Tanka is is an ancient form of syllabic Japanese poetry, popular in Japan since the 7th century (C.E.) or earlier. Its name is generally translated as "short poem" or "short song."
This classic form of poetry is related to the haiku with five unrhymed lines of five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables. (5, 7, 5, 7, 7)
Like the Sonnet of English and Italian courtiers during the European Renaissance, the Tanka served as a vehicle for love poetry for Japanese lovers during the five centuries of the Nara and Heian Periods (roughly 600 to 1200 AD).
During this period Tanka became notes exchanged by lovers. On returning home from a tryst the man would immediately sit down and compose a Tanka of gratitude, perhaps commenting upon some specific event that had occurred.
Poem sent by Prince Otsu to Lady Ishikawa
Gentle foothills, and
in the dew drops of the mountains,
soaked, I waited for you--
grew wet from standing there
in the dew drops of the mountains.
The note would then be immediately dispatched to his lover by messenger or servant and his lover would be expected to instantly compose and return a suitable Tanka response, even if that meant arising from sleep. This form of poetry took on the name of Somonka.
Poem by Lady Ishikawa in response (7th C. CE)
Waiting for me,
you grew wet there
in gentle foothills,
in the dew drops of the mountains--
I wish I'd been such drops of dew.
Later Tankas were also written expressing desire for another person. Eventually, Tanka were written in praise of nature and began to employ natural imagery to express human emotions. All of these strands may still be found in present day Japanese Tanka and certainly in English language Tanka.
Each line (or sound group) of a tanka can be a different image or idea, with the resulting five lines flowing together as a greater whole. Modern tanka express many emotions including heartache, longing, and loss.
The Tanka was harder to write than I expected - it’s only five lines and none of them rhyme, I thought it would be easy. HA! It was difficult to come up with five lines that felt finished to me, I wanted to keep going. However, once I got a couple done I started to really enjoy this form, much more than I thought I would.
The heat from your hand
anchors me to this table
of strangers, while I
from what goes on around me.
I long for your touch
but you have moved beyond me.
Do you think of me
in the deepest black of night
when the cold stars shine alone?
I watch from afar,
too scared of reality
to reach for my dream -
and you, my deepest desire,
unknowing and unaware.