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Stock Photo: Takebayashi of Kyoto

Welcome to DVerse, Poets! I am Frank Tassone, your host for today’s Meet the Bar, where we delve into poetic craft.

This month is National Tanka Month, or #NaTankaMo. In honor of this celebration of tanka, I would like to focus on three of the 5-line Japanese forms: tanka, kyoka and gogyohka.

Tanka enjoys a long history in Japan. Originally known as waka (short song), the 5-line verse poem was the medium of literary exchange during the Heian era, the golden age of ancient Japanese culture. Courtiers and emperors alike composed them. Lovers would often share their devotion through the exchange of them.

Ceremony of the Utakai Hajime, about 1950. Wikipedia

Like its cousin, haiku, tanka consist of concrete images and similar line structuring. Unlike haiku, it is “infused with a lyric intensity and intimacy that comes from the direct expression of emotions, as well as from implication, suggestion, and nuance” (Jeanne Emrich, “Tanka Online”). Consider this one from Heian era master Izumi Shikibu:

Although the wind

blows terribly here,

the moonlight also leaks

between the roof planks

of this ruined house

The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi & Izumi Shikibu, Hirschfield and Aratani, translators; p.124

Or a modern one from a modern master, Kala Ramesh:


is an oasis

you say …

or does our thirst

play tricks on us

Kyoka is to the senryu what tanka is to the haiku. That is, Kyoka is a five-line form of parody poetry. While tanka savors the nature/human nature intersection with heart and pathos, kyoka explores just human nature, usually in as satirical a way as possible. Or, at the very least, in a self-deprecating way, as one of mine demonstrates:

Five in the morning

all I want to do

is hit the snooze

only Friday’s light traffic

saves me from being late

Gogyohka is a relatively new form of five-line poetry. Unlike tanka and kyoka, it has no structural requirements or thematic tendencies; it only needs to be written in five lines. Jane Dougherty reminds us that “each line is a phrase, it can be of any length, even a single word, but the line break comes when there is a breath pause.” She also shares a notable examplar:

Wind sighs among new leaves

stream babbles water words

sun draws gold from deep in the meadow

and the blue air sings

with the bustle of bird twitter

Now, a brief word on tanka/kyoka and syllabic writing. Beginners are often taught that both tanka and kyoka need to be written in no more than 31 syllables, usually broken up into a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. Haiku and senryu are similarly conceived to require no more than 17 syllables, in a 5-7-5 pattern. However, an English syllable is a different linguistic unit from a Japanese mora, and the counts refer to mora, not syllable. If an English-language writer of Japanese forms wants to write accurately, the proper syllable count for a haiku/senryu would be 10-12, and a tanka/kyoka 20-24.

That said, if you’re comfortable writing syllabically, do so. If you feel adventurous, and want to write beyond syllabic strictures, more power to you! Just remember to keep it brief. You may want to use a short-long-short-long-long structure, but go where your inspiration takes you!

Savor the joy of writing in the five-line Japanese forms! Happy National Tank Month!

New to dVerse? Here’s what you do:

  • Write a five (5)-line Japanese-form poem of your choice: tanka, kyoka or gogyohka.
  • Post it on your personal site/blog.
  • Include a link back to dVerse in your post.
  • Copy your link onto the Mr. Linky.
  • Remember to click the small checkbox about data protection.
  • Read and comment on some of your fellow poets’ work.
  • Like and leave a comment below if you choose to do so.

Have fun!