Tanka Poem: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is Tanka Poetry?
  • 0:41 Tanka Structure and Content
  • 1:56 Examples of Tanka
  • 3:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Tanka poems are a traditional Japanese style of poetry that follows a set pattern. In this lesson, you'll learn the structure of the tanka, be introduced to its subject matter, and be presented with examples of this type of poetry.

What Is Tanka Poetry?

You may be familiar with haiku, a traditional style of Japanese poetry containing only three lines. It's quite a well-known poetic genre in the Japanese tradition, but there are other important forms as well. Tanka is a traditional form of Japanese poetry quite similar to haiku, but with a few important differences. In this lesson, you'll learn how they are structured and what you might expect to find in a tanka poem.

Let's start by looking at a tanka poem. This one is by Ono no Komachi from about the year 850:

the color of the cherry blossom

has faded in vain

in the long rain

while in idle thoughts

I have spent my life.

Tanka Structure and Content

Tanka poems follow a five line form. When written in Japanese, the form will follow a pattern of syllables 5-7-5-7-7. In other words, there are five syllables in the first and third lines and seven syllables in lines two, four, and five. When tonka are translated into English, the syllable count usually changes, which is why our example has nine syllables in the first line. There are only five in the original Japanese version of that line.

Each tanka is divided into two parts: the upper phrase and the lower phrase. The upper phrase consists of the first three lines, and the last two lines make up the lower phrase. The upper phrase typically depicts an image, and the lower phrase presents the poet's ideas about that image. In traditional poetic forms, this point where the tone of the poem shifts is called the turn. In our example, the poet presents an image of faded cherry blossoms, and after the turn, she compares her own life to the wasted beauty of those blossoms.

While haiku poems are usually about nature, tanka are often personal reflections on love and other strong emotions. Tanka also use figurative language. In the example, the poet uses a metaphor: the wilted cherry blossoms become representations of her life.

An Example Tanka

Let's examine a few more examples of tonka from various points in history. This first example is by Takuboku Ishikawa, a poet of the late 19th century:

the trouble is

every man

keeps a prisoner


in his heart

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