How to Write a Tanka Poem

Poetry is one of the ancient arts, and it begins as did all the fine arts, within the original wilderness of the earth. β€” Mary Oliver

I’ve been looking for new poetry forms to try, and I find this one. I decided to try my hand at it. It is a short, syllable-based poem that tells a story.

Tanka means ‘short song.’ It has been a well known poetical form in Japan for about a thousand years. Originally the poem was written in a single line with thirty-one speech sounds (what are now we call syllables), but now it is divided into five lines which each has a certain amount of syllables.

It is divided like this:

First line: five syllables
Second line: seven syllables
Third line: five syllables
Fourth line: seven syllables
Fifth line: seven syllables

I enjoy writing poetry that has a strict syllable pattern, but some people might not. So if doing syllables is not your thing, you could just follow the rest of the rules, but have the lines short- long- short- long- long.

So the first three lines tell a story, show a scene, they could be complete by themselves. Then the third line and the last two lines could be complete by themselves as well. However, together it makes a much better and more complete poem. It’s kind of like a series where you can read the books by themselves, but you get a much better understanding if you read the books together.

This is not a rhyming poem. The focus is on getting the amount of syllables correct.

To start writing the tanka poem, figure out what you want to write about, a short story, or scene that you want to remember. It can be funny, or sad, or happy. I’m going to write about a time years ago when I was visiting family and in the middle of the night there was a storm and a tornado warning. Nothing bad happened, luckily.

Once you figure out what you are writing about take a minute or so, and write down about what happened. I’ll do that here: We had to go down to the basement, but there was this sliding door so we were able to watch the lightning over the lake. It was amazing and terrifying at the same time.

Once you write about the experience without worrying about how many syllables, then you can put it into the syllable form that is required for this piece. It might take a little while and some patience to get them into this form, but I know that you are more than capable of doing it.

One more thing before you actually start writing, since these poems are suppose to create a vivid image, or scene, in your head the more details you can fit into your poem the better. Although, you will have to be careful not to overwhelm the small poem with details, otherwise it may be impossible to see what the poem is supposed to be about.

Now without further ado, here is my tanka poem:

Lightning Night

Lightning in the air
Fire and water fight above
Tornado coming
The elements battle for
Total control of the sky

As you may have noticed I did not use any punctuation, this kind of poem rarely has it, but if you want to add it feel free to. Poems may be written by rules, but the poems control the rules, not the other way around.

I hope that this post will inspire you to try your hand at writing a tanka poem. They can be used in so many ways and they give you more room to play around with words than a haiku does. I have had so much fun writing this type of poem, I hope that you will enjoy it as well!


6 thoughts on “How to Write a Tanka Poem

  1. Pingback: How to Write a Gogyohka Poem | A.M. Molvik's Ramblings

  2. Pingback: Twelve Days of Christmas: Day 7 – Year Past | A.M. Molvik's Ramblings

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