by Ryland Shengzhi Li
In English, tanka is typically a five-line lyrical poem without a title. Yet this compact form can “embrace all of human experience in its brief space with emotions of love, pity, suffering, loneliness, or death, expressed in the simplest language,” as Pat Shelley noted in the tanka anthology, Footsteps in the Fog (Press Here, 1994). The structure of tanka creates much of this power. Structures familiar to most tanka poets include the pivot line and the turn. But there is much more, and this essay explores these aspects of tanka craft.
I first consider the multipart structure of virtually all tanka. A tanka contains different ideas that resonate with each other. In this essay, I use the term “ideas” broadly, to refer to both abstract notions and concrete images and experiences. Some ideas are expressed, while others are only inferred by the reader. A tanka links these disparate parts by techniques that range from connecting words and punctuation to similarities in meaning or mood. As much as the ideas themselves, their juxtaposition gives each tanka its power. Skillful juxtaposition can disrupt our conventional assumptions about the meanings of things and enable the poet and reader to re-envision their worlds.
I then consider ways in which a tanka can be structured: one part, two parts, narrative, and theme-and-development. I describe each structure by looking at tanka that apply them and explore how they shape our experience of the poem.
Finally, I explore how understanding structure helps us cultivate a deeper appreciation of tanka, write better tanka, and ultimately gain a deeper understanding of the human experience. Much like a well-wrapped present, a tanka brings with it layers of gifts.
The Power of Juxtaposition
Tanka generally contain two or more different ideas that resonate with each other. They may be expressed or only inferred by the reader. Often, what is inferred is more substantial than what is expressed, like an iceberg, where the greater portion lies hidden beneath the water’s surface. This quality of tanka is often called its dreaming room. The poet’s words are but a vehicle for the reader’s journey. Consider this poem by James Chessing:
it wasn’t always so
the words and silence
that came between us
now I bring you irises
cut this morning in the rain 
The poem can be divided into two expressed parts: the first three lines, describing the broken state of the relationship and better days in the past; and the last two lines, announcing the narrator’s action of bringing “you” irises cut in this morning’s rain. The two expressed parts are obviously related, as they are juxtaposed one after the other and connected with “now.” Much of the relationship, however, is left open for the reader to imagine. The poem hints at an untold story.
The reader may infer additional meanings about characters in the poem, perhaps the sense of intimacy and even love that the narrator still feels for “you,” notwithstanding the present brokenness, and the narrator’s hope to renew and restore the relationship. More subtly, the juxtaposition also opens the reader to a mood of sadness that gives way to tender expectation. Finally, the poem invites the reader to contemplate universal principles, such as the connection between human beings (here in the form of a specific relationship between two people) and the natural world (here as an offering of flowers cut in the morning rain). The poem also suggests the impermanence of all things: past changes in the relationship that led to its brokenness, the expectation of future changes that might be brought about by the narrator’s actions, and the cut flowers that are the vehicle for those future changes.
Thus, through juxtaposition, Chessing invites the reader into a new world: a storyline that continues off the page, a felt mood, even philosophies of life. Readers are not told this but are left to take their own journey, guided but not dictated by the words on the page and the spaces between the words. Each reader’s journey is different; some readers may not agree with my characterizations of the poem, for instance. But that’s what makes tanka rewarding: each poem is like a seed planted in the reader’s heart that may blossom into a unique dream of the world.
And this dream, this experience, is more meaningful and more believable because of the reader’s role in creating it. By contrast, the poet could have directly set forth all the implied meanings as I have done here. But that would take many more words and deprive the reader of dreaming room. And the reader might be more inclined to argue with the poet’s philosophical preaching, as opposed to believing in the deeper meanings uncovered from the poem. In this sense, tanka acts like a wise teacher who allows student-readers to awaken into their own understanding. Or as Kahlil Gibran put it in The Prophet: “No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge. . . . he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.”
