Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Star Poems

Novices have just asked me questions about tanka, such as 'why five'? And why isn't a poem tanka if written on four lines?

The reason for five is because that's the way it is and has been for fourteen hundred years. 'Tanka' is the name we put on that kind of poem. Just like a sonnet has fourteen lines, you can't write something with eight lines and call it a sonnet and expect that most people will agree with you.

Fundamentally five is a very sound choice. Five is both simple and complex. It provides enough elements that they can be arranged in nearly infinite patterns, yet, those patterns are not actually infinite; some of the patterns are more successful than others. This is essential for setting up 'yuugen' or 'mystery and depth' or what we call in English, 'dreaming room.' A tanka is complete in itself as a pebble thrown in a lake, but like the pebble, it creates ever expanding ripples. What is not said is as important in tanka as what is said; it is like photography in which positive space (the text) interacts with the negative space (the unspoken).

This allows/requires a tanka to be multivalent; it has multiple readings that bring various thoughts to mind, all of which complement and expand each other. This is what we call 'controlled ambiguity.' It has been variously described as 'vagueness' or 'haziness,' but these terms do not adequately convey what we mean here. A vague poem is one that can be interpreted in multiple ways, but the artist is not in control of the poem or the interpretations. Yet it differs from Western poetry in which the poet controls the message.

The reader of a tanka is co-equal with the poet in creating meaning from a tanka; but that doesn't mean the reader gets to make an arbitrary reading. It is something like a choreographer and a dancer--the choreographer makes the patterns that the dancer interprets.

The essential article on the topic is Denis M. Garrison's 'Dreaming Room,' in MET 3. Read it here He offers the following poem as an example:

mounted butterfly
hanging under hardened glass
floating over cork
just enough room for your dreams
meadow breeze . . . a sapphire flash

— Denis M. Garrison, Modern English Tanka

Garrison instructs, "Let us do an exercise. Read the poem as a drug addict. Now, read it as a political prisoner. Now, as an abused wife. Now, as a soldier. Now as a concerned ecologist. Etc., etc. ad infinitum."

That is dreaming room. All the possible interpretations differ, but they harmonize with one another. They support and enhance each other. By contrast, uncontrolled ambiguity is often vague and contradictory. It confuses, not enlightens.

Not all tanka achieve a broad range of interpretation; sometimes the dreaming room is narrower and more subtle. That's all right. In fact, a lot of tanka don't leave much dreaming room at all. Many of those are shassei, or 'sketches from life,' but I'll leave them for later.

The five parts of a tanka permit multiple meanings to be set up by the poet. The five parts can be subdivided and arranged in various ways, and the five parts themselves may have even small structures within them. The five parts combine together to form larger parts, and that in turn becomes the whole. With the negative space incorporated in, the possibilities for multiple layers and complex structures becomes apparent.

A haiku in three parts cannot achieve such complexity, but longer poems with their infinite number of lines often lack the rigor enforced by the much shorter tanka form. Because tanka are so short, each word matters. There is no room for redundancy -- redundancy, when present, must be deliberately chosen by the poet as the best technique to make his or her point.

across the valley
- thunder -
the sound
the sound
the sound

--Francis Masat, from Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka

Masat uses only five different words: 'across' 'the' valley' 'thunder' and 'sound', yet he manages to convey the immense rolling grandeur of thunder reverberating across the land. More is not necessarily better! St. Exupery's maxim applies here, "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

Note that this does not mean a poem should be as short as possible! It means it should be as short as necessary. You could take the wheels off an airplane, but it would be a bad idea.

Masat's words trigger unspoken associations which expand the poem from its printed words to the mental experience of thunder. Above and beyond the sensations evoked, Masat also manipulates the white space with his formatting. The use of the dashes to set off - thunder - and the staggered indents of 'the sound' help to visually evoke the crack of thunder and its rolling reverberations. Some editors object to 'formatting tricks,' but this is not a 'trick,' it is an attempt to make full use of the allotted space. The spaces and pauses of a poem are just as important as the letters that make up the words.

In Japanese tanka, the calligraphy used to write the poem is an important part of the sensory experience of the poem. Illustrated tanka books were common. This is less so in English; yet clearly we have an urge to manipulate the visual experience of the poem as well as the literary aspect. (Humans like visual art -- see my previous post about rice paddy crop art.) Why should a poet forgo the visual impact of his poem and confine himself to writing only poems flush left against the margin?

Tanka especially must make use of all available resources and the white space of the printed poem is a powerful part of how it achieves its unspoken effect.

this past August,
all at once, the abuse of a decade
condensed into a bullet—
there's a house for sale
in our neighborhood

--Larry Kimmel, from Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka

But I digress. Let us return to the contemplation of five poetic phrases. Kimmel's poem shows us that a 'poetic phrase' can be made up or one or more grammatical phrases. The line breaks cannot be placed anywhere else and have the same effect. Kimmel has constructed his poem perfectly. To alter it is to damage it.

