School of Tanka 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson Eight
The Develpment of English Tanka

If one compares the current stream of contemporary English tanka and their proponents to a river flowing broadly toward the sea of international waters, one can more easily look backward to count, discover, and name the streams which contributed to the waters passing before us today.

The readers of  my works are aware of the importance of two of the major tributaries to our river of English tanka – Father Neal Henry Lawrence who has published several books of his traditional tanka in English and in Japanese and Sanford Goldstein, translator of so many Japanese tanka poets, who himself, has written and published a considerable amount of his own tanka.

Looking farther up the mountain side, and walking deeper into the forest of forgetfulness, there are other springs and creeks to discover. Some of them actually had an inhibiting factor for English tanka writing as if speaking of a river nearly completely dammed by fallen trees. One of the major sources of tanka translation in the 1960s was Robert H. Brower and Earl Miner's book – Japanese Court Poetry. In addition to clarifying the techniques and spirit of tanka, he also placed a warning in his book – one I, as then a haiku writer, took very much to heart. He wrote on page 12: "Others [writers] are led to dismiss Japanese poetry as being too slight, or (what amounts to the same thing) to think they can, as Westerners, compose a real tanka. . . these techniques which demand our attention and a respect that should freeze the anxious poetaster's hand." I clearly remember having a sense of awe, not only for his admonishment, but for the tanka I read in translation. For many years, I took his warning seriously.

It wasn't until the summer of 1989 we heard of a wonderful waterfall that had broken loose, spilling rainbows in all directions three years earlier – Machi Tawara's book, Sarada Kinenbi – Salad Anniversary which had finally had been translated into English by Juliet Winters Carpenter. (Jack Stamm's more tanka-like versions appeared later.) The first 'news' of this book came from a book review written by Sanford Goldstein in Frogpond, the journal of the Haiku Society of America. Along with his review was printed a sequence of Goldstein's tanka. When many of us realized that people in Japan were still writing tanka and that someone had the courage to write and to offer for publication homemade tanka in English, the logjam of no-saying in books was instantly broken.

Bright, clear streams sprang from ancient boulders bringing wider pools of sparkling translation. Donald Keene, Burton Watson and Hiro Sato, Leza Lowitz, Jane Hirshfield, Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi, Stephen D. Carter, while the oldest and broadest was Arthur Waley's Japanese Poetry: The Uta – flowing quietly pass us since 1919.
The learning process, accelerated by haiku writing, took very little time before the results to begin to show up in publications in the way swift waters rearrange rocks. One early spring bubbled up in the last issues of Hal Roth's journal, Windchimes. George Ralph's and Alexis Rotella's first tanka appeared in this magazine from Maryland. Later in the year 1989 tanka began appearing in Mirrors – International Haiku Forum from Anna Holley, George Ralph, Pat Shelley and myself.

Before we wade too deeply into this stream, we must investigate another deep, and wide source of encouragement for English tanka. This came from the river of Atsuo Nakagawa, who published Poetry Nippon. It was from Poetry Nippon that we discovered that the royal family still wrote tanka, that some members even attended the Poetry Group's Sunday meetings and from this we found the most honorable spring of tanka coming from Marie Philomène's book, The New Year's Poetry Party at the Imperial Court. Again our awe was mixed with encouragement that the tanka genre was a viable contemporary poetry form.

Like the melting of a glacier, the first international tanka contest, by Poetry Nippon, brought to the many haiku writers the assurance to try tanka writing. In response to this landslide, Atsuo Nakagawa republished his book, Tanka in English: In Pursuit of World Tanka, in which he pulled together many smaller side streams of tanka contribution and gave them all a firm direction. It was from this that I learned of the tanka of Father Lawrence and of Akiko Baba.

Seeing what a positive impetus the Poetry Nippon contest gave the genre motivated me to also start a tanka contest that same year now called Tanka Splendor Awards. I was not so interested in ranking the tanka of various writers but to gather together a set of outstanding tanka to serve as inspiration and model for others to learn to write tanka. Thus, 31 winners were picked and instead of prizes of money, the prize was publication in Tanka Splendor. Readers were not told how to write tanka, though the booklets did carry essays which were helpful in this way, but were allowed to read and enjoy the poems. Over the years the judges were: Sanford Goldstein, George Ralph, Leza Lowitz, Jane Hirshfield, Geraldine C. Little, Larry Gross and George Swede of Canada who has done the judging twice. One year Hatsue Kawamura was the first native Japanese judge.