The above qualities can be true for tanka with only one expressed idea as well. Consider this poem by Judy Michaels:
Between two rows
of rose bushes—
thorns and all—
the narrow path
to your door
Here a single image runs through all five lines: a narrow path between two rows of thorny rose bushes leading to “your” door. This is a description of a physical place, yet the whole poem is also a metaphor for human relations, and in particular the relation between the narrator and “you.” This layer of additional meaning is strongly implied. The door is “your” heart, representing closeness to “you.” The path is narrow, suggesting that the “you” is selective in whom to open up to. The path is also bounded by thorns, so the narrator must wisely tread a middle path and be prepared to suffer. And yet, the thorns are not those of briars but rather rose bushes, suggesting that the path is also a beautiful and romantic journey.
The poem also invites the reader to imagine what might happen next. Optimists and romantics might think that the narrator will take this “narrow path,” braving the hardships along the way. Other readers might imagine the narrator to be indecisive or to want to forgo the temptations of love on account of hardships. The poem also opens the reader to a mood of expectation fraught with danger, possibly tinged with eagerness or melancholy. Finally, the poem suggests universal principles: the suffering and beauty that figure in a romantic pursuit and, indeed, all of life.
Both preceding examples juxtapose human and natural elements. This is perhaps the most common juxtaposition found in tanka, but there are others:
Tangible and intangible: The physical, concrete, bodily, sensory, and active, juxtaposed with the emotional, relational, mental, spiritual, and contemplative.
Ordinary and extraordinary: The common, everyday, profane, boring, and normal, juxtaposed with the rare, special, sacred, meaningful, and abnormal.
Background and foreground: The environment, season, setting, and context, juxtaposed with the individual being, event, or action of focus.
Nonliving things and living beings: Natural features such as rocks and rivers, human-made features like buildings and bridges, human artifacts such as machines and household objects, juxtaposed with living beings, such as particular plants, animals, and people.
Differences in time: Present juxtaposed with past or future; or experiences of the day and waking hours juxtaposed with those of the night and dreams.
Personal and universal: A specific thing, event, or relationship juxtaposed with a general principle or statement about the world.
These categories are, of course, not mutually exclusive, and many poems feature multiple dichotomies. For instance, Chessing’s poem evinces a natural–human dichotomy—the human relationship juxtaposed with irises cut in this morning’s rain. At the same time, the poem also suggests a dichotomy between the intangible reflection on the relationship and the tangible action of bringing irises. Just as with the human–nature dichotomy, these two aspects also resonate and enhance each other’s meaning: the action of bringing irises sheds light on the narrator’s hopes for the relationship, while the intangible reflection on the relationship gives meaning to the act of bringing irises, making it a symbol of reconciliation and renewal.
The poem further suggests a dichotomy between the present and both the past and future. The present state of “words and silences” is contrasted with the past, “it wasn’t always so,” as well as hope for the future arising from offering irises. What otherwise might merely be a low state of relationship in the present is illuminated as a deviation from past highs and future hopes, a winter that perhaps can lead to a new spring.
These juxtapositions can also disrupt assumptions about the meaning of things, creating space for the reader to give these things new meanings and interconnections. Whereas most tanka feature at least one dichotomy, fewer tanka create this kind of effect. The ones that do, however, are especially powerful. Consider this poem by Lesley Anne Swanson:
along this notebook page
the tiny separations
that ease the final parting
The poem can be divided into two parts, with the third line as a pivot. The former part describes the perforations along a notebook page, a concrete and ordinary thing. The latter part describes the separations (akin to metaphorical perforations) in a relationship that anticipate its final demise. The pivot line, “almost invisible,” applies to both parts.
The juxtaposition of the notebook page with the separations in a relationship disrupts our conventional assumptions about what a notebook page is. We have all written on countless notebook pages since grade school and torn many along the perforation. But after reading the poem, we may never see a notebook page the same way. The poem has created space for us to see the perforated page as a metaphor for the gradual parting in a relationship.