Each line is a 'poetic phrase.' Each poetic phrase is a unit of meaning and prosody that makes a coherent statement of its own which combines with the others to build the poem. The poem also exhibits dreaming room; although the scene is very clear in our minds, the details each person imagines will differ. The poem brings to mind a variety of situations we may have experienced or heard about. Each is unique and the perspectives of the readers will vary, but they are pinned together by the poem. All those different views, if laid together, would build a large and complex mosaic.

The poem does not answer the questions is raises. Who shot whom? Man? Woman? Parent? Child? Did the police come? Did somebody die? Did somebody go to prison? We don't know. We can't know. Moreover, we don't need to know. Good tanka are cliffhangers. They leave us dangling on the precipice. And we like it.

Poems in the Western tradition tell us what to think. They grant closure. They require the reader to be a detective to ferret out the poet's meaning; they are a sort of game in which the goal is to figure out the 'right' interpretation of the poem. In the mid-20th century 'New Criticism' challenged this and asserted that "If it's in the poem, it's in the poem," thus justifying all sorts of interpretations, but this is not the same as dreaming room. Tanka are sufficiently short they resist such deconstruction. Perhaps New Criticism could be effectively applied to longer works such as tanka prose or tanka sequences, but larger works remain a minority of tanka publication.

Which brings us to another point. A tanka is complete. It may deny closure, but it is not unfinished. They are often described as 'fragmentary,' 'unfinished,' and 'incomplete,' but they are not, any more than a pebble is. A pebble may be rough and unpolished, but it is not 'unfinished.' It is what it is. The various poems above illustrate that a tanka is in fact, complete. What they are not is dictatorial. When tanka are described as 'unfinished' what is generally meant is that the reader's participation is required. A lazy reader will be an unsatisfied reader. Likewise, a reader that is trying hard to find the 'right' meaning will be a frustrated reader.

Tanka are best experienced like art: with a contemplative state of mind open to the suggestions of the artist, suggestions which then trigger chains of thought and reaction in the viewer. The best tanka bear repeated viewing. Indeed, they require it. The best tanka, like paintings, continue to reveal things about themselves--about ourselves--over time.

This idea of the tanka as visual image leads us to shassei, or 'sketches from life.' I will skip over how this came into existence in Japan, but read the works of Shiki and learn about his life for elucidation. The dictum that the tanka poet should be faithful to the lived experience is taken to heart by many tanka poets working in English. They present us with images from life. These images are like photographs: they present an image without any explanation. The poet-photographer notices something and records it. Some of these appear extremely banal, and yet, upon closer examination, they reveal that they are the product of a different sort of seeing.

Lucille Nixon, the editor of Sounds from the Unknown, remarked about how she noticed horse mint had tiny lavender flowers at the center--and always had, for thousands of years. She had never noticed it until she had been writing tanka for about two years. Tanka, by focussing on detail, makes us more observant. I am unsure whether it teaches readers to be more observant, but the appeal of these sketches from life is that they bring details into sharp focus that we had not noticed before. Or if noticed, had not seen them in quite that way. Just as Georgia O'Keefe took very small flowers like pansies and blew them up into gigantic canvases that forced us to notice them, so too do tanka.

in the end,
it comes down to
the inadequacy of poets . . .
tiny blue flowers
unnoticed in the grass

--M. Kei, from Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka

Many tanka make the mistake of trying to meld an external image with an internal state. This is so common that it has become a cliché of the genre. Many such linkages try too hard. Such connections between the external and internal should flow naturally. Often times such connections are trying to tell the reader how to interpret the poem. The poet should control the message, but not dictate it. When the poet's intention is all too obvious, the poem suffers.

Mother has sent
a photo of her facelift—
behind her an ancient
French cathedral
covered with scaffolding

--George Swede, from Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka

Juxaposition is sufficient for Swede to make his point. Yet, exactly what is his point? We can spend quite a bit of time wondering about Swede's opinion of his mother's facelift. After all, cathedrals need their scaffolding to repair them and help them last longer. Maybe he approves of his mother' facelift. Or... maybe he doesn't. The reader will probably have their own instant reaction as to what message to take away from the poem, but if they contemplate it longer, it will open up other possible interpretations and lead us to musings about age, beauty, preservation, health, and so forth.

never learning Italian
because my parents
were discriminated against
now, i listen
to Puccini & weep

--Pamela A. Babusci, from Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka

Highly subjective tanka can be effective--and are extremely popular. Babusci's tanka tells us how to interpret the poem, but it goes beyond that. It is a shassei because it is sketching a moment of life, but the image evokes a train of thought that leads to history, discrimination, opera, and family. Even though the author's message is clear and unambiguous, the tanka itself has dreaming room because of the chain of thoughts it launches.

The best way to learn about tanka is to read good tanka. has links to many reputable journals and websites. publishes tanka by well-known poets and provides lessons helpful to the poet. Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka is an anthology that lives up to its name. Buy it at

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