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ARCHIVE: What is Tanka?
Tanka: poetry of reconciliation
by Brian Tasker
Originating more than 1200 years ago, tanka is the classical lyric poem of Japanese literature. The first anthology (Manyoshu) containing some 4,000 poems was published in the 8th century and over six centuries some twenty-one anthologies were published comprising around 30,000 poems. From about 700 to 1200 A.D., tanka or waka a they were then known, were written by courtiers often in the form of notes between lovers expressing love, desire or unrequited love as well as an appreciation of nature. The development of tanka broadly paralleled the absorption of Buddhism into Japanese culture from the 6th century onwards and it may be that one way that the Buddhist emphases of impermanence and the fundamental sorrow of human life were integrated into the Japanese psyche was through the medium of tanka.
What appears evident in the content of many tanka is the tension between the pull of human affairs and the world of nature. This was reflected in the way that human experience, the ever-changing constant of the natural world and the ceaseless flow of time refined the feelings of poets into a compressed poem. As in this example from the Manyoshu, by an anonymous frontier guard in a translation by Kenneth Rexroth:
Over the reeds
Twilight mists rise and settle
Wild ducks cry out
As the evening turns cold
Lover, how I long for you.
A mood of unmitigated loneliness pervades the poem. But what resolves this surface reading is an acceptance and reconciliation to the passage of time and to the cycles of nature that will eventually yield a reunion. The frontier guard's initial inaction is contrasted with the action of nature. Actually, the frontier guard was fulfilling his role of watching: observing the process of unfolding events until he had no choice but to respond - his defences were breached. What is striking about this poem is that the frontier guard was allowed to feel his loneliness - his humanity was respected.
Over the centuries specific poetic concepts were developed. The use of pivot words (kaketoba) to shift the meaning between one phrase and the next, (yojo) surplus meaning, (hakanasa) the lack of stay in human affairs and (mihatenu yume), the likening of life to an unfinished dream among many others. Earl Miner has described tanka as 'island-like moments of rich significance that might arrest, however briefly, the inexorable flow of time.' An important characteristic was the sense of refined human dignity and elegance in the face of what was (and is) essentially transient. Another aspect is that the Japanese have always lived under some sort of social restraint. In a moment of openness, with the need to express their feelings in a brief poem, the depth of feeling became implicit rather than stated; an implicitness also rooted in the Japanese language. The feeling or mood would be contextualized in time and place to root it in the personal, yet operate on an archetypal level, universal rather than just the personal, enabling anyone whether moving forwards or backwards in time to relate to the underlying mood, if not always the context. It is this archetypal transference, at the same time, a sense of subconscious recognition, a kind of emotional déjà vu as well as an original encounter with life, that needs to be preserved in the tanka that we write in the West. Otherwise, tanka risks becoming just another vehicle of self-expression or artistic statement and losing its essentially defining characteristic and attraction. The differences between the archetypal and homogeneity, between ancestral feeling (something that we are constantly adding to) and dull uniformity can be explored through the medium of tanka as a poetry born more of experience than of ideas.
By the 12th century, Court poetry had according to Burton Watson, become increasingly shallow and mannered and the monk-poet Saigyo was a major influence in introducing unconventional subject matter, more rustic and more openly spiritual than the previous courtly preoccupations. This new style was marked by images that conveyed the loneliness, melancholy and colourlessness embodied in the concepts of sabi and yugen. One of Saigyo's most famous poems in a translation by William LaFleur illustrates this theme:
Thought I was free
of passion, so this melancholy
comes as surprise:
a woodcock shoots up from the marsh
where autumn's twilight falls.
I have chosen LaFleur's translation over Watson's (and they are very different) because of the commentary that LaFleur provides in his book The Karma of Words, Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan (pages 103 - 105). This commentary is far too complex to summarise here other than to say that LaFleur explains that it would be a complete misunderstanding to classify Saigyo's poem as a sad poem, and says that 'while the imagery and emotional range of the poem encompass the two poles of our usual dichotomies - light and darkness, life and death, being and non-being, joy and sadness. One always implies and elicits the other.' I'd suggest that it's well worth tracking down this book (now out of print) as it shows how limited our Western understanding of Japanese poetics can be and how much our lives can be enriched by its study.
But even with our limited understanding, I feel that there is some intuitive connection that can point to a quality of authentic and genuine contact with life, (the external world) and our human vulnerability (the internal world) that can be found in tanka as a moment of reconciliation and acceptance to give tanka its place in world poetry. Tanka can offer an opportunity to accept and express (and I feel that the acceptance is somehow deepened and integrated in the expression) of all that life can bring and take away. Both joy and sorrow being the mirror of each at that point where the present is always becoming the past. The poetry is in the spontaneity and unguardedness of that: the somehow effortless reconciliation of our human life to life itself.
long after she's left
the garden she tended
weeds reclaim the flowerbeds
my heart too
has grown wild
Works cited and further reading:
Miner, Earl. (1968) An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry, Stanford University Press, USA.
La Fleur, William. (1986) The Karma of Words, Buddhism and the Literary Arts of Medieval Japan, University of California Press, USA
Saigy¨: Poems of a Mountain Home, trans. Burton Watson, (1991), Columbia University Press, USA
Rexroth, Kenneth. (1974) One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese, New Directions, USA
In the ship¡¯s wake, an anthology of English-language tanka, edited by Brian Tasker, Iron Press, 2001
The Tanka Anthology, edited by Michael Mclintock, Pamela Miller Ness and Jim Kacian, The Red Moon Press, 2003
End-piece tanka by Brian Tasker from the wind-blown clouds, The Bare Bones Press, 1996