Amateur Ruminations on the “5–7–5–7–7” or “s–l–s–l–l”
Rule of Tanka

Cathy Drinkwater Better
a Eucalypt article

This article was first published in Ribbons volume 1 Number 4 Winter 2005 and later in Yellow Moon 20 summer 2006 and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author, and of the editor of Ribbons.

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 heroic results).

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.

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