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Japanse-Tanaka-art - 4/5/14


"Tanka, Tanka, Everywhere: the Tanka and its Techniques in Japanese Poetry" by Lady Ingeborg bildsbriótr Ulfsdottir.


NOTE: See also the files: 100-Tanka-art, Iambic-Pent-art, Nors-Epc-Vrse-art, On-Mad-Songs-art, Rondeau-art, medvl-poetry-lnks, fd-Japan-msg.





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Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



Tanka, Tanka, Everywhere:

the Tanka and its Techniques in Japanese Poetry

by HL Ingeborg bildsbriótr Ulfsdottir


Gracious moon reclines

upon the mountain's high rim.

Does she eat dainty foods

and sip at delicate wines,

watching for cherry blossoms?


               Throughout most of the 600-1600 period, the tanka was the most common or most respected form of waka (Japanese-language poetry).  In the first few centuries there was also the chōka; in the last few centuries there was also the renga, but always there was the tanka.  (Haiku crept in at the very end of period, but only as a humorous style.  This is not the poetic form you're looking for.)


               Simply put, the tanka is a poem made of five lines, of 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7 syllables each.  Nature is a common topic (and one may mention crickets or birds, but almost never other animals); love, grief, and travel were also common themes. Much was made of sensitivity and sensibility.


               Tone and technique tended to vary by century: Fourth through eighth century poems were usually overtly emotional and declarative.  Ninth through eleventh century poems liked to approach meaning from a more oblique angle, and were fond of questions and light themes (though there were notable exceptions).  In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it was mystery and depth, loneliness and sad beauty.  In the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth century, poetry was taken up by the new middle class in addition to courtiers, and became either a bit stagnant (conservative school) or more "vulgar" (progressive school). [Note: "vulgar" in this case doesn't mean using cuss words, it means using rougher images, like a dog barking behind a shack.]  Following are an example from each of these periods.


This is a translation of a poem from the Man'yōshū, a collection which was made of mostly earlier poems that were compiled in the late eighth century:


If you, our high-shining

Prince of the Sun

were here,

the Garden Palace gates

would not fall to ruin!


                                                            Note how it is simple without being simplistic.



Here is a poem from the Kokin Wakashū, compiled in 905:


My sleeve is fragrant

just because I plucked a spray.

Does the warbler think,

"I have found a plum in bloom,"

that he comes here with his song?



A poem from the twelfth-century poet, Priest Saigyō:


While denying his heart,

Even a priest cannot but know

The depths of a sad beauty:

From the marsh a longbill

Flies off in the autumn dusk.



"Love Promises Broken," From the fourteenth-century Lady Jusammi Chikako:


In recent days

I can no longer say of wretchedness

That it is wretched,

For I feel my grief has made me

No longer truly capable of grief.





               One way the Japanese packed more meaning into a short poetic form is through the use of allusion to previous poems.  Here is the original poem by the Priest Nōin (998-1050):


If I could only show it

To someone with sufficient feeling—

Here in Tsu Province

The vicinity of Naniwa

Is filled with sights of spring.


And here is a poem alluding to it, by the Priest Saigyō (1118-1190):


Only a dream!

The bygone glories of the spring

At Naniwa in Tsu—

Everywhere the rough wind rustles over

The frost-withered leaves of reeds.



               A related technique is called honkadori, aka "allusive variation."  It is "an echoing of an older poem or poems, not just to borrow material or phrasing, but to raise the atmosphere—something of the situation, the tone, and the meaning—of the original." (Japanese Court Poetry p.14).


Keeping this longing
Hidden within is what hurts –
With only me to hear my sighs
Ki no Tsurayuki

Another evening's sighs:
Have I forgotten
This hidden longing
Is mine alone to suffer
As days become months?
Princess Shokushi



               A jo, aka "preface"... "usually precedes the basic 'statement' of the poem... [is] of unspecified length and is joined to the statement by various techniques of juncture—by word play, by similarity of sound, or by an implied metaphorical relationship." (JCP p.14).  Here is a jo ("melting" to "house") which is a simile, and happens to follow rather than precede the statement in a poem by Ki no Tomonori (BbN p.397):


My yearning is such

that I may perish of it,

melting like hoarfrost

on chrysanthemum hedges

in the garden at my house.



               To demonstrate kakekotoba, a.k.a. "pivot-word," I will use one of my own poems, since the word-play doesn't translate well.  Kakekotoba is "using a particular series of sounds in two overlapping syntactical and semantic patterns" (JCP p.13).  In the following poem


Leaves fall is ending

soon bright winter comes skirling

her skirts swirling

brown leaves and white snow whirling

as she's laughingly twirling.


