School of Tanka 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson Nine
Tanka Sequences

By the beginning of the twelfth century in Japan there was an increasing popularity of the art of combining individual tanka into sequences. At that time 20 – 100 stanzas would be created often on a theme or a series of themes copied from the imperial anthologies. These collections would be passed around to friends or sent to instructors as examinations or proof of competence. Occasionally these sequences were decreed by the emperor who also set the topic and number of poems on any subject.

The height of the popularity of this practice was reached with Horikawa-In Ontoki Hyakushu Waka – Hundred Poem Sequences Composed During the Reign of Ex-Emperor  Horikawa when the Ex-Emperor commanded that 16 poets compose one hundred tanka each on a different subject. These became the model for sequences composed for formal and informal purposes.

The sets of sequences were also used in poetry contests where one poet would pit his work (they were always men) against the same amount of tanka by another. This development of pitting poem against poem eventually became too cumbersome and the contests returned to using only one poem per round. Still serious poets continued to hone their skills with tanka sequences.

After the rise in popularity of renga, the series of poems began to be linked using renga-found methods of leaps and linkage. Unfortunately many of these have been lost and only the titles mentioned in other works survive. Either because these sequences were seen as ‘practice’ or the need of so many poems on a subject stretched the author’s talents, many of the sequences that survive show innovative techniques or changes in the form’s subject matter or diction that were followed later by others.

Naturally any anthology of one person’s collected tanka can be seen as a series on a subject. This was true for the compilers of imperial anthologies where they needed to arrange in some kind of sequence the many single poems by a wide number of poets with different styles and subject matter. It was the Ex-Emperor Go-Toba who first used methods of sequence in his own collections. When he was compiling the Shinkokinshuu, of over 2000 poems he rejected accepted poems and brought in new ones that fit into his vision of associating the poems or using an associational progression. Even when he was sent into exile, he took the manuscript with him and continued to arrange and rearrange the poems into smoother progressions. “The Shinkokinshuu became a work in itself – the best ordered of all the well-ordered anthologies, a work that can be read as a unified whole” was the opinion of Brower/Miner. It is still considered the largest complete poetic work in Japan.

Go-Toba used chronological ordering – many of the early poems in the work were written at an earlier time. He even followed a slight plot based on the idea of a journey from the forest, to the coast, to the sea, to China and back. Often he composed sequences within larger sequences as if affording a close-up during a series of actions. The larger passages often reflect the musical (and later stories) development pattern of an introduction (jo), middle (ha) and conclusion (kyuu). From Brower/Miner translations in Japanese Court Poetry is this sequence:

Dawn has not brokend,
But my bed is startled into waking
As they sound –
The bamboo wattlings of the fence
Crack beneath the piling snow

             Fujiwara Norikane


The crowing cock
Announces the arrival of the dawn –
But it is the snow
Whose radiance displays the peak of Otowa,
The “Mount of Feathered Sound.”

                                        Ex-Emperor Takakura


In the mountains
Even the single village path must lie
Buried from the sight
for in the capital the snow has fallen
Together with the crimson leaves.

                                                Fujiwara Ietsune


Was it not enough
To know loneliness without this?
Along the hillslopes
The oak trees drop their withered leaves
And silently the snow still falls.

                                                Fujiwara Kunifusa


There is no shelter
Where I can rest my weary horse
And brush my laden sleeves;
The Sano ford and its adjoining fields
Spread over with a twilight in the snow.

                                               Fujiwara Teika


The path of him I long for
Across the foothills to where I wait
Must be wiped out:
The weight of now has grown unbearable
In the cedars standing at my eaves.

      Fujiwara Teika


Beneath the piling snow
The nodding bamboos of Fushimi village
Crack loudly in the night –
Even the path to love in dreams collapses
Into waking from the sounding snow.

                                                       Fujiwara Arie


One might need to read the sequence several times in order to detect the subtle depth of tonal changes. Remember, too, he was putting together works by several persons.

After this high-point the Japanese seemed to lose interest in forming sequences. Reasons may have been the ending of imperial anthologies. Also in later editions of the Shinkokinshuu the flow of the poetry is broken up prose sections of commentary, but this does not completely explain why the making of sequences and that process has been so little explored.

In English, the other best known couple writing linked tanka is Giselle Maya of France and June Moreau in Massachusetts. I have written and published linked tanka with both of them in various issues of Lynx. This poem “Doors” is from the January, 2011 issue.


