‘tan’ = short / ‘ka’ = poem (Japanese)

Most readers will have heard of haiku, the three-line poems which originated in Japanese literature, and which have been a popular poetic form in English-speaking countries since the 1960s.

The seventeen syllable haiku form was derived from an earlier tradition, the tanka or waka. Tanka consist of five lines and thirty-one syllables, strictly arranged in the following pattern: a five syllable line, then one of seven syllables, then one of five, then one of seven, and finally a fifth line of seven syllables.

Wilderness Approaching

Steppe, taiga, tundra:

a land ablaze with itself.

Nothing of beauty:

a landscape rejecting love

but stirring contemplation.

And as you can see, the writer can enjoy the benefits of both tight structure and a touch more breathing room than in a haiku, especially by taking advantage of the possibility of adding a title. The general idea is to introduce a kind of ‘twist’ in the last two lines. Writing tanka is excellent practice in the skills of editing and distilling the essence of poetry.

Tanka can address all the usual subjects of poetry.

The natural world…

Root and Branch

Trees smell good, look good,

feel good, sound good, and do good.

If that’s not enough,

they grant us one more great gift:

they point beyond their own selves.

The human condition…

Coping Strategy

Nice comfort blankets!

Buy your comfort blankets here!

Sir, madam, tell me:

your favoured blanket, is it

Nostalgia or Amnesia?

The bigger picture…


We are often told

that the sky is the limit.

But in a cosmos

of ever expanding space

that seems too unambitious.


A Many Splendoured Thing

“I am looking for

emotionally safe sex,”

was his chat-up line:

so she scalpelled out his heart

and kept it in a condom.


All the World Loves Lovers

Just two kinds exist:

the ones who live secret lives

with the same partner;

and those who live one clear life

but with different partners.

Personal memories…

Gran’s Singer Sewing Machine


dogleg with wheel that will whirr:

shiny black thrummer.

Her home was full of needles:

gramophone, this, and sharp tongue.

Memory itself…

From the Bookself

I fondle my past

like an old fondly kept book;

it flops open wide

at all my favourite bits –

the rest stays stuck together.


There’s No Profit In it


corrupt, crisis-cut, callous

system of a down:

rampant, selfish greed that makes

nihilism look humane.


Triumph of the Will

God has flown his plane

into the Babel Tower:

pious terrorist!

But our cunning pride will win –

we’ll dig a Pit of Babel!

‘Found’ gems (this one from an article about the problems of an ageing population)…

What Do Babies Do With Their Pocket Money?

“In Japan more nappies are

sold to adults than

to babies” (the Sunday Times).

Irresponsible babies!

Buy nappies now! Give a shit!

Which brings us back to the nation that gave birth to the tanka. Writing haiku and tanka are reminiscent of classical Japanese and Chinese painting and calligraphy, short but telling  brush strokes. The overall effect suggests they are easy to write, but they require plenty of thought and honing, and revision to keep faith with that old but useful definition of poetry: the best words in the best order.

I have quoted some of my own tanka and have a wealth of others. They lend themselves to wry humour…

Feed the World

Mutton dressed as spam:

what price a true naked lunch?

What’s on our fork’s end?

Which came first, Chicken Nuggets

or Egg MacMuffins? Eat up.

And to the fate of the artist…

Any Final Request?

The firing squad waits

as he writes his last poem

on a Rizla Red:

he lights up, inhales the words

until bullets pierce their smoke.

I have led several tanka-writing workshops, most recently for the national conference of a fine and lively organisation called Women Growing Old Disgracefully. Some of the participants really took to the form and (with permission) I have to credit one of the Manchester contingent, Angela Dellow, with the following tanka, which explores the various interpretations of the name of this blog-writer (whoever he is)…


So who are you, Ted?

Are you one who lives for now?

Or holds people’s hands?

Or who makes certain things work?

Or is the truth more complex?

Ted x




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