At the same time, the tanka also beckons the reader to invest new meaning in a relationship that is ending. A relationship near its end can be scary and fraught. But the poem attests that relationships are akin to perforated notebook pages, something that is not scary, and may even be satisfying to tear off. And once it is torn off, whether the edge is perfectly torn or not, a new page is revealed. The preceding pages also remain. In the same way, life goes on after a relationship ends. Other relationships can buttress us amid the hurt. Eventually, in the space created by the absence of the old relationship, we may find time and energy for a new one.
Thus, the tanka elevates the notebook page into a new and special meaning, while lowering the stakes of a relationship’s ending. Doing so, the poem also lets readers connect these disparate aspects of their lived experience and find equanimity. Over time, as we read more tanka with different juxtapositions, we may learn to connect more disparate images and ideas and in that way better perceive the interdependence of our world. The world around us, including everyday objects like the notebook page, becomes meaningful and acquires a sense of friendliness. We are no longer alone in the world but are surrounded by companions, a companionship born out of experiencing tanka. Through tanka, we make meaning.
Turning now to a more prosaic aspect of craft, tanka link their individual parts in many different ways. When a technique enables the reader to relate the tanka’s parts with each other, it has done its job. Poems may also use several techniques at once, and their combination can make a poem particularly mesmerizing. Here are some of the techniques:
Explicit connecting words: Typically prepositions, conjunctions, or adverbs, including “like,” “as,” “and,” “or,” “if,” “then,” and “now.”
Punctuation: Ellipses, dashes, commas, question marks, peri-ods, and so on.
Visual formatting: Line breaks, line length, indentation, as well as the more complex visual formatting of concrete poetry.
Sound: Meter, rhyme, line length as heard when read aloud, alliteration, consonance, assonance, and particular kinds of sounds (such as aspirates, liquids, and mutes).
Meaning: Overlapping meaning or theme (for example, as created by a common object, time, season, or place; a causal relationship; or a common sensory experience, such as two different objects that are red) that often involves metaphor, personification, metonymy, and other poetic techniques.
Mood: A similar sense of emotion, atmosphere, or color between the two parts.
Pivot: A central line (or portion) that can be read sensibly with what comes before it and what comes after, and thus has a double meaning; and more broadly, words or phrases that have a double meaning.
Turn: A line (or portion) that gives new meaning to words that preceded it and that often comes near the end of the tanka.
Looking again at these three poems, the Chessing tanka uses a connecting word (“now”), indicating that the action of bringing irises is subsequent to the broken state of the relationship, in time and perhaps in consequence. The poem’s two parts are also connected by the mood: a sense of sadness, of both the low state of the relationship and “the rain.” The sadness gives way to expectation, as evinced by both the past (“it wasn’t always so”) and the present offering of flowers. There is also a connection of meaning: in many cultures, gifting flowers is a recognized way of cultivating relationships.
The Michaels poem employs two dashes, emphasizing and setting off “thorns and all” from the rest of the poem. The entire poem also has a double meaning, simultaneously referring to the physical and relational path to “your door.”
The Swanson poem, as noted, uses a pivot line and contains an overlap in meaning, with the perforations akin to the separations in the relationship. Similarities also occur with sound, as with the words “perforations” and “separations.” Both lend an air of detachment. The last line can also be seen as a turn, converting what thus far could be a focus on a page into a poem about a relationship.
Let us now turn to four specific structures: one part, two parts, narrative, and theme-and-development. These examples are meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive. Many tanka, moreover, could be fairly categorized in multiple ways.
The earlier Michaels piece (“Between two rows”) is a tanka with one expressed part. The strength of the poem lies in a second, implied meaning—the story left untold. What is said is a foil for what is not said, which impacts the reader more forcibly as it is un(der)stated. Another example is Margaret Chula’s tanka:
months after he’s gone
the bar of Ivory soap
in his bathroom
the shape of his hands
The poem offers one image: a bar of soap that retains the shape of “his” hands. Yet the poem’s meaning is profound, implying in the bar of soap “his” life and “his” relationship with the narrator. We do not know why he is gone, but we know his existence is important, to the point that the narrator experiences his imprint in the banal detail of a bar of Ivory soap. And just as the soap and “his” bathroom are imbued with him, so likely are many other objects in the house that he interacted with during the relationship. In their presence, too, the narrator feels his absence. The poem invites the reader to sense this profound loss without actually saying it.