June Moreau
Giselle Maya

for my shelter 
made with branches
of sweet birch and pine
I fashion a door
and a window for the moon

dark crown 
of winter mountain
whose hands made
this wooden door
shielding me from frost

my tent flap open
so the mountain
may not keep to itself
its many secrets

come for seed
I open the door
to see Rabbit pounding rice
in the winter moon

doors, doors
what would life be
without doors ­
a butterfly opening
and closing its wings

doors separate us
saying goodbye
to you
I wonder when
we will meet again

I come to the door
of my old cabin
in the forest
and I hear
music within

the dark wood
of the door shines,
rubbed and polished
with a brass knob -
it makes me feel at home

the huge barn door
of winter
is closed behind us now
and the bright door
of spring opens

old door
collaged four season panels
no handle
a little bell on a red ribbon
jingles when it¹s pushed open

the moon
just an old knob
on a door
to a room
beyond the stars

there be a door
to one’s heart
if so, who in the world
could open it

I opened
the door this morning
the whole sky
came in and fields
of white clover

doors of illusion
I dream that he would come
on a trip with me
a sailing ship criss-crosses
the Mediterranean

he opens the door
and hears
the secret sounds
he left
footsteps ago

the door
to the guest room
glass paneled
with a cicada linen curtain ­
for guests to dream and rest

on my doorstep
this morning
the tiny paw prints
of a chipmunk
in the snow

chapel door
massive oak wood
hard to open
inside a magical space
for music, paintings and poetry

the name
I was trying to remember
came to me
just as I put my hand
on the doorknob

door to the cellar
painted in apricot
an earth floor with fire wood,
boxes where stray cats shelter

Previous lesson




David Rice

As Lynx readers well know, the number of poets writing English language tanka has increased significantly in recent years. The annual Tanka Splendor Award now receives 700-plus entries. Two English language tanka journals have started in this decade (American Tanka and Tangled Hair). Lynx now publishes more tanka than it did five years ago. 
In 1995, the Tanka Splendor Award began to include three sequences (defined as 4-7 tanka links). I assume the decision to add sequences to the award reflected, in part, the fact that English language poets had begun writing sequences, some of which were already being published in Lynx. The desire of English language poets to write sequences must come from our wish to say more, at times, than we can say in one 31-syllable tanka. 
Donald Keene, discussing the history of Japanese tanka, has written about the difficulties early Japanese poets had in writing long poems, due to the characteristics of the Japanese language. 

According to Keene, - I do not speak or write Japanese - Japanese lacks stress accents and rhyming is too easy to keep the rhymes interesting in a long poem. Keene writes, "Faced with the difficulties in writing long poems ..., the Japanese had another choice, and they took it, though it was one that would have chilled most European poets. It was simply not to write long poems, but to confine themselves to short forms, especially to the waka." He continues, "Of course, many things could not be stated in the 31 syllables of the waka, no matter how skillfully composed: narrative cannot be related with such brevity, intellectual matters in which the mind as well as the heart is involved can seldom be treated adequately, events of national importance... or the poet's reaction to some social or religious issue are almost impossible to squeeze into a waka." (Donald Keene, The Pleasures of Japanese Literature, 1988, p.31, 33.)

 Japanese literary tradition also includes diaries, which do address these more complex issues, and diary authors often punctuated their prose passages with tanka - or later, haiku, but the diary, though a wonderful form, is not a poem. (See Donald Keene, Travelers of a Hundred Ages, 1989.) However, modern Japanese poets (responding I am sure to the same desire to say more than can be said in 31 syllables) have been writing tanka sequences for approximately 100 years.
(For early examples available in English, see poets translated by Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda: Mokichi Saito, Red Lights, 1989, and Shiki Masaoka, Songs from a Bamboo Village, 1998. For more current examples, see, of course, Machi Tawara, Salad Anniversary, or issues of The Tanka Journal (Nihon Kajin Club, The Japan Tanka Poets' Club.)

To my reading, the sequences published in Lynx and Tanka Splendor, and in recent books by Jane and Werner Reichhold (In the Presence, 1998), Tom Clausen (A Work of Love, 1997), myself (In Each Other's Footsteps, 1996), Geraldine Clinton Little (More Light, Larger Vision, 1992), and Sanford Goldstein (At the Hut of the Small Mind, 1992) - to name only those on my bookshelf; there are surely more - are attempts to solve this problem of the limitations of the tanka form. (See also Randy Brooks's tanka sequence, Black Ant's Journey to Japan - Tanka Sequence, 1998 AHA Books Online – Such sequences take the strengths of an individual tanka (its emotional force, the shift and non-linear connection between its two parts, its elusive spirit) and use them to build a longer poem that can address more complex subjects. 