In the first five years of the contest Werner, my husband, and I felt there were many poems which were worthy of publication which had not been picked. Thus, in 1994, we reread all of the entries to the previous contests, picked the best authors, and found their best tanka for the book, Wind Five Folded – The First English-Language Tanka Anthology. From this success, the focus of AHA Books shifted from haiku to tanka which has published tanka books by Father Lawrence, Sanford Goldstein, Geraldine C. Little, Randy Brooks, Gerard J. Conforti, Jane and Werner Reichhold, and translations with Hatsue Kawamura of Fumi Saito Akiko Baba and Fumiko Nakajo.

While rejoicing in this flooding of tanka in English, one must also note that two English haiku magazines in the USA which previously occasionally published tanka have now decided to ban all tanka from their journals. When the stream must flow down the hill and one course is blocked, the water spreads out to find its several other ways. Thus, we have in Canada, Raw NerVZ edited by Dorothy Howard. Since taking over the renga journal Lynx in 1993, Werner and I have consistently made tanka one of the major genre by publishing over 400 tanka per year. American Tanka was edited by Laura Maffei which flowed with the Hudson River around Staten Island, New York.

Into our invisible river also flow the streams of electronic tanka from the Internet. The Shiki-Tanka List from Matsuyama University ( posts 5 - 10 tanka sent daily to members and ( offers a section of tanka, articles, and even tanka books online.

A study of literature shows that persons with a degree of ingenuity can write down their thoughts in endless ways. Nearly every method (and non-method which then becomes a method) seems to have been tried by someone sometime. At any period, a poet is faced with the task of finding a "true personal path" between what has been written in the past, what is currently being written by colleagues, what is being experimented with by a (usually) smaller group and his or her own individual mode of speaking in words.

Poetry styles – and fashions in general – are always in the process of moving from the point of being discovered as a new (or revived) style to a high plateau where a few persons have perfected the form while a large following shows optimum interest in it which, in some mysterious phase, slips into saturation and exhausts interest in the form. At this stage, the feature which was admired the most will swing the pendulum the farthest in the opposite direction and determine in which new style it will momentarily come to rest.

The larger the group of working poets, the more "styles" or schools there will be active at the moment and each of these will be at a different stage between introduction and disregard. Today's poets may have been influenced by, or have written under the influence of, such widely varying styles as the sonnet, the free verse-just-what-I-am-doing-at-this-moment-with-a-felt-tipped-pen-in-my-hand to the scissors and paste of language schools. Depending upon whom the poets have admired or which style was in vogue during their college years, a certain number of these poets will be seeking a new way, an antithesis to what is being done by others.

Several developments in English language poetry have prepared our interest for a form that has been largely unknown and virtually ignored by Western poets.

First, by freeing us from the technique of rhyme (until rappers appeared who revived it), poets of the last century have shown us that meaningful thoughts can be named poetry even when rhyme and line are newly defined – or completely obliterated, a deed laid at the feet of poets at the turn of this century – Stéphane Mallarmé, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Elliot and Ezra Pound and others.

The late appreciation of Emily Dickson's poems composed of sentence fragments opened the acceptance of these and gave importance to the use of phrases.
The Imagists, headed by Ezra Pound, in England, and Amy Lowell, in America, with the influence from the haiku, prepared us for an acceptance of the concrete image that is allowed to convey emotional content.

The Beat Poets' emphasis on "just what is happening now to me" was bonded to the concrete images inherited from the Imagists, with literal infusions of translations of poetry from China and Japan, smoothed and raked patterns in the sand for new forms to follow.

Beside these movements were the Language School poets who made popular – well, at least made us aware – of the importance of juxtaposition and acceptance of the serendipity of the accidental.

Like thick, sweet frosting swirled on all of this, poetry has been given the freedom to expose, to investigate and to expurgate personal emotional history with its well-lit and very dark corners. Now nothing seems to be as important as the ability and courage to express one's deepest feelings in poetry form.
As every style or poetry fashion-form has as distraction its excesses, this very factor designates to some degree where seekers will search next for the newest model to investigate. Where there has been too much formlessness, a pattern is sought.

Seen from this vantage point it is no surprise to learn of the current underground interest in one of the world's oldest continually written poetry forms because it precisely fulfills the needs of poets who are not locked into widely imitated poetry styles. I am, of course, referring to what is now known as the tanka.

Until now, interest in foreign-language tanka has been the focus of a very small number of poets. However, one can follow their inky footprints.

In 1911, Adelaide Crapsey had been inspired by translations of tanka, according to notes found in her journals, to create her own novel format which she named the cinquain. In the cinquain the five lines increased and decreased in increments of two syllables to give them a 2-4-6-8-2 shape. Crapsey's early death prevented her from writing more than the very few examples she left and from gathering a wider audience to explore and expand her invention.

