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.
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 longI
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.
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.
then I read the poem.
was a Shiki tanka from The Haiku Handbook.
weary with the work
of writing things
blew the fire to life
and drank some tea
it was exactly about that poem that struck so deeply I'm not sure.
It did, however, seem to containsomehowa 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.
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.
I started to read more about tanka.
at first, I was rather nonplussed. Nothingnot even sort
ofresonated 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.
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
And frail as the stem
Of this summer flower-
Yet will I bloom
Deep red underneath a dazzling sun!
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
Becoming in a muddy pot
A white flower-
It is a lie you know
About death I mean
Of my beautiful
A riot of color
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.
fallaciesblending natural surroundings with human occurrenceswork
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.
In moonshadows' shape
Laments of the lonely
Close to the light
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.
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.
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.
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
So, I considered
doing a similar taskconstructing 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 ownlet
alone in a connection with others.
But I still
wanted to explore this idea.
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.
of an affair
My friend claims he had in some town
Contains, alas, lies
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.
Ryan Casey's tanka