2009 TSA International Tanka Contest Winners
John Barlow and Pamela Miller Ness, Judges
swirl and disperse
in the drought winds of summer
I capture fireflies
pin them in my muslin dress
Linda Jeannette Ward
Coinjock, North Carolina
There is nothing remarkable about the beginning of this tanka: very simply, “dropped leaves/swirl and disperse.” There could be a question about who or what has done the dropping, but it’s safe enough to assume that it is just leaves than have dropped from trees and that there is no human intervention. The tanka then comes alive, both literally and poetically, in the language of the third line, “in the drought winds of summer.” This is not, as might be expected from the opening lines, a mundane poem about autumn leaves. The “drought winds of summer” also echo the “dr,” “d,” and “s” sounds of the first two lines. The tanka then takes another unexpected turn. The poet is bought to the fore, capturing fireflies—a common enough pursuit. But there is another twist as they are pinned “in my muslin dress.” Again, there are those repeated sounds from the first half of the poem and the end of the previous line, together with a final buildup of “m’s” that resonate with the earlier “summer.” Indeed, it is notable (in a barely noticeable sense) that various sounds are repeated harmoniously throughout this tanka, particularly at the beginning and end of lines without there ever being an overt sense of rhyme. Every line-ending word includes an “s.” The opening sounds of the two long lines beginning “in” and “pin” are echoed later in those lines with “winds” and “in” and “muslin.” The alliterative and other poetic qualities of the tanka are understated; the language compelling. Combined with the unforced lineation for what is being said—a fine example of “poetic ear” overriding the often preferred short-long-short-long-long pattern suggested by the characteristics of the moraic language in Japanese tanka—these qualities carry the reader through the poem, and perhaps to a conclusion without really taking in what is actually being said. It may be normal to “capture fireflies,” but how usual is it to “pin them” in a plain, lightweight dress? Perhaps it is a common childhood tradition. Perhaps it is a cultural pastime for adults. Perhaps it is the whim of the poet alone. Without knowing the identity of the poet or the location of the poem, it is impossible to say. Whatever, the effect must be quite dramatic—and the juxtaposition of the two parts of the tanka suggests it is the firefly-lit dress that is swirling in the dry, restless heat of a day’s end, adding another strong visual dimension to this highly tactile poem.
Another aspect of the tanka, whether intentional or otherwise, is our human impulse to control nature, and harness its power for our immediate benefit. The poet is pinning the fireflies into a dress—something that can’t be a comfortable experience for the beetles, even if it is done in such a way so as not to harm them. As readers, we might baulk from the realization, and the poem might well fail to have an emotional resonance. Possibly there is a stirring juxtaposition with the natural forces of the opening section, the drought winds swirling the dropped leaves—something we might assume we have no control over. But do we? This is summer, and without further geographical information we don’t know if such meteorological occurrences are historically usual for the location. Could it be that through the activity of man, in harnessing the power of nature for his immediate benefit, has caused the disruption or alteration of ecosystems far larger than those of the few fireflies caught up in this poem, with far more lasting consequences? Has human activity ultimately caused the drought, caused the leaves to drop from the trees in summer, caused the warm, dry winds? Although essentially a poem about the juxtaposition of the minutiae of the fireflies pinned in the dress and the dropped leaves swirling in the wind—and the emotional connections between these for the poet at least—this very finely crafted tanka has far wider intellectual implications.
to dive into
all it needs to live
This is a spare and carefully crafted gem of a tanka that says so much in thirteen simple words. Each line, consisting of only one to four perfectly chosen words, captures a complete image, action, or emotion; and the lines unfold until they reach the resolution in the fifth line. The critical adverb “again,” which truly merits its own line, draws the reader into a recurring action or process, not a one-time event. Whatever the activity is has happened before and will happen again. There is a subtle juxtaposition between the acts of lifting and diving, both necessary to insure survival. While the poet might have chosen a more concrete image for the fifth line (ocean, sea, waves, etc.) and made the reader draw the interpretation that this is the source of the pelicans sustenance, his choice of “all it needs to live” is what gives the poem its meaning. Now the poem has expanded beyond the realm of a coastal bird to encompass all living beings, including humans. Each of us must lift off and dive physically and metaphorically into whatever it is we need to live.
is a small house
I tend for us—
this at least is something
I can do well
Tanka are more often than not involved with the expression of the human condition, and it is this that can lead to a sense of cliché. This tanka is concerned with two universal sentiments: love and the acceptance of self. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and we can learn to play to our strengths and address our weaknesses. The rendering here is traditional—the two-part structure which has been effective for centuries and something approaching the traditional line-lengths suggested by Japanese tanka. Yet the expression of these universal feelings is wholly insightful. The tender sentiment might seem romanticized, but it actually has a foundation embedded in a sense of what really matters in our disposable modern world.