The second kind of tanka, two-part tanka, is the most common kind written in English today. The Chessing and Swanson poems are examples. As in these tanka, the poem’s two parts work in tandem, forming a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. We can further subdivide two-part tanka into three different kinds, which I call event-and-response, topic-and-comment, and tandem structures. Again, these categories are not mutually exclusive.
The event-and-response structure comprises an event, state, or thing paired with a response. Chessing’s poem is an example, where bringing irises is a response to the relationship’s broken state. In turn, readers form their own response to the poem, perhaps a sense of hope and yearning, and an awareness of the ever-changing nature of relationships. We can also imagine a response from the narrator’s partner, such as a softening of the heart that leads to reconciliation.
Another example is Debbie Strange’s poem:
was in a rage last night
these peace offerings
of blue mussels and kelp
Here, the event comprises the first two lines of the ocean in a rage last night, while the response, today’s peace offerings, comes in the last three lines. What follows rage is not destruction, as one might expect, but offerings of peace.
Although the words of the poem focus on the ocean, they also invite the reader to infer meanings about human life. The poem suggests a mood of hopeful expectation in a dire situation, perhaps reconciliation after a fight. If even the ocean, the vastest thing on earth, can resolve rage with peace offerings, how much more so we human beings. In this sense, the poem’s description of the ocean gives us perspective and grounding in our own life, while relating the ocean to human affairs helps us see the ocean with greater familiarity. The poem also suggests the impermanence of all things: even a strong emotion like rage will eventually wane and be pacified. The “peace offerings” here are also food items, often used to cultivate peace between humans.
The next structure, topic-and-comment, comprises a topic and a comment on it. The commentary is often unexpected and encourages us to experience the topic in new ways, as in Kathy Kituai’s poem:
within a gift
holding the silence
in the shape of petals
Here the topic is poppies. The rest of the poem comments: they hold the silence in the shape of their petals, a gift (of silence) within a gift (of flowers). We see the poppies’ form, the shape of their petals, and perhaps infer their color. This is a gift. But we also see the space held between the petals and the silence it contains. Here is another gift.
The poem suggests a truth that applies to gifts and to life more generally: space and the absence of things may be just as valuable, if not more so, than things and their presence. Given the association of poppies with remembrance of the dead, we might read the poem to suggest that in mourning the dead or comforting someone who is in mourning, simply being there is as much a gift as flowers, comforting words, or helpful actions. The same can be said about tanka: what is unsaid and only inferred by the reader can be just as powerful, if not more so, than the words that are said.
Another example of the topic-comment form is this poem by Jenny Ward Angyal:
into the palm of my hand . . .
a rain of blessings
over this aging body
The topic is a slice of everyday life, squeezing shampoo. The comment turns this mundane topic into something extraordinary, a daily, life-giving rain of blessings over the narrator’s aging body.
Through the example of shampoo, the poem suggests the beauty of little things and the power of living every day mindfully. We are invited to contemplate and richly enjoy our daily shower and other routines. The last line also suggests hope and lightness (karumi) in confronting aging: despite the inevitable losses that come with it, we can still live with a keen awareness of the moment that makes every day of our aging “a rain of blessings.” The ordinary—an older person in a shower—is elevated into the extraordinary, even the sacred.
There are other two-part tanka that are neither event-and-response nor topic-and-comment. Many simply juxtapose two ideas with no obvious connection, yet they work in tandem to disrupt and enhance each other’s meaning. The Swanson tanka is a “tandem” poem. There is no obvious connection between notebook pages and the ending of a relationship, but the poem arranges the two parts into a harmonious whole, and the reader is left with a new connection between paper perforations and relationship separations. Another example is Michael Lester’s poem:
I sit for hours
legs dangling over the dock
wondering who I am
the lake reflects
ten thousand moons
The poem juxtaposes the first three lines of the narrator sitting on the dock and wondering about his existence with the last two lines showing the lake reflecting the moons. Both parts occur on the lake. Yet the poem claims a deeper interconnection than merely a shared place. Both the person and the lake are reflective beings: the human reflects on his life, and the lake reflects the moon. Both are also impermanent beings: the “ten thousand moons” of the lake suggest the ever-changing nature of the “I” and indeed of all reality.
