A Brief Statement on Tanka Definition

M. Kei, Editor

Atlas Poetica publishes tanka, including waka and kyoka, along with variants of the tanka form, such as the cinquain. We define tanka as a brief lyric poem that originated in Japan about 1400 years ago, typically 19-26 syllables in length in English. While tanka were written in a pattern of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables in Japanese, that pattern usually gives a poem that is too heavy in English. We recognize that differences in language require different solutions.

All poems should have ‘dreaming room,’ which is to say, they should be complete ideas which allow room for the reader to expand the meaning, just as a pebble tossed into a lake creates ever-expanding circles. While the poet’s view is always manifest in the poem, it is manifested by the choice of images and how they are presented rather than through preaching or editorializing.

While all literary devices are welcome in tanka, we prefer poems in which the language is plain and does not draw attention to itself: the moon, not the jeweled finger pointing at the moon. Line breaks should fall naturally and where they serve the purpose of the poem, not simply to pad or truncate a line to fit a predetermined format. Generally speaking, simple words are better than complex words, but whichever word best serves the poem is the right word. We prefer poems with minimal punctuation and capitalization.

We require poems that contain details of place – the environmental and/or the cultural place – which provide a context distinguishable from other places. We are not interested in ‘universal’ or ‘generic’ poems, but poems that speak specifics and thereby illuminate the world.

Atlas Poetica also accepts tanka in sets and sequences. A ‘sequence’ leads the reader through a progression designed by the poet, but a ‘set’ is simply a grouping by topic which permits the poems to play off one another as they are browsed. Sequences have titles, sets have topics. Both are distinguished from a ‘group’ which is simply a generic term for two or more tanka. Groups do not have titles or topics.

A key difference between long poetry with tanka-like stanzas and tanka in sets and sequences is that each poem in a tanka set or sequence must be capable of standing on its own as an autonomous poem. That is to say, it is grammatically independent from the other poems and makes a coherent statement on its own.

Atlas Poetica welcomes experimentation. Sets and sequences, as well as haibun, are fruitful areas in which to combine different poetic forms and prose to create new kinds of poetry. A few examples could include a tanka sequence with a haiku envoy, a tanka set by multiple authors, tanka combined with sedoka, sonnets, free verse, or other forms, etc. In each case, the tanka must be essential, and while we do not set any limit about the amount of tanka content, works with minimal tanka content are unlikely to be published.