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order)
obsessed with shells
between the waves
Patrick M. Pilarski
Again, this tanka is concerned with aspects of the human condition. We each become so involved in the immediate details of our own lives, our own environments, or own interests, our own pursuits of material things, that we often fail, or forget, to notice what else is happening around us. Here the human subject of the tanka is “obsessed with shells” at the expense of the sand and even the fresh air. There is nothing remarkable about the tanka so far—it is a poem about detail, but initially sweeps over these with generalizations. It then focuses in on the specificity of the mating buffleheads, and in doing so becomes a fine example of how natural historical accuracy can reveal meanings and information that may not be immediately apparent within a short poem. North America’s smallest ducks, that are silent outside the breeding season, buffleheads are nonetheless common and conspicuous. Their breeding range includes the boreal forest that covers much of the Alaskan interior and extends eastwards across Canada, from Yukon and British Columbia, through Alberta and across to the south-eastern shores of Hudson Bay. It might be assumed from the generic shells, sand and waves in the poem that this is a coastal environment, and while that remains a possibility the more likely habitat is a freshwater lake, edged with high trees. This natural historical information, which is integral to the poem, opens the tanka out in much the same way as season words can expand the scope of a haiku. We can envisage the habitat, and appreciate that the ducks are so small that they might easily be hidden by the crests of waves. But there is more here. It is a scientific fact that ducks are more fertile in water than on land. Whether the buffleheads, or poet, know this is unknown, but perhaps it is significant that the subject has forgotten both the mating ducks (and whatever is their intended metaphorical meaning) and the air we breathe in their obsessive pursuit of shells. Buffleheads are also unlike most ducks in that they form long-term, predominantly monogamous nesting pairs. A parallel is therefore suggested with the poet and the human subject of the poem. This is likely to be a relationship which has grown in trust and the acceptance of each other’s interests, whether these are poetry, birding, or collecting the shells of freshwater invertebrates. An acceptance that at the end of the day, however much we might wish others felt exactly as we do, we are all individuals, we are all to some extent alone.
within her own mind
who once ripped to pieces
my Valentine heart
Kathy Lippard Cobb
In just five lines, beautifully balanced on the third line with “the mother,” the poet captures an entire history of a mother/child relationship. The speaker juxtaposes two events: the mother’s current state of dementia and her ripping of the child’s probably hand-crafted Valentine heart that metaphorically broke the speaker’s heart. And there is another juxtaposition at work in this tanka: the mother’s loss of memory and the speaker’s razor sharp memory of decades ago. Since the poet chooses to show through imagery rather than tell through commentary, the reader is left to interpret the emotional resonance of the poem. Is the speaker still angry and feeling that the mother perhaps deserves her current state? Or, although not forgetting, has she forgiven the mother and now feels relief that the mother no longer needs to share this memory?
the pointy chin
I never cared for
Lorelei Jolie Polden
In essence, this poem is a statement and, in following the natural pauses of its careful, spare language, it departs from “traditional” tanka form. Yet there is much about it that raises it above the level of by-the-book, clichéd tanka that are now all too common in the English-language. This is a far less “involved” tanka than dropped leaves. And yet it revolves around another human characteristic: our concept of aesthetics, and our distortion of these, especially when we direct our principles at ourselves (or our work). The success of this tanka also revolves around the relationship of the poet to “you.” It might most easily be understood to be a mother writing about a child, most likely a daughter. But the “you” could be a sibling, a grandchild, a parent, a grandparent, or any other blood relative—or perhaps even a lover—and each consideration brings a different feel to the poem. And yet, whatever the mood, there is a deep sense of love and belonging. “Beautiful” might be considered a word to avoid in poetry, a relatively “meaningless” adjective, but here it paradoxically reveals the depth of the poet’s feeling.
The Tanka Society of America 2009 International Tanka Contest received 241 entries. We would like to congratulate all the winning poets and to profusely thank Carole MacRury for her dedication and support in administrating the contest.
Contest Coordinator: Carole MacRury