Tanka are a form of Japanese poetry that date back more than 1,000 years. Meaning “short song” in Japanese, tanka are 31 on long, written on a single line—an on is similar to a syllable.
Tanka remain very popular in Japan, and these poems have captured every facet of the human experience and the natural world. In the Heian period (794–1185) and the 20th century especially, a number of women stood out as writers of tanka of great beauty, insight, and passion.
We take an in-depth look at tanka and their place in Japanese poetry in a recent online presentation Fireflies Above the Stream on poetry from Kyoto, that you can access here. And in March 2024, we will read tanka, the landmark The Tale of Genji, and contemporary Japense stories on our tour Everyday Beauty: Art and Literature of Japan.
You can read all the tanka discussed during the presentation in this blog post.
Ono no Komachi
The blossom’s tint is washed away
By heavy showers of rain;
My charms, which once I prized so much,
Are also on the wane, —
Both bloomed, alas! in vain
Autumn nights, it seems,
are long by repute alone:
scarcely had we met
when morning’s first light appeared,
leaving everything unsaid.
The autumn night
is long only in name—
We’ve done no more
than gaze at each other
and it’s already dawn
– written in response to Genji
“When the spider’s ways this evening gave fair warning that I would soon arrive,
how strange of you to tell me, Come after my garlic days!”
“If I meant enough to you that you came to me each and every night,
why should my garlic days so offend your daintiness?”
from “The Broom Tree” chapter in The Tale of Genji
The light shining from
The moon upon this wine cup;
In our grasp
Let it circle for a thousand years!
Thoughts of it
Fill my mind;
To forget, even more
Pain is what I want!
Melting from beneath,
The snow opens for the grasses
The one I think upon
Would I want to meet.
Reflecting on my life—
the fireflies above the stream
seem to be my yearning soul
wandering free of my body
Tangled in a thousand strands.
Tangled my hair and
Tangled my tangled memories
Of our long nights of lovemaking.
This agony within,
The unknown music;
Finally it’s this, girlfriend,
The God who invites us,
Lightly into darkness.
Travel with Classical Pursuits to Japan in March 2024 to explore classical and contemporary Japanese poetry and art in Kyoto. For more information, contact Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources for poems by Ono no Komachi: https://lostfoundintrans.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/hyakunin-isshu-no-9/; https://briefpoems.wordpress.com/2020/05/02/watching-rain-brief-poems-by-ono-no-komachi/; translations by William Porter, Helen Craig McCullough, and Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Arantani
Sources for poems by Izumi Shikibu: https://www.wakapoetry.net, numbers SIS XX: 1342; GSIS X: 573; GSIS XI: 635, translated by Thomas McAuley; Tokyo Literary Guide, ed. Dougill et al, Camphor Press, 2020
Sources for poems by Murasaki Shikibu: Tokyo Literary Guide; The Tale of Genji, translated Royall Tyler, Penguin, 2006
Sources for poems by Yosano Akiko:Tokyo Literary Guide; https://briefpoems.wordpress.com/2017/03/21/tangled-hair-some-tanka-by-yosano-akiko/, translated by Kenneth Rexroth; https://www.asymptotejournal.com/poetry/yosano-akiko-five-poems/, translated Stephen Cahaly