"fall" may be read as belonging to either "leaves fall" or "fall is ending;" thus, expanded, the poem begins:  "Leaves fall.  Fall is ending."


               Here is another poem of mine for an example of engo, described as the "use of a word that has or creates an 'association' with a preceding word or situation, often bringing out additional dimension of meaning" (JCP p.14).  


Do not spring away

like a startled doe my love

for you is flowering

in the gentle rains of hope

beautiful one do not leave.


"Flowering," "gentle rain," and "leave(s)" bring out spring's secondary meaning of the season, where if you read only the first line, you get only the initial meaning of "leap."  Also, "my love" is a kakekotoba: "Do not spring away like a startled doe, my love.  My love for you is flowering..."



               A specific type of wordplay was popular during the late eighth/early ninth centuries that involved hiding the name of the subject within the text of the poem.  None of them translate well, of course, but here is one I have written, where the hidden topic is the first syllable of each line:


Oh charming dewdrop

ever hanging from a leaf

vanquishing dryness

nestled gently as a thought

sensibility is yours.



               The final unusual-to-Westerners technique common to Japanese poetry is the makurakotoba, a.k.a. "pillow word." This is "typically a five-syllable formulaic expression, often of unknown meaning, which precedes a specific noun or set of nouns" (Brocade by Night p.82), "a stylized semi-imagistic epithet, normally of five syllables, used to modify certain fixed words" (JCP p.12).  While the definitions say the makurakotoba precedes "specific" or "certain fixed words," and indeed makurakotoba became traditional and fixed, Hitomaro (c.662-710) is thought to have invented up to half of the pillow words he used, so don't be afraid to invent your own!  


In making your poetry authentic you can either go the route of using translations of Japanese makurakotoba that won't have the correct number of syllables (such as "fortress strong" for palace, or "white hemp" for sleeves) or create your own pillow words that function in English as the Japanese pillow words did in their original language.  (Note: "pillow word" is slightly misleading; while I can't read Japanese to be certain, I believe the makurakotoba was a phrase rather than a single word.)  In the following poem, "High halls of Heorot" is a makurakotoba for "the palace of Calontir."


High halls of Heorot

the palace of Calontir

gives scope for great deeds

sculpted in spirit's marble

enduring as the people.



               Japanese court poetry also used techniques such as: apostrophe (speaking to someone who is not present or not a person, like the wind); novel verbs (a verb you wouldn't expect with that noun); reasoning technique ("this therefore that,"); metaphor (my love is a rose); simile (my love is like a rose); questioning reality; elegant or feigned confusion ("resembles," "one wonders if," "one mistakes," or straight one thing for the other; especially common in the late ninth century); puns; play with sound patterns including alliteration and repetition (though from the tenth-century on, repetition was seen as a defect); personification; and linking human concerns to the natural world.


               To get you started, here is a list of some commonly used ideas and images: ephemerality, the seasons, the lonely lady (a lady wishing for her suitor), the traveler, the travel-pillow, the Weaver-Maid and Ox-Driver (Chinese constellations), the moon, orange and cherry and damson flower blossoms, snow on plum blossoms, the wood thrush, the cuckoo, returning geese, a lost capital, pillowing arms, melancholy, misfortune, grief, love, best wishes, death, parting, tears, waiting, home, autumn leaves, snow, dew, maidenflowers, sleeves (but not the rest of the clothing), seaweed (euphemism for sexual intercourse), sleeves crossed with a beloved (euphemism for sexual intercourse).


               For further reading, I recommend Earl Miner's Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry for a short overview.  (Note, this is a different, shorter book than Brower and Miner's Japanese Court Poetry, which is also good, and more in depth.)  Other books and articles I recommend are:


Carter, Steven D. Traditional Japanese Poetry. Stanford, California: Stanford University

Press, 1991. Print.


Ebersole, Gary L. Ritual Poetry and the Politics of Death in Early Japan. Princeton, New

Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989. Print.


Levy, Ian Hideo. Hitomaro and the Birth of Japanese Lyricism. Princeton, New Jersey:

Princeton University Press, 1984. Print.


McCullough, Helen Craig. Brocade by Night 'Kokin Wakashū' and the Court Style in

Japanese Classical Poetry. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1985.



Miller, Roy Andrew. 'The Footprints of the Buddha' an Eighth-Century Old Japanese

Poetic Sequence. New Haven, Connecticut: American Oriental Society, 1975.



Ueda, Makoto. "Japanese Poetics." The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and

Poetics. Princeton New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993. Print.


Ueda, Makoto. "Japanese Poetry." The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and

Poetics. Princeton New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993. Print.


Miner, Earl. "Tanka." The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton

New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993. Print.


Copyright 2013 by Caitlin Johnoff. <alianoraree at yahoo.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
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Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org