Fortunately, there are, at any time, a few persons pursuing these obscure poetry forms. Ruby Shackleford has published (Rosewood. Self-published. Undated. 1986) a book of cinquains and occasionally a small press literary magazine will feature the form, but beyond this the cinquain seems to have fallen between the wide cracks in the reality of the poetic scene until it was revived under the vast work of Deborah Koldji who started the cinquain magazine Amaze and did several anthologies of genre.

Other persons were fascinated with tanka poetry which lead them to translate the classical works. Arthur Waley was one of the first with his slim book, Japanese Poetry, The Uta (Clarendon Press: 1919) designed more to aid the beginning language student than as an introduction to a poetry form. In the 70s Kenneth Rexroth's Women Poets of Japan (with Ikuko Atsumi. New Directions: 1977) offered another selection of tanka and valuable introductions to the poets.

Most of the classical Japanese prose that was translated had tanka imbedded in the text. This was an excellent way to feel the connection between Japanese life as it was at the turn of the millennium and tanka.

In this activity came the best and most complete study of tanka – Robert H. Brower and Earl Miner's book, Japanese Court Poetry ( Stanford University Press: 1961). No other book in English gives such a complete analysis, history, and development of tanka up to this century.

William J. Higginson, has a long and detailed chapter on tanka in his book, The Haiku Handbook, How to Write, Share and Teach Haiku (McGraw-Hill: 1985), but, by his own admission, until the summer of 1993, did not believe it was possible for tanka to be written in English.

Some one who deserves great credit for going against this belief is Sanford Goldstein, formerly professor of English at Purdue University, who has translated, with Seishi Shinoda, three of Japan's most famous tanka writers of this century: Akiko Yosano's Tangled Hair (Charles E. Tuttle: 1987), Takuboku Ishikawa's Sad Toys (Charles E. Tuttle: 1985), and Mochi Saito's Red Lights (Purdue University Press: 1989). Goldstein, however, did not hook into the current credo regarding English-language tanka. During all the years in which he was working on these translations he continuously wrote his own tanka which have been published in three books: This Tanka World (A Purdue Poets Cooperative Book: 1977), Gaijin Aesthetics (Juniper Press: 1983), and At the Hut of the Small Mind (AHA Books: 1992).

Another American who has pioneered, alone in his tanka writing in English, is Father Neal Henry Lawrence, a Saint Benedictine priest who lives and works in Tokyo. He, too, has had to bear the brunt of translators saying, even in the foreword to his books, that it is impossible to write a tanka in English. But here is the work of Father Lawrence. His three books are Soul's Inner Sparkle (Eichosha Shinsha Co. Ltd.: 1983), Rushing Amid Tears (Eichosha Shinsha Co. Ltd.: 1978), Shining Moments (AHA Books: 1993).

In spite of the complete involvement of these two pioneers (neither of them write haiku), the interest in tanka among English writers simply never "caught on" as had the introduction of the haiku earlier in this century.

As if adding her efforts to an invisible snowball which had begun rolling, Jane Hirshfield, a Bay Area poet, was translating (with Mariro Aratani) the poems of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu into the collection titled The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems of Women of the Japanese Court (Scribner & Sons, 1988). This book, which was given several awards (The PEN Translation Award, among them), has been widely circulated, going from hardcover into several paperback editions. In addition, Jane Hirshfield began a series of lectures reading her translations and explaining the form.

Three American women have had their own collections of tanka published individually in books. Alexis Rotella was first with a small chapbook, The Lace Curtain (Jade Mountain Press: 1989). Rotella had been working with the form, in addition to her considerable involvement and attainment with haiku. As one of the top haiku writers in English, Alexis Rotella demonstrates it is possible to excel in both forms as she is the only person to have been a winner of the Tanka Splendor Awards each of the four years of the contest. Most of the time she was awarded for more than one poem so she now has received 10 awards for her tanka.

As result of the poems appearing regularly in Mirrors International Haiku Forum, Jane Reichhold's A Gift of Tanka (AHA Books: 1990) was published and Geraldine C. Little's book, More Light, Larger Vision (AHA Books: 1992) brought the rest of her work which she had introduced in the magazine.

In 1989, as an outgrowth of my own tanka writing, I began teaching the tanka form in the local group, Haiku Writers of Gualala Arts. In 1991 and 1992 I held workshops at the Yuki Teikei Haiku Retreats in Asilomar, California. In 1993 both Jane Hirshfield and I were teaching and speaking at the Haiku North America conference in Livermore.