Most of us English language poets bring a background in Euro-American poetry to whatever we write. It is natural, it seems to me, that many of us would want to write tanka sequences to try to get at some of the topics Keene mentions as almost impossible to treat in 31 syllables.

Our desire to write tanka sequences does not come solely from our Euro-American poetry background, though, since modern Japanese poets, as mentioned, have arrived at the same conclusion and solution.

 Maybe it is human to always want to do more! In "Some Developments in the House of Tanka" (Lynx Vol. XIV: NO. 2), Werner Reichhold says "... after writing ... many different tanka ..., (the poet) can put (them) together, partly adapted, building a longer poem." He adds, "There seems to be a lot of territory open to writers willing to explore a narrative interwoven with tanka." I agree that we have only begun to explore the possibilities of tanka sequences. One of those possibilities is writing linked tanka sequences.

We know that in the Heian period of Japan (A.D. 794-1185), lovers exchanged tanka; perhaps these were considered short linked tanka sequences. (See The Tale of Genji.) Of course, in Japanese poetry, renga became the form of linked verse most widely written. I am not aware of any long tanka sequences in the history of Japanese literature, with the obvious exception of the court anthologies (i.e. the Kokinshu), and these were compiled after the tanka were written and did not involve poets linking verses with each other.

(However, my knowledge of Japanese literature is limited.) English language haiku poets have written renga for years and, recently, rengay. In my opinion, the extra two lines of a tanka allow the poem to become emotionally deeper. 

Tanka also reflect more directly an individual's poetic voice than do most of the renga and rengay I have read. At times, it seems to me, a tanka almost asks for the response of another tanka.

Like tanka sequences written by one person, linked verse tanka sequences can address complex and narrative issues. They have the added benefit of another poet's point of view to make the shifts more varied and surprising.

The poetic interaction between the two poets can also add an element of welcome tension to the poem.

The first English language linked tanka sequence appeared Jane and Werner's book Oracle in 1992. The next year Sanford Goldstein and Kenneth Tanemura published a linked tanka verse, which they called "double tanka strings", in Lynx (Vol.IX: #2, 1994). Mirrors (Summer 1994), and This Tanka World of Strings,1995). As Solstice greeting 1994 Jane and Werner sent the 12 link poem –"A Touch of Ink".

When I learned of this form, I was hooked. I love tanka and I love writing with people. In the past four years, I have written tanka sequences with ten different poets. All the sequences were enjoyable, challenging, and ultimately wonderful to write; some are even good poems! (See Lynx Vol. XII: #2; Vol. XIII:#3; Vol. XIV: #3; and Tanka Splendor 1997, for examples.) Lynx also has published linked tanka sequences which Nasira Alma wrote with Alexis K. Rotella, Sanford Goldstein, and Jane Reichhold. (See Lynx Vol. XI: #3, 1996; Vol. XII: #2, 1997; and Vol. XIII: #1, 1998.)

My partners and I have used a 6 link format, with each poet alternating links. After having written about fifty of these tanka sequences, I believe I have only begun to understand and explore this form. For instance, the poem can emphasize shifting or linking and, thus, can focus fairly tightly on one theme or can have a more kaleidoscope approach. The poem can be more or less explicitly personal, depending on how willing and/or interested the poets are in expressing direct personal feelings about their own lives, or the other poet's life. 

The poets can choose to write explicitly about their relationship. The poem itself can build to a climactic waterfall at the last link, can meander like a late summer stream, or start with a spring snow melt and gradually evaporate. 

I believe that linked verse will be an increasingly meaningful poetic form in the future for English language poets. (Aren't we trying to learn to get along with each other better?) I believe that Euro-American poetry, mirroring the culture in general, has over-emphasized the glory of the individual (although each of us individuals is surely glorious) at the expense of shared experiences and has, often, overemphasized thoughts relative to feelings.

 I believe linked tanka verse, in particular, has a tremendous amount to offer at the present time. If you haven't already written linked tanka verse, try it! I'd like to read your poems.




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