Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Kyoka is typically glossed in English as 'humorous tanka.' This is not precisely the case. It would be more accurate to say that kyoka is 'anti-tanka,' earliest kyoka going back to the medieval period are parodies on famous works of literature. Literary parodies, social satire, and comic, even vulgar, verse are all part of kyoka. Every form of humor, including forms that are not considered 'humor' in English are part of the genre, eg, social protest.

It's hard for a person who doesn't read Japanese to know anything about kyoka because very little has been translated into English and even fewer have been written. At the time of this writing I know of only one poem that has appeared in print labeled as 'kyoka,' Johanson's kyoka about a black cat named 'insomnia.' It appeared in Moonset, journal 2, issue 1, Spring, 2006. When I queried Johansson about it he told me that he did not submit it as kyoka; it was the editor, an'ya, who labeled it that. Kudos to an'ya for having the courage to do so! Moonset is an inexpensively produced journal but contains quality poetry. A unique facet of the journal is that an'ya provides commentary on each poem and explains why she chose it. While some pooh-pooh this in the belief that they are perfectly capable of reading the poem and understanding it on their own, I welcome it. We need more people talking, thinking and writing about poetry.

In addition to that one poem, two poems were published in The Tanka Anthology McClintock, Kacian, and Ness, editors, which were labeled 'kyoka style.' McClintock and I have had extensive emailed discussions about kyoka; McClintock sees it as a subset of tanka and doesn't feel any need to separate it out and give it its own label. Ironically, he rejected a poem I submitted to his Tanka Cafe column in Ribbons because it was kyoka, not tanka, and Tanka Cafe is about tanka. As long as we gloss 'kyoka' as nothing but 'humorous tanka' it is possible to see kyoka as a subset of tanka, but once we start writing and labeling things as kyoka which are clearly not tanka, the difference between the two begins to emerge.

I started the Kyoka Mad Poems email list at Googlegroups (see links to the right) to explore kyoka. I did this because I felt that tanka written in English, as a genre, was suffering severe limitations. Recent events have only served to strengthen my feeling, stay tuned for a rant on that topic somewhere in the near future. But for now, let me simply say that mainstream English-language tanka is extremely mannered stuff.

The form, which I have dubbed 'American Mannerism,' is very simple: first half: a natural image, second half, an emotional situation. If you're very creative and clever, you can put the emotional situation first and THEN the natural image. Wow! What excitment. (Close-captioned for the sarcasm impaired.) Diction is often stilted and unnatural and suffers from haikuism, which is to say, the inappropriate application of haiku concepts to tanka. Some tankateers go so far as to insist on a pivot or zeugma in the third or fourth line and many consciously imitate the waka of a thousand years ago. I did this myself... and examples are present in this blog to show it. Imitating the masters is an excellent way to learn the form. But once you learn it, MOVE ON. Find your own voice! Quit writing imitation Japanese waka!

American tanka moved on. Or, to quote Ghostbusters "You forget, I was present an unexplained mass migration of sea sponges!" "Oh c'mon, the sea sponges migrated about a foot!" Now we have American Mannerism, which is medeival Japanese tanka in a coonskin cap, except, not as good. The Japanese may have limited their form, but they didn't limit their imagination. At least, not during the period which the imitaters justly admire. Stagnation set in after Teika.

So what does this have to do with kyoka? Kyoka provides an alternative to mannered tankaism. Kyoka is anti-tanka. It is parody and satire. It makes fun of stuffy old tanka and offers new subjects and new approaches. It's about as popular among tankateers and haikuists as body odor at a beauty pageant, which means those few souls who are consciously trying it out feel rather self-conscious and are trying to fit it into their concept of the tanka tradition. Kyoka Mad Poems has seen a lot of genteel humor and vulgarities and attempts at 'tanka noir.'

Nonetheless, humor is under-represented in English-language tanka, and those poets participating in the lists have felt free to experiment with kyoka in a way that they wouldn't with tanka. They enjoy it, too. Freedom and creativity are fun! Even if kyoka never catches on as an English-language genre it will have been worthwhile if it opens tankateers to new ideas, new approaches, and new subjects. The question is: Will anybody publish it? There are precious few venues that publish tanka as it is, and conservatism being what it is, it is to be expected that most won't welcome this new development. I'm crossing my fingers and hoping that the new 3 x 5 Poetry Review <3x5poetry.com> will be a good venue for kyoka. Editor Denis M. Garrison is certainly one of the most open-minded of the Japaniform editors, and is friendly to kyoka -- he will be publishing my upcoming article, "11 Good Kyoka," there. Here's hoping for good buzz from that.

Tanka readership is a small part of the haiku readership. Tanka is almost always subsumed as an adjunct to haiku, as the footnote to the much more popular genre of haiku. This is sad because as much as I have criticized the current state of tanka, I like the stuff. Even the excessively mannered works are well written, pleasant, and enjoyable poetry. I don't mind reading such stuff, I just hate to see it held up as the standard to which we should all aspire. There are a number of tanka poets who write very good stuff and I'm positive that if somehow their work could be put before a wider audience, a lot of people would become tanka fans. However, that requires more editors to publish more of the stuff, more journals and anthologies to accept it, and more poets to write it. This post is a cattle prod to get things moving in that direction.


  1. A few additional comments. Most Edo era mad poems I happen to know are personal comments where strong emotions or opinions are made palatable by wit. While sometimes parody or satire, as you point out, they usually -- almost always -- are full of puns, and that is probably the main reason why few are found in translation. I glimpsed at a kyouka blog you seeded and am afraid I do not feel the immense effort that went into producing mad poems in Japanese. Paradox is fine -- that rhetoric i did see -- but, in my opinion, it is not enough. As English cannot match Japanese for punning, I recommend rhyme, the wilder the better to create a similarly witty form. - rdg

    Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!

  2. Well done. Anyone who does not appreciate humor has not read Aiko or Ikkyu.