25 Tanka Poets from Great Britain and Ireland

Edited and Introduced by Jon Baldwin
Britain, the best of islands, is situated in the Western Ocean, between France and Ireland. It stretches for eight hundred miles in length and for two hundred in breadth. It provides in unfailing plenty everything that is suited to the use of human beings. It abounds in every kind of mineral. It has broad fields and hillsides which are suitable for the most intensive farming and in which, because of the richness of the soil, all kinds of crops are grown in their seasons. It also has open woodlands which are filled with every kind of game. Through its forest glades stretch pasture-lands which provide the various feeding-stuffs needed by cattle, and there too grow flowers of every hue which offer their honey to the flitting bees. At the foot of its windswept mountains it has meadows green with grass, beauty-spots where clear springs flow into shining streams which ripple gently and murmur an assurance of deep sleep to those lying on their banks.

Despite being written nearly 900 years ago, this poetic opening to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain can still serve as a concise introduction to this small archipelago in North Western Europe. Peculiarly for a history of Kings, Monmouth does not begin with people as such, but with the land and sea, as if location and place determines and shapes the rulers, and indeed the people of the land. As Ford Madox Ford, in his 1912 The Spirit of the People, wrote, “It is not – the whole of Anglo-Saxondom—a matter of race but one, quite simply, of place—of place and spirit, the spirit being born of the environment.”

Monmouth, of course, presents a boastful and idyllic vision of these islands that may well be as mythological as the purported history of the Kings (Arthur and Lear included) that follows. I leave it for the reader of this collection to decide if there still remain such forest glades, fauna and flora, windswept mountains, and shining streams, perhaps with poets dozing on their banks. Contemporary changes, which we may mourn or celebrate, can also be glimpsed—not only between the lines—in the contributions below. Tanka poets were invited to reflect upon and consider the diverse landscapes and cityscapes, community and culture, identity and idioms, of Great Britain and Ireland. What emerges are desolate moors, afternoon clouds, shoreline widgeon, broken pianos, fish and chips, widow’s black, folk song, mountain lakes, John Constable’s sky, oil workers, blackbirds, evening meadows, fields, green gardens, dementia wards, unturning windmills, summer grasses, poppies, Thomas Hardy archetypes, mountain hares, regional dialects, scared ruins, out of season seaside resorts, the changing cityscape, standing stones, and travelling horse-traders.

Interestingly, according to M. Kei’s A History of Tanka Books in English (Modern English Tanka. Volume 1, Number 2. 2006), the first ever book of English-language tanka was published in London in 1899, and called Tanka by poet Ida Henrietta Bean. Kei speculates that Bean’s book capitalised on the interest and exoticisation of the East possibly on the coat-tails of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1885 The Mikado. There would not be another such like collection of tanka in the UK until William Wyatt’s Songs of the Four Seasons, which also included haiku, was published in 1965. This is the era of the confluence of R. H. Blyth, the Beat Poets, the Zen of D. T. Suzuki, and so on. This resulted in a more refined interest in the culture of the East; however it would be haiku, actually the younger form that dominated literary interest. It would not be until 1990 when Blithe Spirit, the journal of the British Haiku Society, became the first journal in the UK to regularly publish tanka. Part of the credit for this must arguably go to the interest in tanka of James Kirkup, the first President of the society. Kirkup’s A Book of Tanka won the 1997 Japanese Festival Foundation Prize and a subsequent invitation to the Imperial New Year Poetry Reading in the presence of the Emperor and Empress at the Palace in Tokyo. The launch of Blithe Spirit was concurrent with the 1990 establishment in the USA of the prominent English language tanka-only journal, Five Lines Down. Around this time other UK journals began to regularly publish tanka alongside their haiku such as Bare Bones, Still, and Presence.

As can perhaps be ascertained from Kirkup’s award, his tanka revealed him to be a generally conservative and strict adherent of 31 syllables (5-7-5-7-7). Tanka poets today, as evidenced in this collection, have set themselves free from what they presumably consider, rightly or wrongly, the constraints of the traditional tanka form whilst retaining the spirit. There is even departure from the short-long-short-long-long line structure. English-language tanka today then, often bear some relationship to Japanese aesthetics, and are typically free verse, unrhymed, unmetered, self-contained, with simple diction, brief, and perhaps with a pivot between the upper phase (5-7-5 or s-l-s) and lower phase (7-7 or l-l), if indeed there are such phases.

Also strongly connected with the original Japanese notion of tanka, the Anglo-Japanese Tanka Society (Nichi Ei Tanka Society) formed in 2005. Its activities are interesting if sporadic: there have been a handful of seminars, conferences, and collaboration with artists from York St John College. However since 2008, there has been just one seminar and book launch, the 1,250th anniversary of Man’yoshu.