At the same time, circa 1990, Werner Reichhold was incorporating tanka and tanka sequences (as in "Rolling through Cloud and Thunder") into his collection of haiku and renga in the book Bridge of Voices.

Before this surge of interest, the haiku periodicals virtually ignored the tanka form, though, in addition to haiku they also printed renga and haibun. Some magazines, such as Modern Haiku (Robert Spiess, editor) has a barrier that allows no tanka. (This practice is not that strange. In Japan there is a stricter separation between haiku and tanka poets.) Other magazines such as Wind Chimes (Hal Roth, editor) accepted some of the very few tanka submitted and Frogpond would occasionally support Sanford Goldstein's efforts by printing his tanka sequences or his reviews of tanka books in translation. Lorraine Ellis Harr, editor of Dragonfly was one of the earliest editors to print and encourage the writing of tanka. Phyllis Walsh started Hummingbird, a tiny (sized) magazine for short poetry forms including tanka. In all these cases the number of tanka printed was less than one percent of the material.

By 1990, Mirrors International Haiku Forum, started in 1988, was having six or more pages of tanka per issue from Geraldine Little, Pat Shelley, Anna Holley, George Ralph, Elaine Sherlund and others. The Rice Papers, by Pat Shelley, published by Saratoga Trunk, is also distributed by AHA Books as well as through other outlets. From the interest generated by the tanka contest, these books on what is often thought of as an obscure poetry form are finding new readers and are, in turn, generating new manuscripts of tanka.

With this increased activity, two more American haiku magazines, Brussels Sprout (Francine Porad, editor), and Woodnotes (Michael Welch, editor), began to publish a selection of tanka in each issue.

In Europe, at this time, the haiku magazines Bare Bones (Brian Tasker, editor) and The Haiku Quarterly (Kevin Bailey, editor) of England, Vierteljahresschrift ( Margret Buerschaper, editor) in Germany; and Vuursteen ( Adri van den Berg, Karl Hellemans, and Bart Mesotten, editors) in Holland and Flanders, all publish tanka occasionally in a secondary place of importance to haiku.

One cannot overlook the European interest in tanka which has culminated in and with the German Haiku Society's activities headed by Carl Heinz Kurz and Margret Buerschaper. In 1990, this duo edited and published the first tanka anthology in German – Das Buch der Tanka-Dichtung (Graphikum: 1990).


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Father Neal Henry Lawrence
Order of Saint Benedict

In these times of terror and talk of war it is appropriate to honor a tanka poet of peace – Father Neal Henry Lawrence OSB. His beginnings in the ways of peace set in motion in war – the Second World War in Okinawa where the amount of human suffering, the deaths and the destruction so horrified this lieutenant commander of the navy that he vowed that if he should survive he would then to turn his path and his life toward peace. He admits he had an almost romantic idea of trying to bring peace to the world, but this did not stop him from taking the steps he could in the right direction. When the action ended he opted to remain in Okinawa with a small group of other officers who are now given the credit for the beginning of the rehabilitation of the island. He was then appointed director of the Department of Economic Affairs for the Military Government of the Ryukyu Islands. After the war he was offered an important job with Lever Brothers company, but decided not to become a business man but to devote himself with, as he says, “to creating a better world.”

On the GI Bill he returned to Harvard University for his M.A. in public law and government. Thereafter he was assigned to the diplomatic section of General MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo. In 1948 he was the first U.S. diplomat to officially visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki where the United States had dropped atomic bombs killing tens of thousands. In a ceremony in 1997, the mayor of Nagasaki was given for the city museum a ceramic bowl in which a tanka by Father Lawrence had been inscribed:

Held in tiny hand
Azure blue bottle melted
All twisted and bent
Other hands no longer living
Suffered same atomic fate

After the conclusion of the occupation in 1949, Lawrence was to be transferred to the United States Information Service and stationed in Singapore and Malaya. On a visit to the states he visited a Mexican friend who was studying for the priesthood at the Saint John’s Benedictine Monastery in Collegeville, Minnesota. He was so amazed by the atmosphere of peace that pervaded the place that a deep and lasting impression was made on this man of 43 years. While he continued his diplomatic work, he began to change his church affiliation from Methodist to Roman Catholic. He was baptized in 1952, and in 1960, was ordained a priest. Shortly thereafter was sent to Saint Anselm’s Priory in Tokyo.

