School of Tanka 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson Six
Modern Japanese Techniques

In the book, Japanese Court Poetry. by Robert H. Bower and Earl Miner (Stanford Press, 1961) is another list of tanka techniques:

1. Parallelism is the oldest poetic device and therefore you have already learned about it and understand it. Even the Psalms from the Old Testament were poems built on this device. Its use crossed all borders at all times and is still a useful technique.

2. Irony is the word used in the book, but I would think paradox is the better expression for the technique in poetry. Stating a paradox is a sure-fire method of capturing the readers’ attention because a little voice within them will scream, “That is not right.” and then they keep reading to see how the poet justifies it.

3. Makurakotoba (MAH-COO-RAH-KOH-TOH-BAH)  pillow words
These are stylized semi-imagistic epithet chosen partly for its sound, amplification or imagery. Hitomaro (one of the most celebrated poets in the Man’yoshuu) created over one-half of his own pillow words to at once enhance his style as well as metaphor. A modern example would be when we refer to New York City as The Big Apple.

4. Kakekotoba (KAH-KEY-KOH-TOH-BAH) pivot word
By expressing emotional feelings tanka affirms a connectedness between something unseen but real -- our feelings -- with the observable world around us. Tanka gives the mind a picture which can, if it is successful, joins for and evokes a felt emotional state.
During the development of tanka, writers became very sensitive to the bridge -- the word, or words -- leading the reader from the nature image to the statement of emotion. They found in their language, as we have in ours, words which can apply or add to the description of both nature and human feelings. For example, a classic tanka by Anonymous from the Kokinshu translated by Donald Keene:

Because there was a seed
A pine has grown even here
On these barren rocks:
If we really love our love
What can keep us from meeting?

Here the phrase "on barren rocks" refers to both the ground where a seed fell and grew while at the same is describing the feeling of lack of love because of the couple's not being able to meet. One test of the effectiveness of this technique is to cover the bottom two lines to see if they read as a unit with one meaning. If you cover the top two lines, reusing the third line, this unit gives the pivot phrase another meaning.
You have just witnessed the jewel of fascination which is the basis of renga writing. Many haiku writers use the second line as a pivot point.
In both tanka and haiku the pivot can (not always, ever!) occur in the short third line. Thus, if you begin your tanka with a nature image using a short line (five syllables if you are counting) plus a long line (7 syllables), the pivot gains importance by standing alone. The hemstitch or emotional message can be given the expanse of two long (7,7 syllable lines) for telling how you feel right now!

5. Jo (JOH) semi-metaphorical "preface" that joins the two parts of the poems by word-play, similarity of sound or implied metaphorical relationship. The example Bower/Miner use is:
A lonely ship rows out
Of sight
upon the sea of Oomi where its
Drops into the depths:
So I drop from the sight of curious eyes
As I await your sending me some word.

You will encounter the word jo in understanding the three parts of the renga. The jo is the introduction or the setting up the situation for the poem. It is also used in music.

6. Engo (EN-GOH)  word association
Additional words which expand the image and expand the explanation of the poem

If we must part,
And you leave together with the autumn mists
That rise and cover all
Then through the thickening days my feelings
will last unclearing in sad thoughts of you.

The understanding and use of engo is not well-developed, understood or used in English poetry, but you can see from this example how subtle it is.

7. Honkadori (HONKAH-DOOR-EE)  - allusive variation
A well-know literary phrase is "lifted" and given a new beginning or end to make a new poem. It is a  way of honoring someone else's poem. or idea by referring to it in a new way. Since the technique is based on a reference to a previous work, the use of it demands that the author, and to work best, and the reader have a common library of images. In English tanka this is most often used with a reference to a song known to all or a very well-known phrase from nursery rhymes or poems.
Often in Japanese tanka it means writing a new poem on the same theme or device used in a previous poem. Brower / Miner use this example:
On this day in spring
When the lambent air suffuses
Soft tranquility,
Why should the cherry petals flutter
With unsettled heart to earth?

Tomonori – ( 890)

What reason is there
That these cherry petals fluttering
With such unsettled heart
Should symbolize the essential color
Of the soft tranquility of spring?

Fujiwara Teika


8. Use of nature in poems. This technique hardly needs anything said about it as even the person newest to Japanese poetry is aware of how important nature, and images of nature are to their work.

9. Use of personification. In haiku writers are warned not to use personification – the sun smiles on us – but in tanka it is not only allowed but encouraged. It is another way of crossing the boundary between humans and the world of nature. It is another way of joining both animate and inanimate indirectly.

