Prompt 12 | English homework help


Get ready to count syllables!  For Prompt 12, I’d like us all to write at least one Tanka, a Japanese form similar to the more widely known Haiku.  While most of us know that the Haiku is a three-line poem with a 5-7-5 syllable count per line, here’s how the Tanka differs:

Each Tanka must have 5 lines.

Line one must have 5 syllables.

Line two must have 7 syllables.

Line three must have 5 syllables.

Line four must have 7 syllables.

Line five must have 7 syllables

The tanka should employ a turn, known as a pivotal image, which marks the transition from the examination of an image to the examination of the personal response. This turn is located within the third line.

On its website, The Academy of American Poets writes of the Tanka:

One of the oldest Japanese forms, tanka originated in the seventh century, and quickly became the preferred verse form not only in the Japanese Imperial Court, where nobles competed in tanka contests, but for women and men engaged in courtship. Tanka’s economy and suitability for emotional expression made it ideal for intimate communication; lovers would often, after an evening spent together (often clandestinely), dash off a tanka to give to the other the next morning as a gift of gratitude.

Many of the great tanka poets were women, among them Lady Akazone Emon, Yosano Akiko, and Lady Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote The Tale of Genji, a foundational Japanese prose text that includes over 400 tanka. English-language writers have not taken to the tanka form in the same way they have the haiku, but there are several notable exceptions, including Amy Lowell (Links to an external site.)Kenneth Rexroth (Links to an external site.)Sam Hamill (Links to an external site.), Cid Corman, and Carolyn Kizer (Links to an external site.).

Here are two examples of contemporary tanka.  Of course, note the syllabic count, but also pay attention to the subtle turn of the third line, where the outside observation becomes more personal. 

Two Tanka

BY PHILIP APPLEMAN (Links to an external site.) (Links to an external site.)


In the spring of joy,

when even the mud chuckles,

my soul runs rabid,

snaps at its own bleeding heels,

and barks: “What is happiness?”


She never saw fire

from heaven or hotly fought

with God; but her eyes

smolder for Hiroshima

and the cold death of Buddha.

Sounds easy?  I’m not so sure.  When you write your tanka, consider only using words that are vital.  You don’t have too many words to use, so shy away from too many “empty” words–“the,” “a”, “and,” etc.  Count your syllables, yes, but also make each word count.  



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