School of Tanka 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson Seven
Comparing Haiku with Tanka

Okay, now that you understand haiku let us compare how it compares with tanka. Tanka is the much older form, think of it as haiku’s grandmother, with renga being the mother. The Japanese have been writing tanka since the beginning of their memory of their oral tradition. The need to put poems into the tanka is so strong that even when they wrote longer poetry, they would add an “envoy,” which was simply a tanka as closure.

Haiku, in Japanese, have 17 sound units. Tanka, in the Japanese, contains 14 more sound units (seven in each phrase) for a total of 31 units. In English this addition is put into two lines of approximately the same length.

Thus, in English, haiku are three lines long and tanka have five lines. Occasionally you find someone who writes haiku in one line, and then they write tanka in two lines as the Japanese do. They can do this because, for them, the cadence of the five or seven sound units is so strong, so pronounced, there is no question about the length of the line.

Haiku are severely objective (meaning one uses only the thing-ness of object) while tanka are subjective (meaning you can add your opinion, or that of anyone else).

Haiku are cool, neutral, simple, plain. Tanka are emotional, opinionated, hot (often sensual), and lyrical. In tanka you can use all the poetry techniques you have learned from Western literature.

Haiku are written in the present. Tanka can and do move back and forth in time. One of the touchstones of tanka is a change in time, a change in subject, a change in person and or voice.

Haiku are considered male-like. All the famous tanka poets are women, but many men seeking to explore another side of themselves are at home with tanka.

Haiku are non-judgmental. Tanka are highly opinionated.

Traditionally haiku avoids mention of sex, war, and crime. Tanka, in modern times, can discuss the most intimate body parts and functions.

Haiku can use very common subjects, mud snails and bird shit, even dirt, but tanka use an “elegant” language, and chooses elevated euphemisms to cloak the unspeakable.

In Japan, they speak of haiku writers and tanka poets and there is some truth in this. In Japan, it is very rare for a tanka poet to admit to writing haiku and even more rare for a haiku writer to also compose tanka.



Both haiku and tanka:

are made of sentence fragments and phrases and should not read like a complete sentence.

in English, we use the line length to indicate the length of the 5 or 7 sound unit.

are usually written completely in lower case except for proper nouns.

can or don’t use some punctuation. Sentence punctuation is really wrong.

use the technique of showing an association, comparison or contrast between images. Tanka expands on this by often taking an image from nature and associating, comparing or contrasting that with the emotional situation of a person (it rains, I cry).


As an example, here is a tanka written by Murasaki Shikibu in her famous novel, The Tale of Genji. To set the scene, here is what I have in my translation of the poems from that book in A String of Flowers, Untied: Love Poems from The Tale of Genji.

12 - 36
Genji thinks of the Suzaku Emperor (Genji’s brother), of the last time he saw him, and recalls how, at their farewell, he reminded Genji so much of their own father. As he goes inside, he mentions that he still has a robe, a gift from his father, that he always keeps by his side.

a single robe
yet the two sleeves
are wet with tears
on one side bitterness
on the other affection

This is a classic example of plainly stating a situation in the physical world in the top (or three-part) section, and then in the last two lines comes the subjective material with words like “bitterness” and “affection.” This, you need to remember, was written in 1003 AD – a thousand years ago.

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