Before the Haiku

The direct ancestor of the haiku is generally considered to be the tanka. Also known as the waka, the poem’s early structure was influenced by Uta, Japanese songs to the gods. A favorite of the Imperial court for over 1,300 years, twenty-one anthologies of tankas survive, compiled between 905 and 1433. This record of publication has preserved more tanka over a longer period than any other poetry form worldwide. The first of the court anthologies is the Kokinsu, A Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems (ca. 905) and may be found at your local library, if not on the shelves, through interlibrary loan, or can be purchased at various sites on the Internet.
Adapted into American form the traditional tanka consists of five lines in a 5,7,5,7,7 pattern (thirty-one or fewer syllables). Example:

Since I have loved you
I compare my former thoughts
to those I have now,
and realize that I then
had no ideas at all.

Atsutada, 10th century. tr. Frances Stillman

The form is untitled and unrhymed, and like much other poetry, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, and occasional repetition may be used. In Medieval Japan, tankas were routinely exchanged between lovers. One partner would send the first three lines to the other printed on a fan or on paper knotted around a flower, the last two lines to be completed by the recipient and returned.
Write some tanka, you may find a use for the form.

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