Full Tanka

This week, explore haiku’s meatier relative, the tanka.

Does anyone not like haiku? Didn’t think so. In fact, our Haiku Catchoo! writing challenge, which we ran last Fall, is one of our most popular challenges of all time.

If haiku is the sashimi of poetry, tanka is its heartier hand roll cousin.

It’s easy to see why this classical Japanese form is so addictive. The combination of enforced brevity (17 syllables) and strict rules (three lines containing five, seven, and five syllables, respectively) forces us all to focus our creativity and challenge our writing habits.

There’s only so much you can say with so little space, though — which is where tanka enters the picture.

What’s better than a perfect bite? Two perfect bites.

If haiku is the sashimi of poetry, tanka is its heartier hand roll cousin.

Traditional tanka contain five lines instead of haiku’s three, and 31 syllables instead of 17. The structure is that of a haiku followed by two additional lines of seven syllables each: 5-7-5-7-7. (Many contemporary poets take liberties with the specifics, and you can, too.)

So what can you do
With tanka? “I’m no poet,”
You might say, shrugging.
Why, I thought you’d never ask.
The options are infinite.

You could:

  • Write a story — fictional or not — in a sequence of tanka (how many? Your call!).
  • Introduce us to your family or to some of your closest friends by using a tanka to describe each person.
  • Keep a tanka journal this week — where you’ll condense each day’s actions and thoughts into one tanka. You could publish each entry separately, or collect them all in one post which you’ll publish at the end of the week.
  • Go meta. Write a regular post, but emulate tanka’s distinct rhythm with your paragraphs (short-long-short-long-long).
  • Put together a photo essay — about your summer travels, your first week of school, your Burning Man experience — where, instead of a caption, each image is accompanied by a tanka.

Of course, any other use of the form is more than welcome — the idea is to build the most satisfying, creative structure on the smallest piece of real estate (think of it as the writing equivalent of living in a tiny house).

I look forward to reading your take on tanka!

If you’d like to learn a bit more about tanka, its history, and its current use, visit All Things Tanka, a blog dedicated to the form.

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  1. I do not like Haiku and never have. Tanka just seems to be prolonging or extending my dislike. But having said that, I might try it sometime now that I understand the rules. Then again, maybe not as I have never been known for my brevity!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It would be interesting if someone decided to write a long prose piece using the tanka meter — essentially going with multiple repetitions of the 5-7-5-7-7 scheme. Tough, for sure, but hey — it IS a writing challenge. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. If Haiku is sashimi, then Tanka is nigiri, not maki, as you still have the fish, plus you get the sushi rice. Choka or possibly Sedoka would be maki, as there is more to them than just the “rice and fish”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t see a link to the challenge on your post — if you add it anywhere in your post (either pasting the full URL, or creating a link in the body of your text), the pongback will be created automatically.

      Thanks for participating!


      1. Tried posting the URL at the end of the text and didn’t see it post so I just ended up deleting it again. I’m going to try the link now, thank you PCGuyIV and Ben!


  3. I don’t see my post appearing here. This is my first attempt at the challenge and ping back. Could someone let me know if I did everything correctly? Thanks!


    1. Hi, SouthernHon — your pingback worked and I see your post listed in the pingback grid — congrats on your first writing challenge entry!


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