Learning the Tanka

Hello friends!

I’m back after a short spell of silence. Writing has been happening behind the scenes but nothing prominent that I can write about. I have enrolled for The Himalayan Writing Retreat’s ‘First Draft Club’ this entire month of September and I have managed to write a few poems, their first drafts really. And I don’t know if first drafts can be termed as serious writing. When I look at the scribbles in my notepad, I am not sure what to make of them. But at this moment I don’t want to look at them a second time round. I just want to keep on writing to meet my target of twenty poems for September. We have also been meeting some established writers/poets/authors at the club and it’s good learning.

The last post that I wrote was a review of Kala Ramesh’s collection of Tanka pieces, ‘The Forest I Know’. Well, as luck would have it, Kala in collaboration with Blogchatter organized a Tanka Writing Contest. I tried to be smart and decided to send in an entry of Tanka Sutra, which is two or more Tankas threaded together (Sutra in Hindi means thread). The Tankas, needless to say, must be in continuation.

Blogchatter, later approached me to do a Facebook live with Kala which you can access here and in which she answered several questions about the poetry form. As she announced the results, yours truly also received an honourable mention for the Tanka Sutra. Before I move on to share the valuable inputs received from Kala Ramesh, let us have a look at the Tanka Sutra I had submitted.

the body no more

an object of your desire

finds its home in me

dying embers burn slowly

fire flies light up the dark night


i walk blind folded

through the rambling lanes of past

the alleys belong

to me- chirrup, whoosh, flutter

life returns in joyful haste


long bleak winter hours

stripped of familiar

aches- grow a new pain

old cherry blossoms perish

black spores cover dying flowers

Now before I begin to thank you for the honourable mention, let me add that Kala had quite a few things to say about this. As she appreciated my courage to attempt the piece and create vivid imagery, she didn’t mince words when she said that well, Tanka hadn’t arrived, not for me! Let us have a look at some of the points that Kala mentioned.

  1. The syllable count in Japanese is very different from that in English. So, the English writing world prefers the slslll form (short/long/short/long/long) rather than count syllables. I had invested too much in my syllable count.
  2. The Tanka must not be padded with words or with images. No big words please. Keep it simple, give the readers an image which is easy to comprehend. Your Tanka must transport them to the moment it describes. Add a twist after the third line.

What did I do? More than two images in one Tanka (two is the ideal number) and many, many words.

  • Avoid adjectives- ‘rambling lanes’ (NO!), only lanes. In fact, I was reading Mary Oliver and I gathered that giving the adjectives a miss might just apply to all poetry. At least an abundance of adjectives is not a very good idea.
  • When it comes to a sutra, we need to make a garland of flowers. We can’t have a marigold followed by an apple! That’s what she thought about this Tanka Sutra. Honestly, I was trying to talk of one experience, of coming back to the self after years of giving yourself to others. But maybe it wasn’t all that clear.

Now don’t ask me what made her give this sutra the honourable mention. Maybe the bold attempt of risking to try not one but three of them together! Kala had many other things to say, to share, to teach and if you would like to know more about Tanka writing do watch this video. But wait! My experiments with Tanka didn’t end right there.

              I have been reading ‘The Essential Rumi’ translated by Coleman Barks and here is a beautiful share from the book,

 Shams of Tabriz once asked Rumi that who was greater, Muhammad or Bestami, for Bestami had said, “How great is my glory,” whereas Muhammad had acknowledged in his prayer to God, “We do not know You as we should.”

Rumi answered that Muhammad was greater, because Bestami had taken one gulp of the divine and stopped there, whereas for Muhammad the way was always unfolding.

 Our journey of learning is the only way we can grow, the only way the path can continue to unfold. Reaching the destination is wonderful but it is also the end of the road. I am enjoying my writing journey and this continuous, unhindered learning is all that I ever wanted. So, I made another attempt at the Tanka, this time four different pieces for you to read and enjoy.

the song

you play on loop


the sanctum in your house

scrubbed harder and harder


  • winters

bring back familiar


old desires burn

in the blazing hearth


  • walking

through the alleys

of the past-

whoosh chirrup flutter

life returns in joyful haste


  • the rain is

a painful reminder

of your love-

i see a farmer

drenched in happiness

A long way to go! But I am walking steadily, I tell you. I hope to show these to Kala during a workshop in November called The Long and Short of Tanka, which she plans to take on Nov 20 & 21 (Sat/Sun) (Three hours on Sat with a break in between and two hours on Sunday).

Should you want to join, please send a DM.

Although Mary Oliver says that if one must make a choice between reading or taking part in a workshop, one should read, I would like to change it a bit. What if you have a chance to do a workshop and read? I would say, grab them with both your hands!

Before I end, good friend Elizabeth Gauffreau is ready to release her collection of Tanka Poetry titled ‘Grief Songs: Poems of Love and Remembrance’ on 26 September, 2021. So, there is going to be more Tanka round the corner. Hope you will all check out Liz’s website here.

Happy writing, happy poetry.

13 thoughts on “Learning the Tanka”

  1. Pingback: Hermit – A Hundred Quills

  2. I so love seeing how your tankas changed to become more focused and refined with each new tip and technique you applied. I find the less is more adjective rule to be a marvelous one in writing, as it challenges you to be as specific as possible.

  3. It is never easy to look at one’s words through the eyes of another Sonia, but the candour with which you do it is an inspiration. Having said that, I read both your Tanka Sutras with great interest. The imagery you use to juxtapose what rain means to a heart unable to shed a painful past and a farmer rejoicing in the prospect of happy future is especially striking. Like haikus, tankas too are an exercise in frugality of words.
    I have not done much writing this last month… especially the haikus. Your post has nudged me to change that 🙂 Looking forward to reading more tankas from you.

  4. Hi, Sonia. I was reading your post with a great deal of interest–only to find my name at the end. Thank you so much for the mention! I, too, am still learning about tanka.

  5. Welcome back Sonia, you have brought such beautiful poetry with you. I enjoyed your piece, and the Tanka sutra attempts. You have inspired me to try my hand on this technique, and I will certainly try it. Your mention of rumi reminded me of Das Kabir’s doha, Laali mere lal ki jit dekhun tit laal, laali dhoondan mei gyi, mei bhi ho gyi laal! I went to see His colour, and realised, colour was me!

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