A third kind of structure is a narrative, a series of three or more experiences. These tanka are often dense with activity, with several images in quick succession. Their power often arises from this “eventful” quality, overbrimming with life and color, from the fluid flow from one image to the next, or in some cases from a breaking of that flow that gives it new meaning, as in Edward J. Reilly’s poem:
traveling the path
through rustling cornfields
to the cow pasture
I see father waving his cap
just before I wake up
Reilly’s poem offers five images, taking us on a journey through the path, the cornfields, the cow pasture, the father waving his cap, and finally, the waking up. The journey begins with a seemingly simple recounting of pleasant pastoral events but concludes in a surprising final scene (the waking up). This sudden turn makes us question how we understood everything before it—that journey felt so real, but was it a dream? Where is the father now? Is he still alive? Why is the narrator having this dream? We pause, sit with the poem, and confront the feelings that resonate: the narrator’s nostalgia for an earlier part of his life, his memories of and relationship with his father, a sense of loss for what once was and cannot be regained except in dreams. And readers are invited to contemplate their own personal experiences of nostalgia, dreams, and loss.
Not all narrative poems have a turn. Some simply narrate, like this poem by Carol Purington:
He returns at dusk,
wild strawberries cupped pink
in his hard palm
I eat their sweetness one by one
and we talk about the day
This tanka also offers five images: his return at dusk, the wild strawberries, the palm, the narrator eating “their sweetness” one by one, and the conversation. There is no turn, just a simple recounting of events, flowing in a light and happy way. At the same time, the quick succession of events suggests their transience, and in it, a poignant preciousness. The final line also creates a sense of openness: what are they talking about? What did “he” do today (besides being away and gathering strawberries)? What did the narrator do? And so, we are invited into this joyful and intimate conversation.
A fourth tanka structure, theme-and-development, illustrates a theme through two or more examples, giving it color and variety. The theme in turn binds the stages of development into a coherent unity. A typical development begins by invoking nature and ends in human experience, suggesting the interconnection between the two worlds. Consider this poem by Adelaide B. Shaw:
summer night voices—
we listen to katydids
and tree frogs;
our silent conversation
comes in soft breaths
The poem begins with the theme: “summer night voices.” It then develops that theme, first through the voices of katydids and tree frogs that “we” hear. The development culminates with the human voices: “our silent conversation / comes in soft breaths,” suggesting a deep, quiet intimacy. At the same time, the poem is witness to the intimacy between the human characters and their natural setting, not only in the humans’ attentiveness to katydids and tree frogs but also in the unifying theme of “summer night voices.” All—katydid, tree frog, and the humans—belong to the voices of this summer night.
The following poem by Dorothy McLaughlin develops its theme in a more somber direction.
moonlight’s silver glaze
on leaves and grass,
on the jungle stream,
on the faces of soldiers
prepared to kill
The poem states the theme: “moonlight’s silver glaze.” It first applies the theme to pleasant, pastoral objects: leaves and grass. At this point, we could be reading a classic tanka about the beauty of moonlight over the woods. Then the poem takes us in a new direction with “the jungle stream.” These are not woods, but a jungle. The poem ends with a human and graver image: “the faces of soldiers / prepared to kill.” One might easily think of the Vietnam War.
The poem suggests that the moon’s silver glaze, often associated with beauty in tanka, is not intrinsically beautiful. The moonlight does not discriminate between beauty and ugliness. It is simply present, whether on the leaves and grass, on the stream, or on the faces of soldiers prepared to kill. Its significance depends on the context. It can light a pastoral scene or light the soldiers ready to kill and, on account of the light on their faces, render them susceptible to enemy observation and retaliation. The moonlight and all these objects simply are there. There is no judgment.