In addition to his work at Saint Anselm’s he also taught international relations and English at the Tokyo University until he was retired at the required age of sixty. After this he continued to teach at other universities: Keio, Seikei, Sophia and the Shirayui Women’s College where he was an influence for world peace, and the use of English as an international language.
At this time he stumbled upon tanka when a long-time friend, Shigeru Nambara, the President of Tokyo University, asked him to translate some of his poems for a poetry magazine. Fascinated by the form, and engaged by the poetry of this genre, Father Lawrence experienced an opening up within himself to his feelings and to his inner poet within as he jotted down over 700 tanka. For this, he has been described as “a pioneer poet of original English tanka.”

His first tanka, which some of his critics have said is the best one he ever wrote was:

Through crystal windows,
Beauty of cherry blossoms
Filled my heart with joy.
Yet when my eyes looked beneath,
Fallen petals saddened me.

In 1978, a collection of 170 of his poems was published as Soul’s Inner Sparkle by the Eichosha Publishing Company of Tokyo. Though many Japanese were not sure that a tanka could be written in English, Father Lawrence was determined to bring this genre to a wider audience, not by translation, but through his own words. When asked why he wrote tanka, he answered that he “found great satisfaction and even pleasure in discovering that I am able to describe in this form the essence of what I actually think or feel. The pleasure is doubled when someone else has taken the trouble to read and share with me the same response as I have had.”

One critic wrote: “He is not only a poet, but a Benedictine true to the tradition: a contemplative who can feel rapture even in what others might consider drab and ordinary.”

Examples of Father Lawrence’s vision from Soul’s Inner Sparkle are:

Most exquisite green,
Spring’s weeping willow’s beauty;
Weeping is for joy.
All nature seems filled with hope
When the world is at the new.

Eyes alight with life
Revealed soul’s inner sparkle,
Pure joy and zest for friends,
Desire for sharing love of earth’s
Bounty and exuberance.

In 1983, his second book, Rushing Amid Tears showed that his style had smoothed itself, matured and ripened but that the practice of tanka writing was still as vital to his own inner peace in a very busy schedule.

Hurrying in rain,
Jumping to evade puddles
I sprained my ankle;
Life is rushing amid tears,
Dodging ills, we still suffer.

You gave me a bowl
Of rare Imari china
With subdued colors
Undimmed by time and long use -
But you are gone from this world.

Ten years later the first book of Father Lawrence’s tanka was finally published in America – Shining Moments by AHA Books. Here the scope of his poems had spread out to encompass the whole world and yet are still firmly anchored in his own life.

The rainy season
Is upon us, but no rain
Falling in Tokyo.
The drought is in Africa
More real as we too suffer.

And then across the page is a poem that might have been written in September, 2001.

A family of five
Waiting to welcome a friend
At the Seoul airport
Will never meet on this earth -
A terrorist bomb explodes.


As the tanka scene in English outside of Japan was taking on its own shape and form, Father Lawrence’s style of tanka writing (5-7-5-7-7 syllable count with conventional sentences) came under scrutiny. In the same way as he handled his earlier critics, Father Lawrence was not moved by newer developments. He has remained the bulwark of tradition in form while continuing the elegance and gentleness of the courtly traditions of the Japanese tanka. He has been encouraged in this by his associations with Her Imperial Highness Empress Michiko at the meetings of the Poetry Society of Japan, for the study of English poetry, and by his invitation the New Year’s Poetry Party at the Imperial Palace in 1996.

The next year Father Lawrence was awarded the prestigious Imperial “Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette” for his teaching in universities and for his “groundbreaking poetry of English tanka”.

When we went to Japan in 1998, Father Lawrence was there that very first snowy evening to welcome us to his adopted country with a never-to-be-forgotten meal among his circle of friends. After our long association and work together on his book, it was an honor and a joy to meet him face to face in a big hug. His eyes do sparkle and kindness and joy radiates from his dark robed being. He is an amazing man who has lived an amazing life and has given the world the gift of his person and his poetry.

A few years ago it was finally recognized that there had to be a translation of Father Lawrence’s tanka into the Japanese for his many admirers who did not read English. Nobuko Veronica Sato, who had been translating his work for several years for The Tanka Journal, now took on the job of making a collection of his best works which she put into the traditional Japanese style of tanka. This was titled Blossoms in Time and is available from Suemori Books, 5-15-10-307, Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan. Fax:03-3465-2965. ISBN:4-915777-28-6.

My spider friend stands
On his head upon his web
Practicing yoga?
Each morning when I greet him
He makes no response at all.

The day was dreary,
But the first cherry blossoms
Emerging bravely,
Prelude to the glorious
Alleluia of Easter.

In his advancing years, Father Lawrence lived at the retirement home of the Benedictine community, where he maintained a wide circle of correspondence in addition to his daily monastic schedule of Ora et Labora (Prayer and Work).




Page and Materials Copyright © Jane Reichhold 2011.

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