Christopher Huber: Tanka Circle

What is tanka? The question is simply answered: a poem written in 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern. I felt content with my answer and decided to join the Kyoto University tanka club to try my hand at the art of their composition and reading. However, as I regularly participated in the club’s meetings, I began to lose faith in this answer of mine. In these meetings, called utakai, participating members submit poems in advance, which are then discussed, analysed and judged by the group. Over the course of these discussions, it became clear that the group and I were approaching the poems in quite different ways; it seemed that our concept of the nature of tanka was estranged. It appeared to me as though the members, even if they complemented the form of my poems or the choice of imagery, struggling to engage with them in the same way. I felt that I would never be able to truly join the group until I had solved the mystery.

At first, I thought the problem lay in communication. Although I could usually understand the clear, slow voice of my Japanese teacher, this ability did not translate into a comprehension of a heated literary discussion about poems I could not prepare in advance. There were certainly many times when I felt completely lost in the discussion. I had failed to follow the line of interpretation, even if I could follow the basic meaning of the sentences.

Aside from the discussion itself, the poems provided another obstacle. Though armed with a dictionary, there was always at least one poem I failed to grasp. Since every member is called upon to make comment, these moments were often quite trying; I would tend to talk around the poem, focusing on specific images without providing any attempt to string together the separate ideas.

However, I gradually felt I was overcoming these problems. My key strategy was to focus on interpreting the poems in advance even if it meant I had to largely ignore the first poem; that time was usually lost anyway in readjusting myself to the style of discussion. Consequently, when it came to the poems I had analysed, I was in a much better position; I was aware of a large amount of possible interpretation, which made following the comments easier and I had already decided on a few points to share, which dulled the pressure and allowed me to join more actively in the discussion.

The strategy proved key to becoming a member of the group. I won the respect of the other members not through my poems, but my interpretations. They responded to the evident consideration I was putting into my interpretation, which communicated my respect for them as poets and their craft. However, even though I was accepted into the club, the distance members felt to my poems did not disappear. We seemed to conceive of tanka in fundamentally different ways.

My first thought had been that tanka was no more than any other form of poetry, no more than one of many possible modes of expression. However, I was forced to reconsider this position after my exposure to the attitude of the club members. Questions on poetry or literature in general tended to meet with surprized and confused expressions; one would think I had asked a strange, even absurd question. When a reply finally emerged, it usually stressed the uniqueness of tanka, before admitting very little interest in other poetic forms. The pursuit was not poetry, but tanka; they read tanka and wrote tanka.

After a number of weeks, I believed I was beginning to understand their perspective. Tanka are, after all, in some ways a truly unique form of Japanese poetry; they have an age long tradition in Japan and stood as the unrivalled form of verse for over half a century. The tanka cannon overflows with great poems and poets; perhaps, their own tradition so rich and deep, tanka poets did not feel the need to look outside of tanka.

However, I was forced to abandon this supposition after a revealing exchange with one of my senpai, one of the leading members of the club, who regularly competes and wins tanka contests. As we walked together back to the station, he explained to me the difference between waka and tanka. Waka literally means Japanese poetry, but, due to the historic predominance of tanka, for a long time, it was used synonymously with the term tanka. My senpai employed the term to distinguish between old and new tanka. The scope of waka, the old tanka, was heavily confined by set conventions of diction and topic. In contrast, contemporary tanka is much freer, without any formal requirements save the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure. After he had clarified the distinction, he told me I wrote in a very waka­-like style and would benefit from studying more contemporary tanka collections.

My senpai had unknowingly answered the question that had been troubling me. Indeed, I had always drawn my inspiration from the classical waka poets, aspiring to their lofty diction and keen seasonal awareness. Yet, no other member of the group was similarly motivated; I alone, it seemed, had believed in the continuity of the tradition; to the others, waka were no more than the works of poets from long ago, without any bearing on their own poetic practice.

