Tanka will survive and thrive in English precisely because it is adaptable—as
are we, the tanka poets. Our mission is to write in the spirit of tanka; to
write the best English tanka that we can, knowing that we can never write an
exact replica of Japanese tanka; moving forward with our eyes on the tanka
road, looking for adventure, with our roadmap—the “rules” of writing tanka
in English—always in the glove box, just in case.
©2004 Cathy Drinkwater Better
Cathy Drinkwater Better is a successful columnist, childrenís author, and poet,
who lives in Maryland USA.