Now that we’ve taken a tour through tanka structures, we can ask ourselves, “Why does this matter?” You are as much a judge of that as I am. But I suggest that understanding structure matters for three reasons: we better appreciate tanka, we write better tanka, and ultimately, we gain a deeper understanding of the human experience.
We can enjoy tanka, of course, simply by reading it naturally. For many of us, that means we read it, reread it, sit with it, feel it, and perhaps come back to it at an opportune moment. Our skill in reading and appreciating tanka grows as we do it more. Understanding their structures can deepen our appreciation, however. After I read a tanka I like, I ask myself these questions relating to structure:
What are the expressed parts of the tanka?
What dichotomy or dichotomies do they fall into?
What linking techniques are used?
What does the tanka lead me to infer or imagine?
Take Michael Lester’s poem (“I sit for hours”). On first reading, it brought back memories of lakeside walks and stopping at a dock to rest and think. I felt peaceful and reflective, like the narrator and the lake. But asking myself those questions deepened my appreciation. Thinking about linking techniques, I realized that the link was not just a shared place (the lake) or subjective perception (the perspective of the “I”), but also the double meaning of the word “reflects”: the lake reflects the moon, while the narrator reflects on his existence. And just as physical reflection is a product of both the reflected and the reflector, so too philosophical reflection is a product of both the heart and our being. The moon in the lake is not the same as the moon in the sky but is affected by whether the water is calm or rough. Likewise, our perception of who we are and of the value of our life is shaped by our mood in that moment.
As another example, when I asked myself what I could infer from the poem, I realized that “ten thousand moons” has a double meaning. Initially, I read it as indicating the longevity of the lake’s reflective activity (ten thousand months) compared to the brief duration of human reflection (“I sit for hours”) or even human life. But then I realized that “ten thousand moons” also suggests the ever-changing nature of the moon, the lake, and the moon’s reflection, with ten thousand different faces. Similarly, the answer to the existential question, “Who am I?,” is always changing, and one need not cling to a fixed image of oneself. Or, as Walt Whitman said it in “Song of Myself,” “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
At this point, I thought about the various dichotomies at play and saw that not only does the poem juxtapose the human with the natural, but also the mental and spiritual with the physical, and a person with the environment. In this vein, the poem suggests that one way to gain (spiritual) understanding is by (physical) traveling: going to the dock, the narrator sees the lake, and he grasps this new understanding of the self. Similarly, the poem suggests that self-understanding can arise from attending to the physical elements of the natural environment, in this case the lake’s reflective properties.
I don’t find these inferred meanings superior to my initial impression of the poem. Indeed, had I not enjoyed it on first read, I would not have bothered with deeper analysis. But the analysis and structural understanding do offer more layers of meaning and enjoyment. They are a gift within a gift, to borrow from Kathy Kituai’s opening lines.
A deeper appreciation of tanka can also help us to write better. When I first started writing tanka, I exclusively wrote two-part tanka because that is what I had learned. Eventually, I grew into writing one-part tanka. It was not, however, until I started studying tanka structure that I saw that the narrative and theme-and-development structures are effective techniques, and I began to use them. In fact, fewer tanka are published using these structures, and I hope that you, my readers, will consider writing more of them, as well.
My writing process has also changed, especially how I edit my writing. For example, recognizing that the inferred portion of the tanka is often more important than the expressed part, I always ask myself what the poem leads the reader to infer. Sometimes even I do not know the inferred meaning before I write the poem. The writing process surfaces what was otherwise subconscious. Or perhaps it is only by appreciating the words that have come out that I perceive a deeper significance. Also, I ask myself whether the inference is the one I want. If I want the reader to draw a different conclusion, I consider how I can revise the poem to lead the reader there.