I had my answer and indeed succeeded in presenting poems that spoke to the group, yet, if anything, I felt even more lost. I could no longer see why tanka was special, why these poets composed exclusively tanka. They do not see themselves as the last generation in a long line of tanka poets, yet nor did they see themselves as artists focused on a single mode of expression. I struggle to understand, but the struggle is interesting. One day, I will certainly find out what tanka mean to its poets.

6 thoughts on “Christopher Huber: Tanka Circle

  1. Hey Huber San, thank you for sharing your insight on the tanka group—it’s a very interesting read indeed!

    I really like your perspective on the your struggle to reconcile different interpretations—I couldn’t agree more that the struggle itself is “interesting”, and is crucial, especially when it comes to poetry.

    I would like to know if you have any advice for people who are interested in tanka, as how they should get started and what readings would you recommend them to try first?

    • Indeed, the struggle is interesting.

      A lot of Japanese newspapers will have tanka column once or twice a week. They will present a number of poems they think are good as well as some analysis and critique of the poems. I think that would be a good place to start for anyone looking to read tanka. The newspaper do not usually use the elements of classical Japanese grammar which appear in tanka (for example たる, けり, etc…)

      As far as writing goes, at least at the start you might be better off not obsessing over the meaning and focusing more on the flow of 57577 structure. However, after all, there is no real method to writing good poetry. I think probably the most important thing is to acquire a sense of which poems you think are good. You can then apply the same eye to your own work and you will gradually improve.

  2. I effectively know nothing about tanka, so this was a very interesting and educational post! Thanks for sharing your experience, especially all your struggles. I really commend you on sticking through the difficult commentary sessions, finding your own strategy, and constantly working hard to find the meaning of tanka. I’m really curious about both the people in the tanka circle as well as the content of the poems: were there common themes between their poems? Did you notice any common themes between the type of people who were in tanka circle? More specifically, the reason why they became in interested in tanka?

    I’d also love to read a tanka of yours if you’re willing to share!

    • Thank you for your comment.

      I am not sure I would say there were common themes in everyone’s tanka as a whole, but certainly individuals would frequently touch on the same issues in multiple poems. Rather than common themes, maybe one could say there was a common mood. The tanka were very often revelatory, as though one had only just noticed something or just discovered something.

      The members seemed to share no common attribute, aside from their interest in tanka. For many of them, I would never have guessed they were interested in tanka.

      Why they started tanka? It varied significantly from person to person. There are a fair number of people who have not written any tanka before joining the club.

      I would be glad to allow you to read one, but I would prefer not to post it here. Please ask me again in person.

  3. Hey, Chris! I have to say that it’s nothing short of incredible that this was your CIP this semester. I can understand your frustration and worry, what with having to go to meetings unsure if you’d understood what people had tried to convey and vice versa. But, the experience overall sounds amazing and unique and I think it’s so cool that you had the chance to write poetry in Japanese.

    My question might be hard to answer in just a short comment, but I’m curious about the kind of topics people focused on for their poems. Was there a new topic chosen every week or were you all given free reign to write whatever you wanted? Additionally, what kind of things came up in discussion? I’m curious about the ways that the Japanese students related to the poetry/poetic devices; did anything come up that struck you as startlingly different from what we usually focus on as American students or was it pretty much the same kind of ideas coming up? Again, super cool CIP!

    • Thanks for the positive comment.

      There were no weekly topics or constrictions on topic. One or two times someone even submitted poems they had written a long time before, but usually they are recent poems. However, poems always matched the season, i.e. one would not usually mention a cicada in the winter. Of course, there are exceptions for a purpose; to lament the absence of the cicada for example.

      We talked about most of the usual things. First, we would usually try to understand the basic image of the tanka which might require a fair degree of interpretation. Then we would go further and talk about the strengths and weaknesses, lines we liked, problems with flow, emotional responses, etc… However, everyone tended to assume that the poems were personal: written from the perspective of the poet, and emotive: some attempt was made to convey to the reader the emotion of the scene. Furthermore, there was definitely an element of judgement and critique.