Millikin University Student Essay

Ryan Casey

Ryan Casey graduated with a B.A. in literature. After graduating in May, 2000, he moved to Japan where he is teaching conversational English and literature.
Ryan's haibun Ryan's tanka

A Journey Through Tanka

by Ryan Casey

It all started with a poem.  Okay, well, considering that I'm chronicling my experiences with a form of poetry, that's not all that surprising of a starting point.  But it did.  It started with a poem.

To backtrack slightly, a few short months ago, I didn't know what haiku was.  I really didn't.  In grade school, I did the whole 5-7-5 nature poem.  I wrote quite a few of them actually.  I remember one specifically was about a waterfall.  I can only imagine how horrible they actually are.  My next experience was last semester at a reading from School's Out.  After a lot of confused counting on my fingers-that's weird, I only counted two lines; and now I know that one was only twelve syllables long—I came to realize that I was clueless.  I knew that I didn't know, which was more than I had known before.  And basically, when I walked into class the first time this semester, I wasn't quite sure what to expect.

Haiku grew on me quickly.  It was an reader-friendly genre.  Easy to understand the basics of, and yet rich with endless possibilities.  I enjoyed the restraints of brevity.  It was challenging, and different than my sometimes-verbose writing.

And then I read the poem.

It was a Shiki tanka from The Haiku Handbook.

crowding night
weary with the work
of writing things
blew the fire to life
and drank some tea

What it was exactly about that poem that struck so deeply I'm not sure.  It did, however, seem to contain—somehow—a human element of truth.  In some intangible way, I sat there, reading that tanka, and not only had someone captured a moment.  Shiki, in those five lines, captured a part of me.  A part of humanity.

I really do believe I'm zen enough to not be completely human-centric.  And haiku is great about observing the outside.  But this tanka seemed to be doing more.  Observing the outside and then internalizing it.  It was deeply personal.  There was so much human subtext in what he wrote.  In my opinion, that just could not be accomplished with a haiku. That sense of a moment stretching itself out, with that final sip of tea.

So, I started to read more about tanka.

And at first, I was rather nonplussed.  Nothing—not even sort of—resonated inside me like Shiki's tea tanka.  In fact, I found myself gravitating more, back towards haiku.  I didn't really understand what I was looking at.  All I knew was that Shiki's was not a model.  Some were very abstract; some were actually political.  Many seemed to be one big-run-on sentence.

And so, I begin to read about tanka.  The most interesting thing that I found was a historical narration about the experience of lovers swapping tanka.  A story about a couple writing tanka back and forth to each other had a charmingly pastoral feeling to it.  I remembered some of the really bad sonnets I wrote in high school.  In an embarrassingly romantic sense, the whole idea appealed to me.  And I began to note some rather interesting tanka.

In love
And frail as the stem
Of this summer flower-
Yet will I bloom
Deep red underneath a dazzling sun!

                                      --Akiko Yasano

And then I began to better understand the contemplative nature of tanka.  Like love, it could grasp at more philosophical concepts.  Consider these two tanka concerning death.

A dead brown seed
Becoming in a muddy pot
A white flower-
It is a lie you know
About death I mean

                                    --Jane Reichhold

Inside the coffin
Of my beautiful
The flowers
A riot of color

                                    --Akiko Yasano

Both of these use impressive imagery to capture a thought that the author is having. It burrows itself into the human consciousness. It is an expression of human existence. It is coming to grasp with the inevitable and the impossible.  The first one is striking in its pessimism-the author is casting serious doubt and the idea of new life coming after death. This is a strikingly honest fear-one that probably crosses all minds on occasion.  The second one trivializes death in a beautiful way.  It captures the simplicity of it.  It demonstrates that a person can have a lively impact on the world, even after they have passed on.  These two very different examinations of death demonstrate the introspective path that tanka can take, leaving haiku on another path.

The pathetic fallacies—blending natural surroundings with human occurrences—work much better in tanka I believe.  Or it's more direct.  The haiku leaves things implied.  The tanka is able to draw the connections, but the path becomes the interesting aspect.  To repeat the path becomes the problem.  A haiku gives the picture; a tanka tells you that it is possible to travel from point a to point b on that picture, but it doesn't tell one how.