I also pay more attention to dichotomies and linking techniques than before. Often, the first draft has a nature–human dichotomy. But can I add another dichotomy or two to give the poem additional layers of meaning? Similarly, the first draft often links the two parts by shared meaning. But can I add a second or third layer of shared meaning? Can I better align the mood of the two parts, or perhaps cause an intentional shift in the mood? And so on.
Of course, your mileage may vary. I suspect that much of what I have described comes intuitively to many seasoned tanka poets, even if they have not articulated it in this way before. Still, I invite you to apply what you have read in this essay to your own reading and writing. When you next write poems, ask yourself the structural questions I have listed above. Try writing narrative and theme-and-development tanka. Reread your favorite tanka and ponder their structural techniques and inferred meanings. Find and create the gift within the gift.
Finally, our understanding of structure and, in turn, our deeper appreciation of tanka can open us to greater insight into the human experience. Structure helps us not only to enjoy the particular story and feelings of each tanka, but also to glean life wisdom. I’ve already described some insights I found in the preceding poems. Recall, for instance, these points from Lester’s poem (“I sit for hours”):
Our perception of who we are and of the value of our life is not only an objective depiction of our external state but is also shaped by our subjective mood in the moment.
There is no single answer to the existential question of “who I am,” but rather, who we are is in constant flux. We need not cling to a fixed image of ourselves.
Self-understanding can be gained through traveling and observation, such as by going to a lake and paying close attention to its reflective properties.
The structural techniques are critical in generating these insights. Consider these three ways. First, juxtapositions help us to see interconnections between disparate things. In Lester’s poem, for example, we see interconnections between nature (the lake) and humans (the narrator), physical objects (the reflection in the water) and human experience (our ever-changing self), ordinary moments (sitting by a lake) and extraordinary moments (gaining insight). We see that we, and all the objects of our world, are not fundamentally isolated but interdependent. We are not alone, but together.
Second, juxtaposition also disrupts conventional assumptions about what things mean. We realize that meanings are largely not intrinsic but rather the result of our perception, and that we can invest experiences with new meanings simply by changing the context in which they appear. Swanson’s poem (“perforations”) is a good example: who would have thought that a perforated notebook page is like a fragmenting relationship?
Finally, tanka convey their life wisdom not through exposition of general principles, but through experience of the particular. Usually, the expressed portion of a tanka depicts particulars: a specific human relationship, season, flower, and the like. The words convey the writer’s awareness and intimate connection with the specifics, and the reader is asked to pay close attention. From these details, the reader infers broader philosophical insights. We see this in all the poems shared above. As such, tanka teach us that we can cultivate wisdom
by mindful and focused attention on ordinary moments.
Thus tanka offer us not only enjoyment but wisdom, and through that wisdom, the possibility of a richer, more fulfilling life. As Dylan Thomas once said, “A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.”
I hope this exploration of tanka structure has helped extend your knowledge of tanka, and through tanka, your knowledge of yourself and the world around you.
within a gift . . .
between the words
our poems hold
dreams and dreams
Author’s note: I’m grateful to Michael Dylan Welch and Dana Gittings for their many invaluable insights and suggestions that made this piece better. I also thank Jenny Ward Angyal, Michael Lester, Rebecca Drouilhet, and Theresa Cancro for their encouragement and helpful feedback. Readers, I welcome your thoughts about this essay and tanka structure. You may reach me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
First published in Ribbons 17:3, Fall 2021.
 This and other quoted poems are past winners of TSA’s Sanford Goldstein International Tanka Contest and can be found, with judges’ commentary, at www.tankasocietyofamerica.org under the heading “TSA Contest.” The exceptions are Carol Purington’s tanka, published in A Pattern for This Place (Winfred Press, 2001), and the last poem, which I wrote for this essay.
 You might not agree that this is a poem with one expressed idea, especially when two dashes suggest a three-part poem. That is also a valid way of understanding it, but I see this as a one-idea poem as it features a single image running through all five lines. Poems are not neatly categorized, and delineations are necessarily fuzzy.
 Dylan Thomas, On the Air with Dylan Thomas: The Broadcasts, 61 (Ralph Maud, ed.) (1991).