The recent history of tanka in Great Britain and Ireland may well be the biography of one man: John Barlow. Barlow’s Snapshot Press, whilst not restricting itself to home-grown poets, has continually published quality collections of tanka (and haiku) since 1997. Regular competitions have also provided tanka poets with an opportunity for publication. Barlow’s own tanka collection, Snow About to Fall (2006), prompted Michael McClintock, then President of the Tanka Society of America, to describe him as “arguably the best and most fully realized, poignant, accomplished tanka poet writing today in the UK.” In 1999 Barlow launched the first journal dedicated solely to English-language tanka to be published outside the USA: Tangled Hair: an international journal of contemporary tanka. His introduction opined that English-language tanka was “very much in its infancy”. Quality literary journals are not renowned for their longevity and Tangled Hair closed in 2006 to allow Barlow to concentrate on one-off projects. His final introduction to Tangled Hair recognised the subsequent growth of English-language tanka but also sounded a note of caution: “it would be warming to think that the future of English-language tanka as a relevant poetic genre is assured, but it is perhaps still too early to make any such claim.” We would do well to rise to this challenge.

A short note: I have retained the title to this collection despite not receiving any entries from poets identifying themselves as currently residing in Wales, Northern Ireland, or the Republic of Ireland (and there is just one poet from Scotland). There may be a series of factors for this omission and one cannot exclude the complex colonial history of the area. I can only hope to soon see special editions featuring tanka poets from Wales, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland.

Enough context: now let the poems speak for themselves.

1) Joanna Ashwell

from here to beyond
desolate moors
bleached by the sky
only a parchment of heather
appears as the colour of the day

County Durham, North East of England, United Kingdom

2) Jon Baldwin

half past three
all afternoon . . .
like no child
would paint

Isle of Thanet, United Kingdom

3) John Barlow

tease the shoreline . . .
the thought
of the morning
in your auburn hair

Ormskirk, Lancashire, United Kingdom

4) Peter Butler

his fingers
grace the keyboard
the single key
that doesn’t work

United Kingdom

5) Tracy Davidson

fish and chips
wrapped in newspaper
sitting on the pier
the smell of salt and vinegar
in our hair

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, United Kingdom

6) Pearl Elizabeth Dell

My grandmother’s clothes
fine linen, silks, brocades,
float from her secret trunk.
Always wearing Widow’s black
she had kept these hidden for me.

Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom

7) Ged Duncan

she begins to pluck
her guitar
sings ancient Breton folk—
outside a police siren
adds its refrain

Composed: Redroaster Cafe, Brighton
Dorset and Sussex, United Kingdom

8) Claire Everett

dawn’s ink and wash
you ask me what I see . . .
time has no meaning
in mountain and mirror-lake
a rorschach of reflection

Composed: Hag Strand Bay, near Derwent Water, Cumbria, England
County Durham, United Kingdom

9) Gerry Jacobson

bones in the churchyard . . .
his brush is still
but his clouds float on
in Hampstead sky

London, United Kingdom (now Australia)

10) Colin Stewart Jones

home from the North Sea
pat their pockets . . .
the high cheekbones
of the homeless man

(Oilies: A term used in Aberdeen for offshore oil workers.)
Aberdeen, Scotland, United Kingdom

11) Michael Kilday

Pen poised
over page –
a blackbird’s
piercing shrill
stills my hand

United Kingdom

12) Doreen King

hiking alone now
recalling the good times
behind me
meadow and hill alike
aglow in soft evening light

London, United Kingdom

13) A A Marcoff

in the middle
of the field
a crow—
its wings shine
with its own black sun

Leatherhead in the Mole Valley, United Kingdom

14) Clare McCotter

strangers to each other outside
here he calls her wife
and she is so for at dusk
they wed in a dark green garden
by the dementia ward

United Kingdom

15) John Parsons

windmill converted
to retirement home
devoid of sails
across its entrance
wind blown leaves

Bungay, Suffolk, United Kingdom

16) Mark Rutter

with golden nibs
the long grasses
of summer’s end
on the wind

Hants, United Kingdom

17) Paul Smith

wind-blown poppies
at the meadow’s edge—
I walk on
not yet ready
to remember

Worcester, England, United Kingdom

18) David Steele

Sean the log man
straight out of Thomas Hardy
with his golden curls—
he seems heavier this year
and his wife more confident

North Elmham, Norfolk, United Kingdom

19) Ian Storr

Mountain hare
sitting in your coat of white
it’s spring now—
out of sorts with time
I have cleared the space for change

Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom

20) Lisa Tibbs

has tha alt moist
allus a brew
as the tykes say
like a personal dictionary
holding me close

(A translation of the first two lines in Yorkshire dialect would be something like ‘have you anything to drink? Always a cup of tea.’)
Lancashire, United Kingdom

21) Diana Webb

a pair of saints
stand back to back
between the bricks
two purple pansies
sprout from a crack

Leatherhead, Surrey, United Kingdom

22) Liam Wilkinson

ice-cream and gull-shit
down his sou’wester
the fibreglass fisherman
wears an
out-of-season smile

York, England, United Kingdom

23) Geoffrey Winch

mezzanine window
interval ice cream
at the National—
cathedral spires dwarfed
by finance houses

Felpham, West Sussex, United Kingdom

24) Ron Woollard

remote and lost
standing stones
stranded in mist—
nothing to do
but hold each other tight

Composed: Dartmoor
Kingston upon Thames, London, United Kingdom

25) Joan Zimmerman

Let’s meet next summer
at the place of the apple tree
where horse traders
can tell your fortune or,
if you have none, invent one.

Windermere, United Kingdom. Current residence in the USA.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank all the poets for their contribution, and M. Kei for his advice. I dedicate my involvement in this endeavour to Iris— this is your home. —Jon Baldwin

© 2011