The Tanka Niche

by Michael McClintock

Up until the 20th century, the short poem in English was dominated by the epigram and proverb, particularly those translated from the Bible and from the Greek and Roman poets, and found embedded in various forms of native and folk literature, including songs, lullabies, and various forms of prayer, homily, and exhortation. Limericks, clerihews, nursery rhymes, and various other forms of doggerel and light, witty, scatological or political verse filled out and completed the range of the short poem. Only with the advent of the Imagists, in both America and the United Kingdom, particularly in the early work of T. E. Hulme, Ezra Pound, and the creation of the cinquain by Adelaide Crapsey, was the short poem in English seen to have a potential far beyond that of “light” or “occasional” verse, or the merely comic, humorous, or witty rhyme.

Fueling this revolution in the English short poem, and most clearly witnessed in the last half of the 20th century, has been the ever-widening study, translation, and adaptation in the West of Japan’s tanka and haiku literature. The brevity and precision of these standalone short poems, and the close examination of their techniques and aesthetic principles, deftly adapted into English by a relative handful of poets, has resulted in a profound reexamination and reassessment of the strengths and weaknesses of English poetry and poetics generally—and the realization that many of the English canon’s finest moments, most-remembered lines, and highest achievements in meaningful expression, past and present, appear in fact to reside in a relative few muscular, irreducible lines that are themselves embedded in long slabs of otherwise extraneous, nonessential verse.

Therein, it seems to me, can be found the singular niche and role of contemporary English-language tanka—to exploit that realization, and to introduce into English literature a kind of short poetry that fully measures up to the achievements of the more traditional, longer poetic forms. Tanka appears ready to accomplish this by, first, peeling away the extraneous and nonessential and, second—unlike the haiku with its inherent and peculiar limitations—by giving full play to the majority of devices available to poetic expression in English.

From “President’s Compass” by Michael McClintock, Ribbons, Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer 2005.