10. Use of allegory: We need this to talk about feelings which have no names. The poet will speak of things that represent abstract ideas. For us Westerners, the understanding and use of allegory is more direct – Dante’s Beatrice stands for Love and Revelation. The Japanese is more just ‘hinted at’ as it is used with a more subtle hand. While Western allegory usually has a single direct meaning, the Japanese usually present the duality of an idea or feeling. While it is hard enough, Brower/Miner admit, to draw the lines between image, metaphor, allegory and symbol in Western poetry, the distinctions are even more difficult to make in Japanese.
Yuu sareba / Nobe no akikaze /Mi ni shimite / Uzura naku nari / Fukakusa no sato

As evening falls,
From along the moors the autumn wind
Blows chill into the heart,
And the quails raise their plaintive cry
In the deep grass of secluded Fukakusa.
Fujiwara Shunzei – trs. by Brower/Miner)

evening farewell
autumn winds of the moor
chill the body
the sound of the quail’s cry
in the village of deep grass
(trs JR)

Looking at tanka history it may seem that the only infallible way to be inspired for the writing of tanka is to have an affair. Go ahead! Let yourself fall in love with anything or anyone you want to. It can be nature, a scene, a place, an activity, persons or life itself.
Out of these everyday experiences of living, loving, and growing can flow the words for tanka. By getting in touch with inner feelings, by looking at them with the eyes of a poet, you will find the peace and space to be more impartial. By sharing your feelings and insights with others you will find you are not alone. By reading others' tanka you will see how we all are faced with similar, but different lessons.
Tanka makes it possible to share at the inner level. The training with haiku to link, to be objective, and succinct can help you write about feelings without being sentimental.
Tanka began as praise for experiences shared with a beloved person. Tanka can still be a way of praising. With the references to nature and human relations, it can be a little song of thanksgiving to the universe; a way of saying thanks for the memories.

Poetry is a social function. Though we have the idea of the poet alone in the ivory tower or the long-haired woman standing solitary by the sea, poetry – the forming of words into a genre – comes only through the association with other humans. All of our poetry grows out of and stays firmly connected with the poetry which was first read or read aloud to the individual. For the non-Japanese, this first source of poetry was often nursery rhymes or children’s songs. For many of us, the phrases of the Bible come easily to the tongue in the security of childhood or as example of the most exalted language to which we were exposed. Later, usually in our teen-age years we learned to love the words of a favorite poet and our notebooks were filled with imitations of that which we admired. It is at this point the non-Japanese joins the native speaker.

Because of the long history of tanka, and its everyday applications; as in the New Year’s game of Hyakunin Isshu, school lessons and daily columns in newspapers and magazines, Japanese children grow up with tanka. Literary expressions, though no longer part of the colloquial language, are still understood and held up as the best way to express certain emotions.

The young poet of any nationality looks first for examples for his or her work among the most popular, or most-published or most esteemed poems. When the lessons one can glean from the ancient works are accomplished, the spotlight of attention moves to contemporary poets. They will influence the new poet either in a positive way (so that the best techniques are imitated) or in an opposite way, which should not be called negative. Very often a poet will see what is being done, and though the poetry maybe done well, but will feel that he or she wants to present an opposing view or movement. In this way, poetic fashions swing in and out in a narrow arc. To be a part of this action, poets who are writing must be presenting their latest work and newer poets must come into contact with this work.

If a beginning poet only reads the classics, his or her work will fail to join the arc at the point at which it is right now today. One of the most vital decisions, which is rarely actually thought about before the next poem is written is: where do I and my poetry fit into the scheme of the work being done today? All too often we think we are simply following our hearts in writing down the words that stream out of our emotions and the images to which they have become attached. Yet, the aware poet will know exactly which poem by which author emoted a strong feeling of either admiration or rejection which has shaped the very form of each poem yet to be written.

Too often literary magazines are treated as if they are luxuries, whims of the idle-endowed, or mouthpieces of the arrogant. In truth, they are the necessary oil and wheels of the vehicle of poetry. Because the tanka genre is not a part of non-Japanese literary, it is even more vital that contemporary and ancient tanka be shared in the target language – English. Thus, translations perform not only the usual needs for furthering contemporary poetry, but acts as bridge between cultures and language in the common pursuit of poetry. Each of us learning to write in this genre owe a deep debt of gratitude to the persons who carry poems from one language into another, regardless of whether the bucket leaks or is slightly bent.

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