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.