Writing words
In moonshadows' shape
Pages darken
Laments of the lonely 
Close to the light

                                      --Jane Reichhold

The relationship here between pages and the lonely becomes vastly intriguing.  It follows the contours of shadows-lights and darks.  These become very real; there similar to the images that are presented in a haiku.  The idea of written words and loneliness co-mingle here.  The connection is perhaps the night, the shadows.  The act of writing identifies the writer with the act of writing.

Which brings me to one of the things I've come to appreciate most about tanka.  It has an audience.  The author writes imaging the audience.  This is very crucial.  It may not be as universal as haiku in expression.  But it's more personal.  I single work can create a bond between reader and writer.  I do believe that for haiku, it would take a substantial amount of reading to crack through into the poet's heart.  The thoughts are available.  The essence of humanity is not.  In some ways, I really do like that about haiku, but I also like the way that tanka can interweave so much more.



                    --Jane Reichhold

Here, a whole story is offered.  Five distinct images.  By only syllable count, this could be a short haiku.  But stretched into five lines, it has a linearity.  It tells of an experience, not just a moment.

Which gets to the central question that I'm asking.  Or that I've come to realize, rather.  Does the tanka have to represent the author.  I really think that the haiku does.  The haiku comes from observation.  It's hard to make up what one observes, but one can make up an experience.  So, can tanka come from an artificial point of view?  Perhaps artificial is the wrong word-how about fictional?  Can the narrator of a tanka be a fictional narrator.

If I had to pick a favorite traditional English-language poet, it would be T. S. Eliot.  I am amazed and engaged by his ability to create characters.  J. Alfred Prufrock is real.  Eliot may have been in college when he wrote that poem, but somehow he was able to capture the existence of an aging man's emotions.  Through this, he was able to identify, in a way, with the narrator.  In the text, he became the narrator.  The Waste Land is filled with a montage of such characters.  It comes across as an extremely effective means of communicating ideas.  It finds what makes us similar-for Eliot that was fear, disconnectedness, and death.  But for others, it becomes other possibilities.  It is Eliot's form that I like.

The dramatic monologue, fully realized.

As a dabbling playwright, this is a mode that I've experimented with quite a bit, so I began to wonder if tanka could be constructed that was immune to a fake-o-meter.  I really think it's possible.

My ideas were bolstered by the fact that Jane Reichhold wrote a play of tanka.  There are seven different characters-each colors-that share in a dialogue, representing different aspects of thought and humanity.  Clearly, a variety of identities could be expressed through a single tanka poet.

So, I considered doing a similar task—constructing a dialogue out of tanka.  This proved to be too ambitious a task.  I was/am still very unsure of my tanka.  I haven't received much feedback at all, and I am unsure about whether the pieces succeed on their own—let alone in a connection with others.

But I still wanted to explore this idea.

Capturing several different perspectives on life.

When I considered doing a dialogue, I considered representing humans at different stages of their lives.  They would then make observations about each other.  A father would observe his son; or a pupil, his instructor; or a graduate, herself.

So, I decided to follow this notion on a smaller scale.  I took Shakespeare's seven ages of men, from As You Like It, and composed an observation in tanka verse about a modern figure in each stage.  I enjoyed this experiment, and I personally have a fondness for each of my tanka, though I do question whether they will work for others.  I am eager to get some honest feedback on them.

I found that I'm short on syllables.  In fact, most of mine could fit syllabically into a haiku.  But there's something that develops differently in tanka.  I also think the minimum syllables of both tanka and haiku are very high in English compared to their Japanese counterparts.  Because of my knowledge of the Japanese language, I know that are syllables are rather different than Japanese mora.  For instance, my two-syllable name is four Japanese mora, and the two-syllable word "haiku" is three more, but we pronounce it here as four.  In other words, mora and syllables are not the same, and to appropriately capture tanka, I found myself often staying within twenty or less syllables, rather than the full 31.

As far as adapting the other personas, I have one thought to share.  A tanka.

That story of an affair
My friend claims he had in some town
Contains, alas, lies


Jane Reichhold suggests that all good tanka come from an affair.  In this she suggests that passion is the heart of the tanka.  The following sequence may be fictional; it may, alas, contain lies-but perhaps all affairs do.  I feel I did discover some truth about humanity in this experiment.


See Ryan Casey's tanka project.


haiku conferences haiku courses at Millikin Modern Haiku magazine
speakers & readings haiku competitions at MU student renga
student haiku projects published haiku by students links to haiku web sites
student research on haiku haiku by Millikin students directory of haiku magazines


2001, Dr. Randy Brooks• Millikin University
last updated 8/16/01 • about this web site