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Writing in a new genre: Tanka Poetry
Our creative writing class was recently visited by the Dr. Hisashi Nakamura, who gave a fantastic and insightful lecture on the Tanka writes Alex Teyen

Our creative writing class was recently visited by the esteemed Dr. Hisashi
Nakamura, who gave a fantastic and insightful lecture on the history, composition
and spirit of the poetic form of Tanka. This being a genre I have never written in,
or indeed heard of, before Dr. Nakamura’s visit, I have decided to compose some of
these traditional Japanese poems myself and reflect on the experience.

Firstly, I will give a brief explanation and history of Tanka poetry. The Tanka, like
the Haiku, is a short poem of a set number of syllables (5,7,5,7,7) per line, written
to capture a single moment or emotion. Central to the [   ] of Tanka is the concept
of Aware. Aware, pronounced Awa-ray, is a Japanese word of which the meaning
specifically relates to the fleeting feeling of nostalgia or melancholy experienced
when reading a Tanka. The aim of these poems is to capture that certain feeling of
Aware.

The Tanka is first recorded in the year 905 in the first imperial anthology Manyoshu,
Kokin Wakashu. Today in Japan Manyoshu is still read widely, and millions of Tanka
are composed each year. Over the last decade writing Tanka in English has become
popular worldwide, and the Anglo-Japanese Tanka Society has members in 21
countries.

Below is an example of a Tanka recorded in Manyoshu by the Empress-consort Iwa
no Hime of the 16th Sovereign, Emperor Nintoku. According to legend she was made
unhappy by the exploits of her husband. It is a fine example of the Tanka capturing
the fleeting feelings of aching beauty and melancholy. The poem was originally
written in Japanese and has been translated into English.

Just as I am
I shall wait for my Lord
Till on my black hair,
Trailing unconfined,
The frost shall fall.

As the morning mist trails
Over the ears of rice
In autumn fields,
I know not when and where
My love will end.

Below I have composed a selection of Tanka, some following the traditional ideas of
nature and love; others have a more modern feel.

Ladybird
Looking at the ground
A ladybird on my foot
Feels like a feather
On it’s merry little way
Such gentle creatures there are.

Junkyard
I stand in a place
A graveyard for the machines
I am surrounded
By the rust and the silence
Such mighty beasts laid so low.

Love
The night is lonely
And I am lonely also
I imagine her
Lying serene next to me
I watch her, such loveliness.

Homecoming
City lights below
Signal my descent to land
I am coming home
Down through the darkness we fly
The city skyline rises.

The inspiration for my Tankas came from memories in which I felt a strong sense
Aware. I found the writing of Tanka to be a very interesting experience. At first I
found it difficult to capture the feeling of Aware whilst forming a coherent poem,
however once the formula had been found I discovered that creating a meaningful
Tanka has a calming effect in its ritualistic composition. I felt that constructing these
poems gave me the opportunity to explore my memories and emotions and piece them
together in a way that reflected my feelings of nostalgia and Aware towards them, in a
way that can only be described as cathartic. I would recommend attempting to create
one’s own Tanka as the experience is quite profound. I feel that this is a genre I can
come back to and write in again and again.

Alex Teyen is a young writer based at York St John.



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